The desert willow is endowed with more positive characteristics that its name suggests. A loose, often leaning, small tree with willow-like leaves, it lights up landscapes with beautiful orchid-like flowers, deodorizes the air, reduces soil erosion, and provided Native Americans with weapons and medicines.
It is native to the southwestern United States and Mexico. In Texas, it grows along the western edge of the Texas Hill Country, and found near streams and dry beds that are subject to flooding and disturbance. Its roots help stabilize new soil and are important in erosion control. After a heavy rain it will burst into bloom. It is fast-growing and drought-tolerant, which makes a perfect landscape tree with an average height between 15 to 20 feet. It prefers well drained soil, full sun, and is heat tolerant.
Some Native American tribes of the southwest used the branches to make bows, and those of Mexican culture used the branches for basket weaving. Parts of the plant have been used in traditional medicine to treat fungal infections such as athlete’s foot, as well as wounds and coughs.
Desert willow’s scientific name, Chilopsis linearis, derives from chelilos, a lip, and opsis, resemblance, and refers to the distinct lip of the calyx. It belongs to the Bignoniaceae family, which are native of warm, arid areas of North America. The Chilopsis is closely related to the genus Catalpa. Hybrids can be developed between the two genera: Chilopsis linearis and Catalpa bignonioides produced Chitalpa tashkentensis.
The leaves are very narrow, pointed, and about four inches long, but can range three to ten inches in length, and alternate on the stem.
The sweet-smelling flowers are showy, tubular, and usually pink or lavender but may be white or dark rose, from one to three inches long, and bloom from May to September. They are pollinated by insects, and the purple stripes or “bee guides” on the blossoms help direct bees to the nectar within. Flowers grow on new wood, and can be pruned to encourage more blossoms.
The fruit is a slender, woody pod about five to eight inches long, which produce numerous flattened winded seeds.
The bark is smooth when young, changing to board ridges with deep narrow fissures on old trees.
The desert willow has a well-earned reputation for its beauty, medicine value, bows, and contribution to erosion control.