Desert willow-Chilopsis linearis
By Dan Songster, Golden West College Native Garden – 2010 July
Plant Type: Large deciduous shrub to small tree
Light: Full sun (The hotter the better)
A favorite in the garden all summer, this fast growing plant (12-30 feet) is the showiest blooming native tree California has. Nope, it’s not a real willow (Salix species) it just has long, narrow leaves like one but is actually related to the Catalpa trees. It is easily grown in many soils and it does best with just enough water to keep it blooming and healthily green through the warm months. Other than that its only requirement for sure success is sunshine and lots of it.
It has 1-3 inch flower clusters are displayed on branch ends. They range through white, pink, lavender, and burgundy. The typical flower of this species is funnel shaped and colored a light “orchid” pink with a creamy colored throat and yellow bands leading inward. The flowers put on a big show in late spring and early summer with waves of bloom often lasting through the fall. By October or so, the flowers are replaced by slender seedpods, 6–10 inches long. (It is in bloom in the Garden right now!)
Not much maintenance is needed although light pruning to direct growth when the plant is young helps and removing young water sprouts near the base. This tree’s natural structure is a low branching form that is graceful and even whimsical. Bert at Las Pilitos nursery says, “It can be pruned to make a weeping willow effect. (A weeping willow with 1-2 inch pink-purple catalpa-like flowers!)” Artful pruning may work but attempting to trim it into a standard upright or formal shape would likely fail and would certainly work against the plants natural strengths. Visit mature trees in gardens and learn how they grow-this will help you in deciding which branches stay or are removed..
Propagating this species is easy by using young vigorous growth to root. Rooted cuttings should be removed from the mist bed as quickly as roots are noticed. We have had success with softwood cuttings.
Besides the outstanding straight species of Desert Willow, many cultivars have been selected with varying flower colors, leaf sizes, and amounts of seed pods. A few of these are: ‘Bubba’ w/dark violet flowers; ‘Burgundy’ w/dark wine red flowers; ‘Lois Adams’ w/crepe textured violet flowers that produce few if any seedpods; ‘Art’s Seedless’ another w/o seedpods, ‘White Storm’ w/white flowers; ‘Warren Jones’ semi-evergreen w/ gray-green leaves and very pale pink flowers; ‘Regal’ Large bi-colored flowers that are pale lilac above and rich purple below.