Chilopsis linearis - Desert Willow
In the SFA Mast Arboretum, years with record heat and drought means a never-ending parade of students and yours truly dragging hoses and setting up sprinklers. The desert willow needs none of that. A well-established tree is quite comfortable in just about any well-drained spot in East Texas.
A member of the Bignoniaceae, this showy small tree is native to the dry climes of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. Closely related to catalpa, flowers are in racemes and now come in a variety of colors from lavenders with dark splotches on the throat to the pure whites. A small tree to a little over twenty feet, the species has finetextured leaves and the habit of a big show in late spring and early summer with waves of bloom throughout the remainder of the year.
The species is easy to root using young vigorous growth. Older wood is more problematic. Rooted cuttings should be removed from the mist bed as quickly as roots are noticed. We have had our best success with softwood cuttings.
While common in western parts of this state, the desert willow is rarely seen in the Pineywoods and points east. The key lies in situating the plant in a full-sun dry location and providing good soil drainage. Raised sandy berms are ideal. In Mexico, the plant is common in hot, dry washes and arroyos and along the sides of streams and creeks. Cold hardiness suggests the plant be used in zones 8 and 9. While our plants easily survived the 1989 zero degree event, there was some bramch dieback. In fact, the species is a bit prone to retaining numerous dead twigs - an occasional pruning is all that is needed to spruce up the tree.
We have a good number of cultivars and several seedlings in the garden. 'Bubba' is the showboat and the SFA Arboretum is home to the world's tallest 'Bubba' (according to Paul Cox of the San Antonio Botanical Garden and the originator of the variety), a ten-year old, 20-foot specimen parked on the hot western face of the Art building. The variety never fails to elicit praise. Before the variety went commercial via Lone Star Nursery in the 1990s, Paul insisted that the name be kept as 'Bubba' if it were to be sold in commerce. While the nursery resisted, they agreed, which turned out to be a smart move. 'Bubba' is very floriferous with good show throughout the summer and fall. For years, the SFA Mast Arboretum has produced seedlings of ‘Bubba’ to give away or sell at our two annual plant sales. We call it the SFA Mast Arboretum’s “Sons of Bubba” series promotion, never abbreviated. 'White Storm' sports white flowers on a beautiful small tree. ‘Art’s Seedless’ comes to us out of Mountain States Nursery and is reported to be more floriferous. ‘Burgundy’ features dark blooms. George Hull of Phoenix Arizona has worked with the genus for years and provided us with this list of varieties a few years ago. Only a few have been evaluated across a wide range of the south. With water conservation issues everywhere, desert willow may be one in an army of small trees that can deal with life on their own.
1. Chilopsis linearis ‘Alpine’
2. Chilopsis linearis ‘Barranco’
3. Chilopsis linearis ‘Bubba’
4. Chilopsis linearis ‘Burgundy Lace’ aka ‘Burgundy’
5. Chilopsis linearis ‘Cameo’
6. Chilopsis linearis ‘Dark Storm’
7. Chilopsis linearis ‘Desert Way’
8. Chilopsis linearis ‘Dorothy’
9. Chilopsis linearis ‘Hope’
10. Chilopsis linearis ‘Lois Adams’
11. Chilopsis linearis ‘Lucretia Hamilton’™
12. Chilopsis linearis ‘Marfa Lace’
13. Chilopsis linearis ‘Mesquite Valley Pink’ aka ‘Pink Star’
14. Chilopsis linearis ‘Pink Star’
15. Chilopsis linearis ‘Regal’
16. Chilopsis linearis ‘Royal Purple’™
17. Chilopsis linearis ‘Shelly’s Nuts’ aka ‘Art’s Seedless’
18. Chilopsis linearis ‘Tejas’
19. Chilopsis linearis ‘Warren Jones’™
20. Chilopsis linearis ‘White Storm’
Dr. David Creech, Regents Professor, Professor Emeritus, and Director, SFA Mast Arboretum