This article was first published on 11 May 2011.
Willow with a Difference
In contrast to the mass of drooping yellow autumn foliage of a weeping willow, the creeping alpine willow, Salix hylematica, is petite, rock hugging and currently turning red.
The tiny leaves of this willow are shiny, green with a dull underside. Curiously, as they change to red and yellow, they emit a honey-like scent. The plant over-winters as a tangled mass of lifeless looking stems, which on closer inspection carry next season’s tiny purple buds.
These break into leaf in early spring, when the plant is also covered in catkins poking up through the foliage like minute purple candles. When mature, the catkins produce typical fluffy salix seedheads which smother the plant in white fuzz before being efficiently dispersed by the wind.
Salix hylematica is native to the Himalayas growing at 3000-4000m in moist rock crevices. It grows well in full sun, with moist but free draining soil. Adding peat to the soil before planting can be beneficial.
It looks fantastic planted where it can tumble down over a rock, as can be seen on the edge of the lower path of the Rock Garden, and is a superb plant to use on the edge of a tub with other alpine treasures.
Robyn Abernethy is the Rock, Water & Alpine Collection Curator at the Dunedin Botanic Garden.