Hailing from dry washes and riverbanks of the desert southwestern United States and northern Mexico, desert willow is a tough tree or large shrub with delicate, showy flowers and wispy foliage. Its beauty and its ruggedness has made it a popular plant for dry gardens. It requires little attention maintenance-wise, yet attracts all kinds of attention otherwise. If you live in a desert climate that generally stays above 0 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter, this plant belongs in your garden.
A member of the family Bignoniaceae – a family that consists of at least 8o genera including catalpa (Catalpa spp.) and trumpet vine (Campsis spp.) – Chilopsis linearis is the sole member of its genus. The common name, desert willow, refers to its habitat and its long, slender, oppositely and alternately arranged leaves that resemble those of many willows (Salix spp.). Other common names include flowering willow, willowleaf catalpa, desert catalpa, and false-willow. There are two recognized subspecies – linearis and arcuata.
Desert willow is found most commonly in areas where seasonal flooding occurs. Known as desert dry washes – or simply dry washes or desert washes – these are areas in the desert where runoff from heavy rains accumulates resulting in saturated soils followed by a prolonged dry period. Groundwater often remains accessible year-round to the deep roots of plants in this type of habitat. Desert willow shares this habitat with several other large shrubs and small trees including mesquite (Prosopis spp.), palo verde (Parkinsoinia spp.), and smoketree (Psorothamnus spinosus). Desert willow occurs along stream banks and river banks as well, where seasonal flooding also occurs.
Desert willow generally reaches a width of 10 to 15 feet and a height of at least 15 feet, although it has the potential to grow taller than 30 feet. It often has an open and sprawling or leaning habit, but it can be pruned to look more tree-like. Pruning can also result in more flowering, since flowers appear on new growth and pruning encourages growth. Watering this plant during the dry season can also lead to a flush of growth and more flowering. This is something to keep in mind, as it is the flowers that are the star of the show.
Persisting from late spring through midsummer (and sometimes longer), the 1 to 2 inch, trumpet-shaped, pink to rose to purple blossoms are hard to miss. They occur singularly or in clusters at the tips of branches. The ruffled-edges of the petals and the prominent streaks of color within the corolla tube add to the attraction. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bumblebees are common visitors to these fragrant flowers. Summer rains or occasional watering can encourage flowering throughout the summer. Overwatering, on the other hand, can be detrimental.
The flowers eventually form long slender seed pods called capsules that reach up to 10 inches long. Inside the capsules are a series of hairy seeds. The hairs form small wings on the sides of the seeds. The seeds are eaten by a variety of bird species. Various species of birds can also be seen nesting in desert willow, and a variety of other animals use desert willow for browsing and/or for cover.
Desert willow prefers sunny, southwest facing sites and tolerates most soil types. It performs best in soils that are well drained, low in organic content, and have a pH that is neutral to alkaline. The soil can be saturated at times, but should be given a chance to dry out – just like in its natural habitat. Avoid the impulse to add fertilizer.
Desert willow is said to be easy to propagate from cuttings or from seeds. It is commercially available, and several cultivars have been developed offering diverse flower colors and other special traits. It’s easy to grow, requires little attention, and provides an eye-catching floral show – all excellent reason to add this plant to your water-efficient landscape.
One tip from my experience seeing it survive the winters of southwestern Idaho: the deciduous leaves of Chilopsis linearis don’t reappear until very late in the spring – so late, in fact, that one might start to worry that the plant has perished. Don’t fret though; some winter kill is possible if sub-zero temperatures were experienced, but most likely it is still alive.
More information about desert willow:
The photos in this post were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.