How to Grow and Care for Desert Willow

A desert willow near the entrance to Joshua Tree

Jared Quentin / Getty Images

Sometimes a landscape calls for a unique shrub that creates interest in the way of color, form, and size. The desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a shrub that fulfills all those needs, and is uncommon enough you will not see on every block. It does this all while attracting butterflies, bees, and birds. The only drawback is that it is not a fan of the cold, so the straight species has a very narrow habitable range. If you are looking for a gorgeous shrub with great color and size, give the desert willow a look.

Common Name Desert willow
Botanical Name Chilopsis linearis
Family Name Bignoniaceae
 Plant Type Deciduous Shrub
 Mature Size 12-18 ft. tall -12-18 ft. wide
 Sun Exposure Full sun
 Soil Type Dry to medium moisture
 Soil pH 6.6-8.5
 Bloom Time May to June
 Flower Color Dark pink
 Hardiness Zones USDA 6-9
 Native Area Southwestern United States and Mexico

Desert Willow Care

Besides finding the perfect location in your garden for the vigorous shrub and handling the pruning, this shrub will be as close to a set-it-and-forget-it plant as you can get. Desert willows require very little care. So little, in fact, that it's practically immortal. You could cut the whole tree down, and it would still send out new sprouts and become a vibrant shrub in a matter of weeks. The pruning for the form you choose for your desert willow is also entirely up to you.

The perfect location is any area or garden in the landscape that is drier, warmer, and receives more light than the rest, or receives a good amount of water but drains extremely fast, like the top area of a rain garden.

Light

The desert willow's natural habitat gets plenty of sunlight, so it naturally loves its rays and thrives in nothing less than full sun. To get the best bloom production, ensure that you place it in an area that receives a full six hours of direct sunlight per day. You will notice a marked lack of blooms in shady conditions.

Soil

It grows almost effortlessly in dry- to medium-moisture soil that is well-draining with a slightly higher pH; you can test your pH at home and amend the soil as necessary. When your desert willow establishes itself, it will become even more adaptable and tolerate a wider range of soil conditions, particularly when it comes to soil moisture.

Water

Once established, the desert willow can readily tolerate dry conditions and droughts with ease. It will look as if it is suffering then rebound after the next storm or watering. Watering then is advised times per month, but if it's a particularly rough period and watering is restricted, your desert willow can make it through. This shrub is a great selection for xeriscaping.

Temperature and Humidity

As this desert shrub does best in hot, dry regions, it will do better in microclimates that mimic those conditions in your landscape even if your yard doesn't exactly fit that bill. Consider mimicking these conditions with the use of pavers, stone, boulders, and soilless growing medium. Areas north of USDA region seven will have a tough time with desert willows, but if you are set on giving it a try, some hardier cultivars are available.  

Fertilizer

Desert willow is one plant that you should not fertilize. Often when it comes to fertilizer, the advice is something like, "it's not needed, but you can if you want"—this is not one of those situations. Giving your desert willow fertilizer may sound like a great idea to boost bloom production but what will happen is it will increase vigor and speed up the growth of the limbs. Supplemental feeding on this shrub creates soft, brittle wood that is susceptible to breakage, especially with strong winds.

Types of Desert Willow

The desert willow, like many ornamentals, has hundreds of registered cultivars available that showcase different colors, shapes, and sizes. Some like 'Lucretia Hamilton' allow those further north in the U.S. to be able to grow this tree. Listed below are some well-known cultivars:

  • Chilopsis linearis 'Lopur' - An outstanding cultivar if you are able to find it. It shows deep, emerald green leaves that make a nice background against velvety white buds. These buds open to exhibit dark, purple burgundy flowers.
  • Chilopsis linearis 'Lucretia Hamilton' - A cultivar known for its winter hardiness, intense burgundy flowers, and its small stature
  • Chilopsis linearis 'Warren Jones' -  Cultivar known as an extremely quick grower that holds its leaves longer in the winter, and produces a profuse amount of showy light pink flowers.
  • Chilopsis linearis ‘Monhews’ -  A cultivar known for its long bloom time. Fragrant, tubular, burgundy, and light lavender blooms appear in groups.

Pruning

Pruning your desert willow is a matter of keeping it tidy and cutting off dead growth to stimulate new growth. Leaving it unkempt is a possibility as well and would be much appreciated by wildlife, especially small mammals and birds who use it for shelter. The choice is all about the shrub's intended function and your desired aesthetic.

Propagation

You can propagate desert willows easily by either cuttings or seeds. The latter you should take a look at first because it is probably the easiest method.

Propagating Desert Willow by Seed

  1. Propagating desert willow by seed is easy and fun to do and just takes a few steps and some time till you will have some seedling ready for hardening off.
  2. Soak your seeds in a glass containing a solution of 1/2 water and 1/2 vinegar for four hours.
  3. Prepare a seed flats or pots and fill with soilless seed starting mix. A good recipe for this can be found here.
  4. Sow the seeds no deeper than ¼ inch in your pots or flats and moisten. Keep moist until germination.
  5. When seedlings produce two sets of leaves and are four inches tall then you can begin the process of transplanting your seedlings to a larger pot. This pot should be big enough to allow space to grow.
  6. Place outside for a month to harden up and allow to acclimate to the outdoors. You can then plant or keep in the container to allow to grow for the first year to plant the following year.

Propagating a Desert Willow by Cutting

While not as easy as the seed method the cutting method allows you to have plants that are already much more mature and exact clones of plants you already possess. This is great in cases of cultivars that do not produce seeds.

  1. Cut a small branch of softwood desert willow closest to a leaf node. 
  2. Dip your cutting in rooting hormone. Follow the instructions on your specific brand.
  3. Place your cutting in a jar of water and wait for roots to appear. If growth is slow add rooting hormone to the water.
  4. Once roots have developed and there are three to five roots transfer into a pot of soilless potting mixture and let it grow.
  5. Water the plant frequently and keep soil well-drained. After two-three months your plant should have established a healthy root system that will be able to survive planting.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

One of the truly wonderful things about the desert willow is that it is not particularly susceptible to many diseases or pests. Any ailments it does suffer from are not serious and will most likely not threaten the life of your shrub. The worst Insects that bother your shrub will be aphids and they can easily be guarded against with a good burst of a hose. You will want to consider pesticide use carefully around the desert willow due to its importance as a source of food for pollinators and wildlife.

FAQ
  • Is the desert willow part of the willow family?

    No! This is why common names are confusing. Its actually part of the begonia family and only has the name desert willow because its leaves look like willow leaves. The flowers of the desert willow look like trumpet flowers.

  • Does the desert willow have aggressive roots?

    No, luckily the roots are not known to be destructive and are quite fibrous. You can safely plant desert willows near driveways, sidewalks, and structures.