How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Corkscrew (Curly) Willow

Are you curious about the twisty, gnarled branches of the corkscrew willow? You can easily grow one in your own backyard, especially as part of a rain garden or at the edge of a pond or other wetland area. In this article, gardening enthusiast Liessa Bowen will discuss the proper care and maintenance of these beautiful and fascinating plants.

View of corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa') in a green garden. Its long, slender branches twist and spiral along their length, resembling corkscrews or contorted coils. The tree features narrow, lance-shaped leaves that are green.


Corkscrew willow, also known as curly willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’), is a member of the willow family (Salicaceae) and is native to Asia. It is available as a landscaping tree and is most appreciated for its fast growth rate and interesting twisting branch patterns. 

As its name implies, this willow has branches that twist and turn as they grow. Unlike the familiar weeping willow, a large tree with long, gracefully downward-curved branches that sway in the breeze, the corkscrew willow is a smaller tree with an upright form and irregularly shaped, gnarled branches. In the fall, when these trees have lost their leaves for the season, they add wonderful winter interest to any landscape!

You can use it as an unusual landscaping tree or grow it along an edge or wetland border. These trees are easy to grow but do have some limitations and won’t be the best option for every landscaping project. If you’re looking for a moisture-loving, small tree that is uniquely different, however, the corkscrew willow would make a great choice.

Now, let’s dig into some more details about the corkscrew willow, how you can use it in your landscape, and how best to help your tree thrive!

Plant Overview

Close-up of a corkscrew willow tree against a blue sky. The tree has long and contorted branches, which twist and spiral in unique corkscrew-like patterns. The narrow, lance-shaped leaves are green.
Plant Type Tree
Family Salicaceae
Genus Salix
Species matsudana var. tortuosa
Native Area China, Japan, Korea
USDA Hardiness Zone 4 – 8
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Soil Type Rich, moist
Watering Requirements Medium
Maintenance Medium
Suggested Uses Butterfly garden, rain garden, winter garden, wetland edge
Height 20 – 40 feet
Bloom Season Spring
Flower Color Green
Attracts Butterflies, bees
Problems Short-lived, brittle branches
Resistant To Wet soil, deer, cold
Plant Spacing 20+ feet

Natural History

Close-up of a large Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa' tree. It is a captivating deciduous tree admired for its unique appearance. The most distinctive feature is its contorted branches that spiral and twist along their length, resembling corkscrews. The leaves are lance-shaped, dark green in color and grow on drooping stems.
The ‘Tortuosa’ cultivar features twisted branches ideal for crafts and arrangements.

The parent species, Salix matsudana, is native to China, Japan, and Korea, where it commonly grows in moist habitats near ponds and streams. The cultivar ‘Tortuosa’ was developed and introduced as a landscaping plant.

Similar cultivars have the same growing conditions but different colored branches and somewhat variable growth habits. These trees have value for landscaping and wildlife habitat, and the attractive twisted branches can even be used for dried flower arrangements and craft projects.


Close-up of Corkscrew Willow tree branches in a garden. This deciduous tree boasts long, slender branches that exhibit dramatic twists and curls, resembling corkscrews. These contorted branches create an enchanting and whimsical silhouette. The branches grow narrow, lance-shaped leaves of bright green color, which also have a slightly twisted shape.
Expect these trees to grow 20-40 feet tall and 15-25 feet wide.

These are fast-growing, deciduous trees. They can grow between 20 and 40 feet tall and between 15 and 25 feet wide. The trunk and main branches have a generally upright form with a rounded crown.  

The most unique characteristic is the branches and stems, which give rise to its other common name, curly willow. Younger trees may appear more smooth and straight, while older trees tend to develop a gnarled or twisted trunk.

The main branches and stems do not grow straight but rather in an uneven, twisted, wavy pattern. The smaller branches and stems, while also twisted and curled, grow closely together to create a dense, rounded crown, and the summer foliage somewhat conceals the curly branches. 

The leaves are alternate and three to six inches long. The narrow, simple, lancelike leaves come to a long, tapered point. Like the branches and stems, the leaves also tend to be slightly curled or wavy rather than purely flat and straight in profile.

The bare trees in the winter months are quite interesting to look at with their masses of wavy, upright branches. These trees provide exceptional winter appeal with their unusual branch forms, and for this reason, no two trees will be alike.

The bark is light gray, and younger stems may vary from light gray to a slightly orange hue. In the spring, these trees bloom with branches full of long yellowish catkins that hang straight down in small clusters at the end of young branch tips. The foliage turns from bright green to a showy yellow in fall, emphasizing the year-round beauty of this tree.


The easiest way to acquire a new corkscrew willow will be to purchase one. But if you already have one, the easiest way to propagate it is by taking a hardwood cutting. While you can grow a willow tree from seed, hybrids and cultivars won’t grow true to the parent tree. 

Hardwood Cuttings

Close-up of sprouted willow cuttings in a glass jar on a blurred background. Willow cuttings are short brown branches on the tops of which young shoots of bright green color grow.
Propagate from winter hardwood cuttings for quick, genetically identical clones.

The best way to propagate these trees is from hardwood cuttings taken during the winter while the tree is dormant. Propagating a tree from hardwood cuttings is a bit time-consuming but fairly simple.

When your cutting takes root, you will have a clone that is genetically identical to the parent plant, and these new plants will grow quickly, so you can have a new young tree with known properties in your landscape in much less time than trying to grow a tree from seed.


Close-up of a gardener planting a bare root tree in the planting hole in the garden. The young tree has branched roots, a vertical thin trunk of brown color.
Transplant in spring to a sunny, moist site and water generously.

Spring is the best time to transplant a tree. If you are buying a tree online, you should transplant it as soon as you can after it arrives. Many reputable online tree retailers will ship bare-root trees during the ideal planting season, so your tree will be ready to transplant upon arrival.

  • Choose a site with plenty of bright sunlight and moist soil.
  • Choose a site away from structures, sidewalks, or underground utility lines.
  • Dig a hole approximately three times as wide as the pot in which your tree is growing. These trees have naturally wide-spreading root systems, and the roots will be confined by the pot.
  • Remove the tree from its bag, pot, or container.
  • Using your fingers, gently try to separate and spread out the roots (you’ll probably want to wear gloves for this process).
  • Spread the roots into the hole so they fan out in a natural-looking manner. Do not fold or clump the roots altogether, as this will make it much harder for your tree to adjust to a new location.
  • The base of the trunk should be about one inch above the surrounding soil level.
  • Backfill the space around your tree’s roots and tamp down the soil. The roots should be completely buried under a layer of soil, but it’s okay if they are relatively close to the soil surface.
  • Water your new plant well to help it settle in and alleviate transplant shock.

For the first year after transplanting, your tree will need lots of water. Water it deeply a couple of times each week, at least any time you do not receive natural rainfall. Your tree will be working hard to develop a strong and resilient root system for the first year in its new home.

How to Grow

Corkscrew willows are easy to grow. They need bright sunlight and moist soil but are not overly picky about soil quality. They need a bit of space to grow to their full height and will require some regular maintenance to keep them healthy and looking great.


Close-up of Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa' in a sunny garden. The tree's stems are its most notable feature, showing a unique and intricate corkscrew or contorted pattern along their length. The leaves are lance-shaped, bright green, curled, with jagged edges.
Plant in full sun for optimal growth, tolerating some dappled shade.

Place your corkscrew willow in a location with full sun exposure. These trees tolerate some dappled shade but will perform best with at least four to six hours of direct sunlight each day.


View of young Salix matsudana trees in a rainy garden with a large house blurred in the background. Salix matsudana is a deciduous tree with a distinctive appearance. It features slender, graceful branches that droop elegantly, creating a weeping or pendulous effect. The narrow, lance-shaped leaves are a fresh green color and cover the cascading branches.
Keep the soil consistently moist, especially during its first year and in dry weather.

Provide your tree with consistently moist soil. Unless you have your tree in a very moist area, water it regularly during its first year and anytime the weather stays hot and dry for a prolonged period. If it isn’t raining regularly and your tree isn’t located near a natural water supply, give your willow trees a thorough watering at least once each week.


Close-up of a female gardener holding a handful of fresh soil in the garden, checking its quality. The soil is loose, dark brown in color, slightly lumpy. The gardener is wearing blue jeans and a blue plaid shirt.
Provide moist soil rich in organic matter.

The soil for these trees should be organically rich and able to retain moisture. They aren’t too picky about soil type as long as the soil stays moist.

They can grow in clay, loamy, or sandy soil. They also tolerate soil types ranging from slightly acidic to slightly alkaline (pH of 5.6 to 7.8)

Climate and temperature

View of a Corkscrew willow tree with yellow leaves against a blue sky. This deciduous tree is renowned for its contorted, corkscrew-like branches that give it a unique and twisted form. The foliage of this cultivar takes on a vibrant yellow hue. The leaves are narrow, lance-shaped, and golden yellow in color.
This willow is hardy in zones four through eight, with good cold tolerance.

Corkscrew willows are hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones four through eight. These trees are quite cold-tolerant and seem to prefer climates that are not overly hot and humid. 


Close-up of Matsuda willow twisting trunk with leaves on a blurred background. It is a deciduous tree with a distinctive appearance characterized by slender, pendulous branches. The lance-shaped leaves are fresh green and cover the cascading branches, forming a lush, dense foliage.
No need for fertilizer; quality soil and yearly organic compost or mulch suffice.

There is no need to fertilize your willow tree. Average-quality soil should provide all the nutrients your tree needs. If you add an annual dressing of organic compost or biodegradable mulch around your tree, this should be more than enough to keep your tree happy and well-nourished. 


View of Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa' is in the garden against the background of a fence and a house with a red roof. This deciduous tree is characterized by its unique, contorted branches that twist and turn in various directions. The leaves are lance-shaped and emerge in a fresh green hue.
These willows are medium-maintenance trees, requiring regular weeding, mulching, and care around the trunk to avoid damage.

Corkscrew willow are medium-maintenance trees. Regular maintenance should include weeding around your tree and an annual clean-up of debris. Add mulch to prevent weeds and also to preserve soil moisture. As you’re mowing or trimming around your tree, be careful around the trunk so as not to damage it. 

You can grow one without ever pruning it, but you can prune your tree as needed to improve the general shape of a young tree. Prune as needed to remove any dead, diseased, or overly crowded or crossed branches.

Garden Design

Close-up of a large Salix matsudana 'Scarlet Curls' tree near a white fence in the garden. This deciduous tree features contorted and twisted branches that create a visually striking and artistic silhouette. Its slender, weeping branches cascade gracefully, creating a pendulous form. The stems have a reddish tint. The narrow leaves are characterized by their unique curled edges and bright green color.
Corkscrew willows thrive in sunny, moist areas but are fast-growing, short-lived, and messy.

The first thing to remember as you’re planning your garden is that this is a fast-growing tree for a sunny spot with moist soil. The other thing to consider is that these trees are somewhat short-lived and messy as they drop an abundance of catkins in the spring and leaves in the fall. 

They have a shallow, fibrous root system and should not be planted immediately adjacent to a driveway, sidewalk, buildings, or underground utility lines. Give them plenty of space away from your home

If you don’t want to worry about the need to frequently water your tree, plant yours in a low-lying location that holds a bit of extra moisture. Grow it along a wetland edge that naturally stays moist throughout the year. These trees are a great choice for a rain garden, especially because it can be difficult to find moisture-loving trees that thrive in wet soils.

For ornamental plantings in need of a small tree, consider adding a corkscrew willow to a butterfly or pollinator garden. While these trees don’t have showy flowers, they still attract pollinators and benefit butterflies and bees. You can also appreciate these trees in your winter landscape when their interesting branches really stand out for their varied forms. 


‘Golden Curls,’ Salix matsudana ‘Golden Curls’

Close-up of Salix matsudana 'Golden Curls' with bare branches against a blue sky. Its slender, weeping branches create an elegant, cascading form. They are golden yellow in color.
This variety boasts stunning yellow stems, providing a captivating golden aura in fall and winter.

‘Golden Curls’ is a cultivar with beautiful yellow stems. In the summer, you can admire the contrast between the bright green leaves and their yellow stems, and in the fall, you will have a plant with a brilliant yellow aura. During the wintertime, the twisted branches and golden brown bark are very appealing.

‘Scarlet Curls,’ Salix matsudana ‘Scarlet Curls’

Close-up of Scarlet Curl Corkscrew Willow in a sunny garden. Its weeping branches form an enchanting corkscrew shape. The narrow leaves exhibit curled edges and bright green color. Some stems have a reddish tint.
This tree features ornamental golden-brown branches and striking scarlet-red stems.

The ‘Scarlet Curls’ cultivar is a very ornamental tree with excellent winter interest. It has beautiful golden-brown branches with thinner, scarlet-red stems. The dramatic contrast between these shades of green, yellow, and red is quite attractive.

‘Navajo,’ Salix matsudana ‘Navajo’

View of a large Salix matsudana 'Navajo' tree in the park. The Salix matsudana 'Navajo' is a visually striking deciduous tree, prized for its unique and ornamental attributes. The narrow, lance-shaped leaves are a glossy dark green, providing a lush and vibrant backdrop to the tree's overall aesthetic.
This globe willow boasts a traditional form with a sturdy trunk, reaching 50 feet tall, forming a dense, rounded crown.

‘Navajo’ willow, also known as the Navajo globe willow, is a cultivar with a more traditional form. These trees have sturdy upright trunks with a dense, rounded crown of upright branches. This tree can grow to 50 feet tall and makes an excellent shade tree with stunningly beautiful yellow fall foliage.

Wildlife Value

Close-up of Viceroy butterfly caterpillar (Limenitis archippus) on a willow leaf. It has a cylindrical body adorned with orange pimples on a black background. The body is segmented.
Corkscrew willow provide wildlife benefits, serving as a larval host for the viceroy butterfly.

This and other willow varieties offer some valuable benefits for wildlife. Willows are a larval host plant for the viceroy butterfly. During their spring flowering period, these trees also attract many species of native bees and other pollinators. Birds will freely use willow trees for nesting, resting, and foraging for insect prey. 

Common Problems

One of the biggest problems is that they are short-lived. But even a tree that lives for 15 to 20 years can provide wonderful benefits for your landscape project.

These plants can be attacked by various insect pests, although fortunately, these pests tend to be a minor nuisance rather than a severe problem for the health of the tree.


Close-up of a Willow branch affected by aphids (Pterocomma rufipes) against a blurred dark green background. Pterocomma rufipes, commonly known as the willow-carrot aphid, displays a distinct appearance characterized by its small size and elongated shape. These aphids are gray-brown in color, and they have prominent, darker patches on their abdomen.
These small, soft-bodied insects commonly feed on various plants, causing minor damage.

Aphids are common garden pests that feed on many different plants. They are small, soft-bodied insects that may appear gray, green, yellow, or pink. Aphids gather in clusters along the leaves and stems, feeding on plant juices with their tiny, piercing mouthparts. Aphids on willow trees may cause minor damage but are typically not a cause for concern. 

Willow Beetles

Close-up of a willow leaf beetle (Plagiodera versicolora) on a green leaf. Adult beetle has a compact and oval-shaped body. The elytra, or wing covers, display a metallic green or blue hue with black stripes. The head, thorax, and legs are black.
Small, shiny, black adult willow beetles and their larvae can damage trees by feeding on leaves.

Willow beetles can be a real nuisance. Adult beetles are small, shiny, and black, resembling a completely black ladybug beetle. Larvae are also black and look like little bug-like grubs clinging to the leaves in small groups.

Both adults and larvae damage willow trees by feeding on the leaves and either skeletonizing them or eating them entirely. Trees usually survive beetle damage but will look sick because of the damaged leaves.

Powdery Mildew

Close-up of Willow leaves affected by powdery mildew on a blurred garden background. Willow leaves are characterized by their lanceolate or elongated shape, featuring a narrow and slender profile. The leaves have serrated edges and are arranged alternately along the branches. They are green in color and covered with a white powdery coating.
Address willow tree powdery mildew by pruning and removing leaves to prevent spread.

Powdery mildew is a fungal infection that causes leaves to appear gray or white. Severe infestations will cause the leaves to turn yellow or brown and shrivel.

Prune off any severely infected branches and discard them far away from your willow trees to prevent further spread. Rake up leaves in the fall to reduce the chances of reinfestation of any pests and diseases.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are corkscrew willows invasive?

These trees have naturalized in some states, but they are not currently considered an invasive species. They don’t grow aggressively and rarely escape cultivation.

How fast will my corkscrew willow tree grow?

Willows are fast-growing trees. You can expect your tree to grow as much as two or three feet each year until it reaches its mature size of 30 to 40 feet. At this rate, your tree can easily reach a mature height within ten years of planting. Unfortunately, although the tree is fast-growing, it is also short-lived. In ideal conditions, they can live up to about 30 years.

Can I grow a corkscrew willow in a container?

This plant is not an ideal choice for containers. They grow quickly, can grow quite large, need constant moisture, and develop broad root systems. Therefore, they are best planted in a naturalized setting. If you purchase a container-grown willow, you can keep it there for a short while, but go ahead and transplant it into a natural setting as soon as it’s convenient for you.

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking for an attractive tree that’s just a bit different, see if a corkscrew willow might work for your landscape. You’ll need a sunny location with moist soil and some space for your tree to grow without interference. This is an especially ideal plant to grow near a pond, stream, or wetland edge.

These trees will appeal during every season: fresh spring leafout, dense summer foliage blowing in the breeze, showy fall yellows, and interesting bare branch patterns in the winter. Wildlife will also use your willow tree as a food source and shelter, so it is certain to liven up your landscape!

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