DRC_Becca Dickstein

Becca Dickstein

Are you looking for a fast-growing, drought tolerant, ornamental, native Texas tree to use in your landscape instead of the exotic and over-used crepe myrtle? Or maybe instead of the foreign vitex? Try desert willow instead.

To see how they grow, in the city of Denton, you can find desert willow as a street tree in the recently renovated Hickory Street area between the downtown Square and Bell Avenue. Check it out! While you’re there, also look at many of the other native Texas plants that the city planted in the parkways on those blocks.

Desert willow, Chilopsis linearis, grows to 15 to 30 feet tall with a multi-trunked, branching growth habit. Its leaves are deciduous, 4 to 5 inches long and half an inch wide, light to medium green, resembling those of willow trees, giving desert willow its name.

Desert willow

Desert willow is a drought-tolerant native Texas tree.

However, desert willow is not a true willow. It is more closely related to trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) and yellowbells (Tecoma stans) and is a member of the catalpa family, Bignoniaceae. Desert willow is native to south-central Texas and points south and west, where it is found in desert washes. Many cultivars of desert willow are available in the nursery trade with variations in flower color and leaf size.

Desert willow flowers from April through September with the heaviest blooms in May and June. The catalpa-like flowers vary in color from white to pink to dark rose to purple, with yellow streaks in each flower’s throat. Many cultivars have two-toned flowers.

The flowers are 1 to 1 1/2 inches long, funnel-shaped and feature ruffles at the end. By the fall, the flowers give rise to 6- to 10-inch long seedpods, which remain on the tree until after the leaves drop in late autumn.

Because desert willow is small, several can be planted together to form a deciduous, flowering hedge or it may be grown as a single accent tree. Desert willow attracts hummingbirds.

Companion native Texas plants include blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum), zexmenia (Wedelia acapulcensis), prairie verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida), Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima), red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) and various milkweeds (Asclepias spp.).

Full or partial sun is best for desert willow. It grows well in a variety of soils, but it must have good drainage or it may rot. Desert willow may be watered when first planted. Once established, it is extremely drought-tolerant. Excessive watering and/or fertilizer can lead to too-rapid growth resulting in a weaker tree and fewer blooms.

Look for the NICE! Plant of the Season signs and information sheets at a participating North Texas nursery. Participating nurseries include Hartwell’s Nursery in Lewisville, Denton’s Meador Nursery and Painted Flower Farm and Shades of Green Nursery in Frisco. Thank you for using native plants in your landscapes.

BECCA DICKSTEIN, a member of the Trinity Forks Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas, is on the University of North Texas biological sciences faculty.

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