Most flowering trees and shrubs bloom only in spring. Once the spring flowers
have expired, these flowering trees and shrubs do provide shade and their green leaves can provide texture with their shape and size but it is nice when you find a tree that blooms when others are not blooming. Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) is just such a tree.
Desert willow is not a true willow. Instead it is related to the catalpa with flowers, that if they weren’t pink, would look like catalpa blossoms. It gets the common name willow because the leaves, unlike the catalpa, resemble willow leaves. Also unlike the catalpa that only blooms in the spring, desert willows bloom from April to November in their native range. Here in Churchill County, my desert willow stays dormant until May and doesn’t start blooming until June. Last year it bloomed until the first fall frost.
Desert willow is native to Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah,
Nevada, and California. In the wild, it grows along washes with gravelly or sandy soil and high water table but it will tolerate almost any alkaline soil from sand to clay. It is very drought tolerant but it does need at least weekly deep watering during the hottest part of the growing season.
In Nevada, desert willow is only found growing wild in the southern part of the state and I live in the northern part of the state. In northern Nevada, my USDA Hardiness rating is just on the margin of what some garden guides recommend for desert willows. I say some of these guides because there is no consensus. Some recommend desert willow only in zones 8 through 11 and others recommend it in zones 6-1l. Still others say 5-8. Most guides say desert willow will tolerate freezing temperatures and some say it will survive temperatures down to -15°F. Parts of its native range have climates where occasionally temperatures can dip below 0°F but also experience highs greater than 100°F during the summer months. How cold hardy a particular desert willow plant is may depend on the region where were collected.
The growth habit of desert willow is that of a large shrub with multiple stems reaching a size of 6 to 30 feet tall and 6 to 30 feet in diameter. Proper pruning can turn this large shrub into a small tree that is an appropriate size for a small residential lot. In my conditions, which are marginal for desert willow, I’ve found I’m lucky to get a nice flowering shrub that stands about 8 ft. tall. I have two desert willows, the one that is 8 ft. tall and one that has assumed a prostrate form due to severe winds in the winter.
Desert willows allowed to grow like shrubs need very little maintenance. In my garden, I’ve found it has no pests and attracts lots of pollinators.