Monday, June 11, 2012

Desert Willow - Design Thoughts

Desert Willow / Chilopsis linearis is a common landscape tree in high desert cities, such as Albuquerque, El Paso, and Las Vegas NV.

It reaches the nicest proportions and character in the desert and southern high plains; in wetter locales, recent plantings may improve with time. Ours typically reach a 20' to 30' height and spread, casting filtered shade; in ideal conditions they get larger (like this older tree in an irrigated Bermuda lawn in Abq):



















To those still not over being in the desert, they are considered shrubs, slow-growing, etc. That's more the case in drier sites. Even in cooler, semi-arid Denver, it grows back each year from the ground to about 10' high, used similarly to crepe myrtles in the lower midwest, where they are root-hardy but not top-hardy.

It's native to Desert Southwest arroyos, from just north of Albuquerque and Saint George, into low desert areas around Phoenix, Tucson, and Palm Springs. But due to the low desert's winter resort industry and greater evergreen tree choices, it's far less common in their landscapes - too deciduous. It is not native to "cold deserts", though I know of nice small trees in "banana belt" spots like Grand Junction.

A small, 10 year old tree growing on bedrock, with drip irrigation (a standard pink selection or 'Lucretia Hamilton'?):



















As an arroyo tree, it's used to rare flashes of soaking water interrupting long, dry periods. That one's underplanted with Autumn Sage and Mescal Agave within gravel mulch, forming a companion planting of similar water needs for all roots.

The flowering shows up well against the green foliage and building shadows, showing that this is not a willow (Salix), but a desert member of the Bignoniacae family, related to Trumpet Vine, Catalpa, Cross Vine, and Yellow Bells.

Some minor winter freeze damage exists on this local native, but that simply means the owner needs to lose her fear, and prune out the dead branches and twigs.
Pink to burgundy are common, though most in the wild are white. It's a hummingbird and sphinx moth magnet. Some smell nice; most have no scent. 


Many forget mature size; plan for mature size and don't pretend "plants can always be 'pruned back' ". These are on 15' centers, which will overgrow as each matures and fail visually at roadway traffic speeds (the 'Warren Jones' selection, I think):

This El Paso streetscape has similar traffic speeds as the above example, but the designer understood mature sizes. These are spaced at 20'-50' centers; near mature heights and nicely-pruned (a standard white or pink selection):
Imagine this tree planted in depressed areas, using passive water harvesting off nearby paving areas to irrigate, as in nature?

25 comments:

  1. That is a really beautiful tree. It's amazing what could be done with streetscape vs. what usually is done. Around here it often entails the cheapest possible trees planted in mass for instant satisfaction. They are then neglected, random trees die, and they all look like one giant mess. Some forethought and smart investments go such a long way in the streetscape!!

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    1. I take it for granted, but desert willows do have a unique form. I also wish streetscaping was designed to be more sustainable, and design, planting and maintenance were nicely coordinated...at least 1 of those 3 factors goes so far off track, so fast.

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  2. They are looking wonderful with all their blooms around here now too. Seeing those photos I'm glad I decided they would be too big for the driveway project.

    Lovely street plantings and good ideas for spacing.

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    1. You'll have to take pics...that was surprising I didn't see any in SA? Glad you like...spacing of plants apparently could have a book written on it, but perhaps too literal or down-to-earth for many in my profession:-)

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  3. That's a very pretty landscaping tree indeed. I like its open, airy form. Living on a ridge - I don't see willows on my site, but we have a lot of different native willows along the creeks - people take classes in identifying them - I'm afraid I just know them as "willows" as yet!

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    1. This tree is a desert species in the tropical family Bignoniacae, related to Catalpa from the Mississippi valley, Trumpet Vine, Cross Vine and Yellow Bells. It's tough enough to take it higher up out of water, just staying smaller...true willows (Salix) haven't a chance here, away from lawns, water or sewer lines!

      We have Coyote and Gooding willows here on our wettest drainages (all 4 of them).

      And thanks for visiting and commenting!

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  4. HELLO!!!!! So good to be back home again! I miss gardening here. I have so much summer work to get done around our place.

    I love the Desert Willow. They start off slow but once they've gained some age, they will make lovely trees/bushes in landscape. I like the tree form and the hummers love this plant. It's really easy to maintain and does lose leaves here in the winter in Tucson but adds nice structure around the gardens. Plus it doesn't need any water once it's established(I water this plant in June only)....which also has to do with the growth. Here it does well in FULL sun.

    Hope you are well and it's good to be back again.

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    1. Hope you enjoyed the (hopefully) cooler north country! Agreed on all you say, and too bad more aren't used in the lower deserts, but then again, you have paloverdes and ironwoods:-)

      Doing well, bus-sssss-y w/ work, and welcome back to the burning skies and land of the SW. Come on, monsoon season!!!!!

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  5. I think this was one of the trees I saw when I went to Albuquerque (and didn't know what it was). The flowers on it are wonderful. Smart tip about planning for mature size. It is always amazing how fast plants can grow!

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    1. It is everywhere in Abq and higher desert towns (takes >2000' to be "high" in the west!). My favorite thing is to come upon the rare specimen that has that subtly sweet scent, that I can detect for hundreds of feet away on even a terribly hot day.

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  6. hi david! pretty trees! the other day, i saw a chilopsis-catalpa cross in a santa fe nursery. i was wondering, how similar is it to a chilopsis? thanks for a great post!

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    1. Thanks - that's probably a Chitalpa. It is moderate water-use, so it needs to be in a lawn or with lush companion plants. Been used for 15+ years in Abq and longer in Las Cruces...I've had problems in hotter summers and wind with them, so I rarely use, since desert willows are much tougher and locally native. And the form of desert willow becomes much more interesting over time.

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    2. thanks for the response david! i really appreciate it.

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    3. A county extension person told us how there is a genetic issue and possibly an imported insect found in every chitalpa, that stunts its growth by girdling the inner bark, adding to it's stress already around from being brought to the desert. He said some are slower to get affected, but that's why it's best to go for something less hybridized...

      I forgot to note that catalpa = Mississippi valley native, chilopsis = SW desert native. Why cross the former with the latter, and try to grow it in the desert? Big flowers are not everything, when bigger problems exist. Even in Santa Fe, where it stays smaller (large shrub to dwarf tree), it is mostly winter hardy.

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  7. Hi David - this post was MOST helpful!

    I really wanted to plant two in my middle front bed that I have the cactus in....to arbor over a raised round planter-8ft diam in the middle of that bed. BUT too big :( I want something to "cool off" the front of the house...well maybe I don't but think I should???? They could be 15 to 20 ft away from each other and then less than 10 ft away from the walk...spacing is so important to me and I despise ugly pruning! GRRRRrrrrrrrrrr

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    1. I think some cooling is a good idea there...your spacings from each other and the walk sound good for a smaller selection of desert willow, such as 'Burgundy' or 'Lucretia Hamilton', which tend to go slower and top out at 20' at most...at least from what I see. That monster in the ABQ front yard is a whitish-flowering one that was probably from wild seed or digging in the day...

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  8. Ah ha! Thanks as always, David. :) I will look for those - I did not realize there were so many cultivars! I have only seen 'bubba' and 'timeless beauty'.... I hope they don't shade out the opuntia too much? Filtered shade right? Is that okay?

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    1. Desert willows can be kept a little thin, so they let through plenty of light for even opuntias...filtered shade is actually good for them, especially in the afternoon.

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  9. I applied your advice - I hope you approve! 'Bubba' has the dimensions of the 'burgundy' - I could not find it here in San Antone. Check 'em out... http://xericstyle.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/happy-native-plant-week-texans-one-week-late/

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  10. We have a beautiful (usually) desert willow in Tucson and it typically does not lose it leaves. This is presenting a problem for us, as the new leaves would show better and look nicer if it lost its dead leaves. Why does it hold onto these dead leaves? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
    Tucson/peeps

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    1. I have no idea on that selection, but I saw something on it online looking for something else. My guess is it's part physiology of that selection / part lack of enough cold-wind-rain to knock off the old, dormant leaves. But I would ask your extension office for a better answer.

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  11. Thanks for your advice, I'll call the UA Extension Office and see what they have to offer!

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  12. We've had one of these growing in Lewes, Delaware for several years. Though we likely have more water than it wants, we've got it planted in very sandy soils (unamended, the soil here was like play sand!) and slightly under a second-story overhang. It blooms beautifully, though it doesn't grow very much -- which is fine for us. We love them so much I plan to get some more this year.

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    1. Very nice, and it should do fine for you...sand a good thing for them, just like hot summers and mild winters. Some selections do grow slowly and top out at 15' max., especially if they don't get the summer heat for as long as here.

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