Chilopsis is its name-o.
Finding either a willow or orchid in the desert would be unlikely, as the former likes water and the latter rainforest conditions. Chilopsis actually isn’t a willow, though its foliage resembles one. Neither is it an orchid, though its flowers look like small cattleyas.
Rather, it is a deciduous shrub or tree native to the southwestern U. S. and Mexico, which can grow to 30 feet in its preferred climate of hot, dry days and cool nights. Although it reportedly only is hardy in zones 6 through 9, one Dave’s Garden member notes that it can survive in zone 5 too by dying back to the ground over the winter and re-sprouting in spring.
I was happy to hear that, since I started a few seeds of desert willow this year, and may try leaving one of the seedlings out in a protected place in my driest garden bed. Since I’m not highly optimistic about its survival—our weather here having been even more soggy than usual in recent years—I’ll probably keep one in a pot too.
Chilopsis thrives in sandy soil in either sun or partial shade. It tends to come out of dormancy slowly in spring, sometimes as late as mid-May, so don’t despair if yours looks lifeless earlier in the year. It can still green up to produce 1 to 2-inch flowers with a fragrance like that of sweet violets in summer and autumn. Attractive to hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies, those blooms generally appear in clusters of two to four at the branch tips.
They range widely in color, according to cultivar, from white through pink, burgundy, and purple. The foliage varies too, as the eastern type of desert willow (Chilopsis linearis subsp. linearis) has straight leaves and the more western subsp. acurata curly leaves.
Although ”smooth-skinned” and fast-growing when young--sometimes achieving three feet per year-- desert willow slows down and develops a more rustic appearance when it ages, with shaggy bark and gnarly trunks. Its flexible branches sometimes are used in the making of baskets, as those of willow are.
Drought tolerant, chilopsis seldom requires much care, though its fallen leaves and blooms can be messy. If its flowers are pollinated, the shrub also will develop narrow bean-like seed pods which may sow more desert willows than you want. Cultivars which have been bred to be sterile reportedly will bloom longer than “fruiting” types.
If you’d like to try germinating the shrub, soak the seeds overnight before pressing them into the surface of damp seed-starting mix, without covering them. When kept in warm conditions, they should germinate quickly. Mine did so in three days. If you have a particular color of blooms in mind, though, you will be better off to take cuttings from a tree which has been proven to produce that color.
Speaking of color, I like to think of sand-weary desert travelers coming unexpectedly upon these exotically bedecked shrubs. The Bible speaks of the desert blossoming like a rose. In this case, it would be like an orchid!
Photos: The banner image is by trois, the second image by Kell, and the third image by Xenomorf, all from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles.