Ask any gardener or landscaper this question about planting a weeping willow and you’ll get some varied responses. These beautiful trees bring out strong opinions in people! There are many reasons the responses are inconsistent. One being there are many myths about weeping willows.
Since ancient times, Weeping Willows have been revered. Their flowing forms and fluttering, silver-backed leaves have inspired poetry, music, and art. Many of us today have fond childhood memories of a certain neighborhood Weeping Willow—scaling its branches that were made for climbing and holding secret meetings in the space inside its big, protective domed canopy. This is why many people entertain the idea of planting a weeping willow in their landscape.
Others who have had a bad experience with Willows will tell you to plant something else. They’re messy trees, they’ll say, or they’ll damage your underground pipes.
So what’s fact and what’s fiction? Here are some commonly held assumptions about Weeping Willows, and what our experience has led us to believe is the truth:
Weeping Willows grow fast.
Indeed they do. These are the fastest-growing trees we sell at Bower & Branch™. No tree will give you quicker privacy, and while they’re not evergreen, they are the “first to leaf and last to drop,” so they’ll have foliage for a large part of the year—when you’re more likely to be outside and seeking privacy in your yard.
How Fast Do Weeping Willows Grow?
You can expect 3 to 4 feet of growth each year (older trees will slow down a bit). In a rainy year, you may get more. Ultimately a Niobe Golden Weeping Willow can grow to a mature height of 50' and mature width of 40'.
Weeping Willows are invasive.
This one’s false. They don’t reseed (ours are male), and they don’t send up suckers in your neighbor’s yard.
Weeping Willows “Seek” Water.
They do love water, but they can’t “sense” where it is. They won’t, for instance, tunnel under the driveway, “knowing” that there’s a pond on the other side.
Their roots will grow faster and thicker where they happen to encounter wet soil. Because they love water, they’re great for planting in low areas that stay soggy as they will appreciate the moisture. Their roots can soak up all that extra water and make a swampy part of the yard usable again.
Even with all of this said, weeping willows will still tolerate some drought, which makes them a fairly hardy tree species.
Weeping Willow roots invade and clog underground pipes.
Modern houses are plumbed with PVC, which rarely leaks, so this scenario is less likely than it once was, when clay, concrete, or metal pipes were the norm. Willows can’t “drill into” sound pipes, but as stated above, will thicken their roots around moisture - so a cracked pipe may encourage growth and appear to crack the pipe. This is where much of their bad reputation comes from.
Still, a Weeping Willow can interfere with underground lines and should be planted at least 50 feet away from any underground water, gas, sewage, or electrical lines. Don’t plant this tree within 50 feet of your neighbors’ utilities, either—remember that roots don’t abide by our artificial boundaries. Remember, weeping willows tend to be very fast growers.
Weeping Willows are messy.
They do drop a fair amount of twigs. You’ll be picking them up every time you mow, though many feel this is a small price to pay for the unique beauty of this specimen tree. They do lose larger limbs once in a while, also. Don’t plant this tree near the pool or next to the house. A large, open suburban lot may suit this plant well, and a house in the country is ideal. If you can site your weeping willow by a pond, so much the better. It will look natural there and have all the moisture it wants (though it will grow in drier soil, too).
Weeping Willows have a lot of disease and insect problems.
They do have a longer list than most trees. A disease called black canker can be particularly troublesome - yet rare, and gypsy moths do love willows in addition to oaks, aspen, apple, sweetgum, speckled alder, basswood, gray paper birch, poplar and hawthorns.
On the other hand, willows are also host trees to three pretty fabulous butterflies: the Mourning Cloak, Red-Spotted Purple, and Viceroy - so very worth the risks!
Weeping Willows are short-lived.
Compared to many other trees, the weeping willow are relatively short lived. You may get only 20 or 30 years out of a tree, or less, though with space to grow, abundant water, and a little luck, you could very well get 50 years or more out of your beloved willow tree. The national champion, in Michigan, has a trunk 8½ feet thick - imagine that. Now Willows grow very fast, but that’s no youngster right there!
If you like the idea of a quick privacy screen, but want to plan long-term, here's a tip. You might think about planting a row of Weeping Willows in front of or behind a row of slower-growing, but longer-lived trees, like Oak. When the Oaks are big enough to do the job, the Willows can be removed when they become old and no longer appealing in your landscape.
So Should You Plant a Weeping Willow?
No one will argue that Weeping Willows aren’t gorgeous, fast-growing, and kid-friendly. They might be tops in all these categories! But they aren’t for everyone.
These aren’t trees for the small property as their roots and large height and spread may become troublesome if not given room, and they may not be in it for the long haul.
But when they’re well-sited and thriving? Perfection.