Desert willow tree pruning

When To Prune A Desert Willow – Tips On Pruning Desert Willows

Desert willow is not a willow, although it look like one with its long, thin leaves. It’s a member of the trumpet vine family. It grows so rapidly that the plant can get scraggly if left to its own devices. Trimming a desert willow keeps the plant looking tidy and attractive. For information about desert willow pruning, including tips on pruning desert willows, read on.

About Desert Willow Pruning

Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a native U.S. plant, growing in the American Southwest as well as Kansas and Oklahoma. The little tree has slender, willow-like leaves but it is actually a flowering shrub. Desert willow produces flowers that are extremely ornamental. They fill the tree in spring, but can keep appearing sporadically all year round.

These trees grow in dry regions and can provide shade in arid landscapes, but in order for the plants to be attractive in your backyard, you’ll have to start pruning desert willows early and regularly.

When to Prune a Desert Willow

If you are wondering when to prune a desert willow, trimming a desert willow can begin in late winter or early spring. In fact, a good time to prune this deciduous tree is the end of February or cut back desert willows in March. They are still dormant during this period.

Tips for Pruning Desert Willows

Desert willow pruning can keep these trees from getting leggy as they mature. If you want to cut back desert willows, first decide the shape you are looking for.

You can create a tree with a single tree and a canopy at the top. You can also do desert willow pruning to create a multi-branched shrub with a canopy that reaches the ground. Once you cut back desert willows to your preferred shape, annual desert willow pruning keeps the trees looking good.

If you decide on a single-stemmed tree, select a main leader to become the trunk. Cut back other competing leaders but retain side branches to fill in the canopy. If you want a multi-branched shrub, start trimming a desert willow when it is young. Cut the main growing tip, allowing several strong leaders to form.

Desert Willow, Chilopsis linearis, is a deciduous shrub or small tree cultivated for its beautiful trumpet-shaped blooms that are produced from spring to fall.�

Its name – given because of its willow-like leaves – is misleading since it is, in fact, in the Bignoniaceae (trumpet vine) family.� It also is not limited to desert locales and grows successfully throughout southern California, except for the immediate coastal area (Sunset zone 24).

Desert Willow is native to the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, where it is commonly found in dry washes and along riverbanks below 5,000 feet.� As either a deciduous shrub or small tree, it grows to 20-30 feet high and 10-20 feet wide, growing rapidly as a juvenile but slowing down with maturity.� The slightly aromatic leaves are willow-like, narrow and 2-5 inches long, and starting in fall they may drop for up to six months.� The tree’s bark is smooth when young but furrows with age.

Desert Willow’s fragrant, trumpet-shaped blooms have crimped lobes, like those of its close catalpa relative, and resemble cattleya orchids.� Held in racemes or terminal panicles, the flowers come in colors that range from purple to white, with lavender or light pink seemingly the most common.� The Desert Willow cultivars are notable for their range of differences in flower color. The throat and lower lip markings are purple and yellow and serve to entice pollinators, primarily large bees like carpenter bees and bumblebees.� Hummingbirds are also strongly attracted to the flowers.�

When the Desert Willow loses its leaves and goes bare, it produces many papery seedpods akin to those of catalpa, which persist through winter.� Some gardeners regard them as a messy nuisance.� Others view them as decorative and a source of food for birds.

Plant Desert Willow in full sun, but it will take partial shade in warm climates. � The tree tolerates almost any soil as long as there is good drainage.� Established plants are drought-tolerant and, in southern California, should only be given very infrequent, deep irrigation.� � Desert Willow is a resilient plant, cold-hardy to 5-10 degrees F.� and not known to be susceptible to any diseases or pests.

Its natural growth is quite irregular, but Desert Willow is easily pruned into tree shape.� This can be done by pruning off the lowest limbs every spring until the tree has reached the desired height.� In its early years, the growth rate is typically three feet annually, so the natural tree form can be quickly and easily established.� Pruning also tends to increase flower production.

It should be noted that Desert Willow is the only species in the Chilopsis genus.� Because of its close relationship to catalpa, hybrids are easily developed between the two.� Desert Willow, itself, may be propagated from seed or vegetative cuttings or, for faster results, get gallon-size plants from the nursery. These often yield blooms within a year.�

More than 20 Desert Willow cultivars have been developed.� Some well-known purple varieties include “Bubba,” which is showy with dark purple blooms and sturdy trunk and branches; “Burgundy Lace” aka “Burgundy,” which is like “Bubba” except that the flowers are magenta and white; “Lucretia Hamilton,” with dark flowers in big clusters; and “Rio Salado,” a strong grower with large burgundy flowers.

Some popular cultivars in other colors include “Warren Jones,” which has large pink blooms and is evergreen in mild winter climates; “Hope,” with white flowers with a yellow throat; “White Storm”; and “Mesquite Valley Pink” aka “Pink Star.” In addition,� “Lois Adams” and “Timeless Beauty” have two-tone blooms (lavender/magenta/burgundy) and no seedpods.� � �

Contact the writer: Edward A. Shaw is a UCCE Master Gardener.� The University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners,, are certified horticultural volunteers dedicated to relating gardening information to the public.� For answers to horticultural questions, call the hot line at 714-708-1646 or send email to [email protected]

Native Plant Spotlight: Chilopsis linearis ‘Bubba’

Chilopsis linearis ‘Bubba’

Chilopsis linearis, more commonly called Desert Willow, is a wonderful ornamental addition to sunny garden spaces. This month’s featured cultivar, ‘Bubba’, owes its tongue-in-cheek name to a high-powered growth habit. A 30-foot spread and enormous flowers set it apart from other members of the species.

While the narrow, long leaf shape is indeed willow-like, Chilopsis linearis is in fact related to Catalpa trees, Yellow Bells (Tecoma stans), and Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans).


‘Bubba’ is an eye-catching deciduous tree. Shapely, slender branches can be trained to a variety of silhouettes as a single or multi-trunk tree, or rounded out as a large shrub. Glossy, deep green leaf color creates a tropical-looking effect in combination with bright, orchid-like flowers.

While oversized in comparison to other members of its family, ‘Bubba’ remains reasonably sized for compact growing spaces as an ornamental accent.

Photo credit: Xericstyle


Chilopsis linearis leaves are narrow, long, and willow-like. Their slender shape and twisting growth habit of the branches allows soft light to come through during sunny summer months, creating pleasant filtered shade.


Fragrant, exotic blooms are the outstanding feature of Chilopsis linearis. ‘Bubba’ stands out for its abundant production of oversize, vibrant bicolor flowers. The dark purple and lavender colors are reminiscent of orchids or even giant snapdragons, with funnel-shaped blossoms and 5-petaled lobes.

Additional advantages come by way of the flower bloom period. While many ornamental trees flourish heavily in spring, Desert Willow produces over an extended season throughout the heat of summer through early fall.

During winter, blossoms are replaced by narrow seedpods, though ‘Bubba’ produces fewer of these than other members of the species.

Soil and Water Requirements

‘Bubba’ is well adapted to desert washes and requires minimal water to put on its colorful show during hot summer months. It is sun-loving and drought-tolerant, making it a great fit for lawn and sidewalk strips and other exposed urban locations.

Little care is required to enjoy the long season of beauty. Over-watering or applying excessive fertilizer will cause harm, reducing the number of blooms and weakening this naturally hardy plant.

Desert Willow Companion Plantings

Create a beautiful view all summer long by pairing ‘Bubba’ with these vibrant companions:

  • Angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis)
  • Trailing Lantana (Lantana montevidensis)
  • Baja ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis)

Pruning Chilopsis linearis

Pruning requirements will vary depending on your landscaping goals. Prune frequently in early years to encourage fewer trunks, a single trunk, or to create a weeping willow effect.

Seasonally, spent seed pods and flowers can be removed if desired. Cutting back by about one third during the dormant winter season will increase branching the coming year.

Plant Features and Uses

  • Fragrant, decorative flowers
  • Low water needs
  • Lengthy bloom time
  • Heat tolerant and fire-wise
  • Attracts butterflies and hummingbirds
  • Supports native pollinators and beneficial insects
  • Fast-growing
  • Suitable for small spaces

Ready to add Desert Willow to your waterwise native garden? We have 24” boxes available and would be happy to answer any questions you may have. Come down to the nursery for personal assistance in selecting your plants, or use the Plant Finder here on our web site to browse our selection before you arrive.

Hummingbirds, birds, bees, and beneficial insects all benefit from Chilopsis linearis plantings in their habitat.

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Search Smarty Plants

Please forgive us, but Mr. Smarty Plants has been overwhelmed by a flood of mail and must take a break for awhile to catch up. We hope to be accepting new questions again soon. Thank you!

Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.

rate this answer

13 ratings

Monday – October 01, 2007

From: Sherman, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Seeds and Seeding, Trees
Title: Does Chilopsis linearis, var.Bubba produce seed pods? No.
Answered by: Jimmy Mills


We have a really beautiful 2-year old Bubba, Desert Willow. It is already about 12 feet tall. I really have two questions. One does the Bubba form the seed pods like the other types of Desert Willows? I have not seen any seed pods yet and this is the second fall. And question two is: It has a couple of low growing branches. Will they move up as the tree grows taller or should I prune them? I want a tree shaped Desert Willow and I really do not like those low branches, but if they moved up with the growth of the tree, I would like them. Thank you for your help.


Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) is not a true Willow (see genus Salix) although it has willow-like leaves.
The variety Bubba was originated by Paul Cox of the San Antonio Botanical Garden, and has proved to be a favorite among landscapers because of its drought tolerance and deer resistance. I have found only one reference regarding the production of seed pods by Bubba, and the Williamson County Landscape Center says Bubba does not produce seed pods.

The low branches will not move up the tree because of the way trees and other flowering plants grow. New growth is occuring at the tip of the plant, and once a branch is established, it will maintain its position on the plant relative to the ground, neither moving up or down. So if you don’t like the low branches, go ahead and prune them.

From the Image Gallery

Desert willow
Chilopsis linearis

More Seeds and Seeding Questions

Annual Native Plants for Interplanting in Iowa
January 20, 2015 – I’m looking for suggestions for annuals that will flower from seed or from spring plants. I want to use them to fill in the space around newly planted coneflowers and asters that I fear will look spa…
view the full question and answer

Why so many Sugar Hackberry seedlings in my back yard in The Woodlands, TX?
May 25, 2013 – Why do I have so many Sugar Hackberry seedlings (Celtis Laevigata) sprouting up naturally in my back yard? There are a few Winged Elms in my neighborhood, but no Sugar Hackberry trees that I know of….
view the full question and answer

Bluebonnets in memorial garden in cemetery
April 11, 2008 – When is the peak time to scatter bluebonnet seeds? I have a loved one that recently died, and she requested that her body be cremated. She would like her ashes to be mixed with bluebonnet seeds and …
view the full question and answer

Planting bluebonnets
April 20, 2008 – How long do bluebonnet seeds take to mature, and when is the earliest in their development they can be harvested? When can they be scattered?
view the full question and answer

Why Did Gaillardia and Aquilegia Changed Color?
June 26, 2013 – Both a Gaillardia pulchella and two red columbines bloomed normally last summer, but this summer the Gaillardia’s petals are all yellow and one columbine is white and the other is yellow. What caused…
view the full question and answer

Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *