Horticulture Magazine

Corkscrew Willow Tree Care & Growing Tips

winding branches of a corkscrew willow with overcast skies in background

Corkscrew Willow Overview

Official Plant NameSalix babylonica var. Pekinensis ‘Tortuosa’
Common Name(s)Corkscrew Willow, Dragon’s Claw Willow
Plant TypeTree
Native AreaTemperate Northern Hemisphere
Hardiness RatingH5
ToxicityNone
FoliageDeciduous
FlowersYellow catkins
When To PlantJanuary, February, March, November, December
Flowering MonthsMarch, April
When To PruneFebruary, March
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun

Exposure
Exposed or Sheltered

Size

Height
1 – 12M+

Spread
4 – 8M+

Bloom Time
Spring (varies)

Soil

Preferred
Most soil types

Moisture
Moist but well-drained or well-drained

pH
Any

Corkscrew willow trees are ornamental trees that can be great choices for many gardens.

In this article, we will explore this type of tree in more depth. We’ll introduce you to this tree species, talk about why it might be a good choice for your garden, and where it should grow well.

We’ll cover how to plant a corkscrew willow, and make sure you know the basics about caring for this new addition to your garden.

Read on the learn more about this useful and attractive tree.

What is Corkscrew Willow?

corkscrew willow with lots of new green growth

Corkscrew willow – Salix babylonica var. pekinensis ‘Tortuosa’ – also known as ‘Salix matsudana Tortuosa’ and ‘Dragon’s Claw Willow’, is an attractive ornamental tree.

This is one of a number of Salix matsudana (Chinese willows) which are now included within the Salix babylonica species.

Salix babylonica is a species of willow which is native to dry areas in the northern parts of China, though it has long been cultivated elsewhere in Asia – and these willows are now commonly grown in many gardens around the world.

Corkscrew willow is the most popular horticultural variant of the type of Salix babylonica formerly referred to as Salix matsudana. It is famed for its strongly twisted stems and trunk.

The contorted forms of this tree make it a popular ornamental tree in gardens.

This is a fast-growing deciduous tree, with narrow, twisted leaves. It bears insignificant yellowish catkins in the spring. The form of the tree is its major draw.

The tree is a fairly large one, which can grow to an ultimate height of more than 12m and has an ultimate spread of around 4-8m.

Why Grow a Corkscrew Willow Tree?

Corkscrew willows, as mentioned above, are most commonly grown for their contorted branches, which create interesting and attractive shapes in the plant architecture of a garden.

a corkscrew willow with curled branches having lost its leaves in winter

Like other trees with interesting forms, these trees look good throughout the year, but are particularly prized for the interest they add to a winter garden, when the trees have lost their leaves.

Like all other willows (members of the Salix genus) corkscrew willows have salicin in their fresh bark.

This turns into salicylic acid (closely related to aspirin) in the human body and so is used for pain relief and as a febrifuge.

Willow bark can also be used to make a rooting compound, the foster good root formation on plant cuttings. And can improve results in plant propagation. Added to water in fresh flower arrangements, it is also said to keep fresh flowers looking good for longer.

Willow stems from this tree, like other willow stems, can also be used in a range of art and craft projects. Their decorative appeal can extend beyond the garden and into your home.

Where To Grow Corkscrew Willow

Corkscrew willow should only be grown in a position where there is space to do so.

This plant, as mentioned above, can grow rather quickly into a fairly large tree, so while it can be a good choice for larger gardens, it might not be the best option in a smaller space.

If you have a smaller garden then you might wish to consider instead Salix × sepulcralis ‘Erythroflexuosa’. This is a smaller willow tree that also has contorted stems, but which will typically grow to between 4-8m in height, with a normal width of between 2.5-4m.

Preferred Soil & Drainage

This alternative is sometimes referred to as ‘Golden Corkscrew Willow’. It prefers somewhat moister conditions and can also be a better willow to choose to poorly drained sites.

These trees do best in a clay, loam or sandy soil which is moderately fertile and deep. It is unfussy about pH, but will tend not to thrive in chalky conditions.

Moist but well-drained or well-drained conditions will suit them best. These trees need to be grown in full sun and definitely will not thrive in even partial shade. However, they can be suitable for exposed as well as sheltered spots and are H5 hardy in the UK.

Where To Grow Them

Corkscrew willow is a tree that will suit a relatively large garden with a relaxed and low-maintenance feel.

It can be a good choice for an ornamental woodland garden, accompanied by other trees and shrubs of architectural interest, or grown alone as a specimen tree.

One important thing to note is that willow roots are shallow and can cause problems when planted too close to infrastructure.

They can break up paving or paths, and could cause damage to foundations if placed too close to a home.

They also seek out water, and can invade pipes or drainage systems. So they should not be planted too close to underground services, or near sewer lines or septic systems.

Planting Corkscrew Willow

Corkscrew willows are best planted between September and November, though bare root trees can be planted at any time over the dormant period.

Make a hole bigger than the root ball of the tree, with some good quality compost or organic matter at the base of the hole.

Water in well, re-firm the soil in place around the new tree, and mulch well around the base (taking care not to pile mulch around the trunk) with organic matter.

A mulch of wood chippings can be a good choice.

Caring For Corkscrew Willow

When placed in an appropriate location with suitable growing conditions, corkscrew willow trees are generally a low maintenance and easy to care for plant.

Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa' trees with shot taken from the ground
Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’

But there are a number of things to bear in mind –

Watering

Like most trees, corkscrew willows will require a little more watering until they become established.

So make sure that you water well during dry periods over the first year or so. After this, rainfall will usually be sufficient.

But water during periods of prolonged drought. Remember, mulching each spring will retain moisture in the soil and stop the growing area from drying out as quickly.

Feeding

Mulching is also usually all that will be required to maintain fertility for your willow tree, as long as you are growing in moderately fertile soil.

If growth is not as strong as it should be, you can also consider adding a general-purpose organic fertiliser in the spring.

Pruning

Corkscrew willows are usually well-formed trees which require little pruning. However, light pruning can be undertaken in March.

Remove any branches which are dead, damaged or diseased. The aim is to create an open structure without branches touching – this will help keep the tree healthy and happy.

Propagation

Willows are incredibly easy to propagate and corkscrew willows are no exception.

Stems (hardwood cuttings) can simply be placed into the ground in autumn, where they will tend to take root easily and can be moved to their final growing positions the following year.

Pests & Diseases

Willow trees are not usually killed by pests and diseases, but can be prone to certain problems.

Corkscrew willows might, for example, be subject to aphid, caterpillar, leaf beetle or sawfly infestation. Keeping a good biodiversity and balance in your garden can help keep pest numbers down.

Make sure you plant around your willow tree to attract predatory insects and other beneficial wildlife which will help keep pests at bay.

Willows like corkscrew willow can be affected by fungal diseases such as willow anthracnose, and rust.

Willow anthracnose causes brown or black spots to appear on the leaves, and irregular lesions may be seen on young stems. Affected leaves and shoots may be shed, leaving the crown of the tree sparse.

Prune out affected areas quickly to prevent its spread. (It is worth noting that S. ‘Erythroflexuosa’, the alternative tree mentioned above, is resistant to anthracnose.)

In the case of rust, pustules will be seen on leaves and stems. Usually, rust will only reduce vigour, but in extreme cases can occasionally kill the tree.

Again, remove diseased material as quickly as possible and keep the material away from your composting system.

Expected Lifespan

When cared for properly, corkscrew willow trees should remain in your garden for many years to come.

However, this is a fairly short-lived species, and will usually live around 30-50 years before dieback starts to occur.

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