We remain ensconced in a thick blanket of snow in Central Illinois, with temperatures in the single digits and wind chills well below zero. Our landscape areas that border the driveway and street are buried under two and three foot drifts of shoveled snow, providing the plant crowns a layer of insulation from the chilling cold. While the garden sleeps, it’s time to take an opportunity to reflect on some of the plants that graced our home garden in the 2009 growing season. Over the weeks leading up to the break of spring, I’ll focus on plants that have year-round interest in the landscape.
First up, I’ve chosen Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’ (Dappled Willow).
Seven or eight years ago, my wife and I were looking for a shrub to add to our back border in celebration of our wedding anniversary. We had recently removed a young silver maple that was obstructing our satellite dish, and wanted to replace the gap in the border with a shorter woody ornamental. Our goal was to retain our backyard privacy (the silver maple blocked the view between our dining room and the neighbor’s living room), but still allow our satellite dish a direct line of sight to the south.
During a trip to our local garden center, we found ‘Hakuro Nishiki’ and it looked to meet our goals perfectly. The plant tag promised a shrub that would quickly grow to 12 feet wide and tall with arching stems of delicate green foliage dappled in edges of cream. The price tag was steep (around $40 each for a two-gallon container), but we both were taken with the unique beauty of the young plants.
In its first season in our border, we thought we’d made an expensive mistake. Our neighborhood rabbits loved the foliage even more than we did. Within a couple of weeks, our beautiful young plants were reduced to sad, naked twigs. Had the willows been cheaper, I would have just ripped them out and looked for a new candidate. But, in an effort to protect our investment, I installed some 18-inch high rings of wire mesh to circle each of the shrubs. I’ve never been fond of mechanical forms of plant protection because of their aesthetics, but had no choice in the case of the willows. If I could give them a chance to grow their foliage out of the rabbits’ reach, perhaps they’d survive once the collars were removed.
The plant collars did the trick, and within a couple of growing seasons our two ‘Hakuro Nishiki’ were well on their way to maturity. The rabbits still nibbled the fresh growth from the first 12-18 inches of their trunks, but the plants have never seemed any worse for the wear.
Today, the willows have reached their mature height, providing a year-round display in the back border. We can see its beauty from our dining room, gazebo and second-floor guest room, and the arching branches give us complete privacy from our western neighbors, even in the dead of winter.
In mid-March, the willow breaks winter dormancy and greets us with spring green foliage and fuzzy catkins along thin, red stems.
The emerging foliage is solid green, with the dappling of cream appearing as the foliage matures.
During the summer, ‘Hakuro Nishiki’ is often decorated by a collection of morning dew.
As we move into autumn, the spiraled foliage attains a slightly yellow cast.
Eventually, the leaves brown on the edges and drop, leaving behind wispy stems.
As winter progresses, the stems turn a reddish-brown and form an intricate network against bright blue winter skies.
Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’ has become one of the four-season stars of our home landscape. It is hardy in Zones 4-9 and requires little maintenance aside from some lower branch pruning each year. It has shown a tolerance for both summer dry spells and periods of having its crown submerged in standing water. Overall, it is an outstanding shrub and well worth the initial cost.