BY MARY BETH SIMMONS , Texas Certified Nursery Professional
For a lush look using relatively little water consider adding Desert Willow or Chilopsis linearis to your landscape. This small ornamental tree is native to west Texas and the Edwards Plateau. It has 6-12” long, light green leaves that are narrow and willow-like. Actually, Desert Willow isn’t part of the willow family but is related to catalpas.
At maturity, this tree will reach 15-25 feet tall and have a 10 foot spread. It is multi-trunked and forks low. Desert Willow can be trained to either a tree form or a shrub form. It forks readily, forming a thick growth. This makes Desert Willow nicely suited as a screen or tall hedge.
Plant them in a group for a profusion of summer flowers. The brown bark becomes ridged and scaly with age.
Desert Willow are best known for their showy blossoms.
At the ends of the branches, you will find clusters of ruffled, orchid-shaped flowers ranging from pink to purple to burgundy.
The throat of each blossom contains yellow, purple and white stripes leading to the inside of the flower. I’ve read that this stripe acts as a path to the pollen.
This tree blooms on new growth from late spring through late summer. Deadhead the flowers and remove the seedpods to encourage continued blooming. The flowers are followed by 10” long seed pods that persist through the winter.
Plant this desert native in full sun in almost any type of soil – loam or clay, acid or alkaline.
The one thing it won’t tolerate is too much moisture.
If you live where rainfall exceeds 30” per year, plant your Desert Willow on a raised berm.
Average rainfall for cities in the Rio Grande Valley range from 21” to 27”. Allowing Desert Willow to dry out between watering will encourage additional waves of blooming.
Avoid excessive fertilizer. This leads to rapid growth, fewer blooms, and a weaker plant.
To encourage branching, you can cut a young Desert Willow back during dormancy by a third.
Expect one to two feet of growth per year.
Desert Willow is more than just a “pretty face.”
The lilac scent of the flowers attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Birds forage the winter seeds.
Branches have been used to weave baskets and the wood is used as fenceposts.
A medicinal tea can be made from the dried flowers and seed pods. But for gardeners, beautiful flowers and long bloom period make Desert Willow one of Texas’s loveliest small native trees.
References: Texas Trees by Howard Garrett
Online References: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Aggie Horticulture