Its branches look tortured as they curl and contort out from the trunk, but the willow cultivar aptly named 'Tortuosa' is a pleasure in the garden. Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University introduced Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa' to the United States in 1923, after receiving it as a cutting from China. It became available commercially in the 1930s, and now its branches are a decorating staple available at craft stores and florists. Yellow catkins in spring give way to long green leaves that turn a lovely shade of yellow in fall, and the corkscrew branches are a winter standout, making it the perfect tree for that dull spot in the yard. Commonly known as curly willow, it is a tree of many names, corkscrew willow, contorted willow, and dragon's claw willow among them.
Curly willow can handle a range of soils, from dry to wet, although wet is best. It grows well in partial or full sun. Not particular about climate, it thrives in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 to 9, and even in the warmer reaches of Zone 4. When choosing a planting spot, keep in mind that curly willow can have explosive growth. It can reach up to 50 feet in height with a spread of 25 feet, so a location should be able to accommodate growth in both directions. Plant far away from power lines and sidewalks, and, because the water-seeking root system grows as quickly as the trunk, away from underground utilities, especially water and sewer lines.
Although easy to grow, curly willow requires a watchful eye during its first few years. It is vulnerable to the issues faced by all willow trees, including crown gall, black canker, and borers. Keep it well watered and cared for to prevent problems. But don't expect curly willow to live for decades; its flame burns quick and bright, perfect if you want a large tree but are unable to wait 50 years.
Curly willow is popular for indoor decorations. Branches cut in the wintertime can be hung with holiday ornaments and fairy lights. Cut stems will dry and last indefinitely. To create the luminary pictured above, designer Mark Kintzel placed a small vase inside a larger vase and inserted curly willow in the space between the vases. At the base of the inner vase, he put a battery-powered votive candle. Try it yourself, and soon neighbors and friends will be knocking to get a piece of this useful, attractive tree to create their own decorative masterpieces.