Some of the most spectacular landscape plants you will ever have the joy of seeing are those that have been developed with a weeping growth habit. Literally, dozens and dozens of trees, shrubs and even some perennials have been introduced through the years that display this unusual physical characteristic.
Weeping Growth Patterns
There are variations in the growth of weeping plants that give them slightly different appearances. Occasionally, only the foliage is weeping. Other plants may have only the tips of the branches turned downward. Some plants may have entire branches that weep. Finally, in a few plants, the entire structure sweeps downward, both trunks and limbs.
While in their juvenile stage, longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) have soft, weeping needles that often drape to the ground. They make excellent container plants due to their somewhat slow growth.
Many weeping trees and shrubs are discovered as accidental sports of a non-weeping parent plant. These mutations are removed from the parent, propagated via cuttings, and if the propagation is successful, they are mass-produced as adults using tissue culture. More times than not, these weeping sports are grafted onto the non-weeping rootstock of either their parent species or another closely related plant. Grafted plants can present some challenges in terms of care. Occasionally, a weeping plant will be grown on its own rootstock, a practice that makes the problems of reverting to the original non-weeping form less likely.
Use in the Landscapes
Most weeping plants, especially trees, look outstanding when planted as specimens or focal points, where they can become the center of attention. This is especially true for flowering and deciduous plants, which are attractive year round. Planting evergreens behind deciduous weeping plants enhances both their winter and summer appearance.
Loose groupings of weeping trees and shrubs can also be attractive and a few even look nice when tightly massed together. Likewise, weeping conifers with their evergreen foliage can be used as specimens, loose groupings or massed together for a soft look throughout the garden.
When choosing the location for your weeping plant, remember that many of these plants will be smaller than their non-weeping cousins. Read the plant tag carefully so that you will know how much space your plant will need.
One of the nicest ways to display weeping plants as specimens is to have them in containers, which accentuates their visibility and status in the garden. It also affords the opportunity to move them to other parts of the garden as the plant’s appearance or its surroundings change through the gardening year.
Whatever style the gardener chooses to display weeping plants, they will always lend a soft and somewhat informal look to the landscape. They might look out of place if planted in a formal garden or where nearby plants are maintained with close pruning, although large historic gardens offer a number of successful combinations of formality and the informality of a weeping tree.
Choosing Plants in the Nursery
The ‘Lace Parasol’ winged elm (Ulmus alata ‘Lace Parasol’) looks outstanding in the winter garden with its graceful arching habit and corky growth.
The ‘Covey’ redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Covey’) has weeping branches of varying lengths that germinate above the graft from a fairly straight trunk. It blooms at the same time as non-weeping redbud varieties.
‘Gold Mop’ false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Gold Mop’) is a dwarf conifer that maintains its weeping habit and gold color without pruning. It will only grow to be 3 to 4 feet tall.
You will pay more for a weeping plant than you pay for its non-weeping counterpart, especially if the plant is grafted. Therefore, choose your plant carefully. Since these plants are often slower growing, try to get the largest plant you can afford. Check all parts of the plant, including the roots, for healthy growth and a full appearance.
In Zones 6 and warmer, fall and winter are the best seasons to plant trees and shrubs.
The planting, fertilizing and watering of weeping plants is the same as for their non-weeping counterparts. Where issues can arise is with pruning. Not only must you prune at the proper time of year, but you must exercise extreme caution, or you may damage and possibly permanently destroy the plant’s graceful weeping habit.
For weeping trees and shrubs that are grafted onto a separate rootstock, be sure immediately to remove any growth that germinates below the graft. The graft should be easy to find. It shows as a swelling on the trunk occasionally displaying a horizontal scar. Growth from the rootstock below the graft will differ greatly in appearance and is more than likely non-weeping and faster growing than the graft. Should growth from below the graft continue unchecked, it will weaken and overtake the weeping portion of the plant, rather quickly leaving you with a mess that may be hard to correct. On occasion, non-weeping limbs may sprout from above the graft or from plants growing on their own rootstock. In this situation, the plant may be trying to revert to its parental non-weeping shape. These limbs also should be removed quickly.
For deciduous trees and shrubs, if you find that you must prune the weeping portion, I advise waiting until winter when the plant’s structure is more visible. I recommend only pruning dead, dying, diseased, crossing or grossly out-of-place branches to avoid the risk of destroying the plant’s appearance.
Weeping evergreens can be pruned in the late winter or early spring, but once again, exercise caution and only prune what appears to be unhealthy or growing in the wrong direction.
My Personal Favorites
I have several weeping plants that are my personal favorites. The first two are varieties of our Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) named ‘Covey’ and ‘Traveller’. ‘Covey’ is slightly taller and reaches a height of 10 to 12 feet or more. Its branches weep over from a fairly straight trunk. ‘Traveller’ is a dwarf weeping variety derived from the subspecies Texensis. It forms a tidy mound and grows usually less than 5 feet tall with weeping limbs that grow from a contorted trunk. Both of these trees are usually sold as grafts.
Another favorite is the weeping dwarf variety of our native winged elm (Ulmus alata ‘Lace Parasol’). This little tree grows to a maximum height of about 10 feet with a straight trunk and grafted weeping branches. Both the trunk and branches display the corky wings of the species, giving the plant a fantastic winter appearance.
From State-by-State Gardening March 2008. Photos by Theresa Schrum.