Just when you thought the plague of global awareness days had reached its peak with ‘Blue Cone Monochromacy International Awareness Day’ (May 20th), I come along with this post and declare that it is Willow week! Or more precisely White Willow (Salix alba) week.
This is a species that is very much in evidence at this time of year, but it is not the tree itself that will attract your attention – it is the seeds. On any dry day with a light breeze in the lowlands of Britain the air is quite likely to be full of tiny drifting bits of white fluff – the seeds of either the White willow or the similar Grey willow. Often they appear to have no source, as though they were being spawned from the wind itself. One particular moment sticks in my mind from last week; watching the beautiful image of a willow tree shedding thousands upon thousands of tiny white stars as a gentle wind lifted them from their moorings. They filled the abandoned railway line in which the tree grew, passing through shafts of yellow light and appearing like a mass of sprites or spores from a giant mushroom, being so tiny and light they floated upwards without help from any wind.
- White willow is dioecious – meaning male and female flowers are on separate trees.
- The cultivar caerulea is used to make cricket bats because the wood is tough, light and does not splinter easily.
- The bark contains the chemical Salicin, a pain-reliever similar to aspirin – ground up bark has been used to ease pains and fevers for thousands of years.
- The pale, silky hairs on the underside of the long narrow leaves give this tree its name.
- Many moth larva feed on the leaves of White willow, including Puss moth and Willow Ermine, also the catkins which emerge very early in the year provide crucial nectar and pollen sources for early insects.
- A major traditional use of this tree was for making baskets and cribs from the long, thin whip-like twigs that grow after coppicing/pollarding.
- White willow is a fast-growing tree and highly regenerative (a branch or twig snapped off and planted will grow into a new tree) but do not live long as they are very susceptible to diseases.
- It is this species (or possibly the similar crack willow) that overhangs the floating Ophelia in John Everett Millais’ famous painting.