In their natural condition Willows are graceful
and picturesque, but a large number of the examples
met with have been so altered for commercial reasons
as to be more grotesque than beautiful. The pollard
Willow, though it produces a shock-head of long,
slender shoots, lets in moisture at the top of
the bole, and the wood is more or less decayed
Only four of our native Willows can be regarded
as timber-trees. These are the White Willow, the
Crack Willow, the Bedford Willow and the Sallow.
Like the Poplars, their growth is very rapid,
and their wood is consequently light. In the present
day the growers of straight-boled Willows find
their best market among the makers of cricket-bats.
A good deal of it is also cut into thin strips
for plaiting into hand-baskets. The Osier is grown
in extensive riverside beds for the production
of long, pliant shoots for the basket-weavers;
though many of the so-called Osier rods are really
stool-shoots from Willows that have been pollarded,
or whose leading shoot has never been allowed
to grow. On those parts of our coast where the
crab and lobster fishery is pursued, a regular
supply of such shoots for weaving into “pots”
is a necessity.
The bark of the tree Willows has long been known
to be rich in an alkaloid called salicine, which
has tonic and astringent properties. It is also
used in tanning.
The Almond-leaved or French Willow (Salix triandra)
is a small tree about twenty feet high, distinguished
by its bark being thrown off in flakes. Its slender,
lance-shaped leaves are smooth, green above and
glaucous beneath, two to four inches long, and
with heart-shaped stipules. The male flowers are
distinguished by their stamens being three in
number. Its habitats are the banks of rivers and
streams, and in Osier-beds. It is extensively
grown on account of the long, straight shoots
produced from the stump when the tree is cut down,
which are of great use in wicker-work.
The Bay-leaved Willow (Salix pentandra) is met
with either as a small upright tree about twenty
feet high, or as a shrub eight feet high. Its
oval or elliptical leaves are rich green, smooth
and sticky on the upper surface, and give out
a pleasant fragrance like those of the Bay-tree;
they vary from an inch to four inches long, and
they may or may not bear stipules, but if these
are present they will be egg-shaped or oblong.
The stamens are normally five in each flower,
but they vary up to twelve. This species is reputed
to be, of all our Willows, the latest flower.
A line drawn through York, Worcester and North
Wales will give roughly its southward range as
a native species. South of that line it has been
planted; north of it to the Scottish border it
is a native. It has been found growing in Northumberland
at the height of thirteen hundred feet.
The Crack Willow or Withy (Salix fragilis) is
one of the two most considerable of our tree Willows.
In good soil it will in twenty years attain nearly
its full height, which is about seventy feet.
Its bole sometimes has a girth of twenty feet.
Its smooth, polished shoots afford the best ready
means of distinguishing it, for instead of their
base pointing to the centre of the trunk, as in
other trees, they grow obliquely, so that the
shoots frequently cross each other. They are both
tough and pliant, but it struck at the base, they
readily break off. This character explains the
names Crack Willow and fragilis.
The leaves are lance-shaped, three to six inches
long, smooth, with glandular teeth, pale or glaucous
on the underside, and with half-heart-shaped stipules,
which, however, are soon cast off.
The male and female catkins of the Willows are
borne by different trees. In the case of the Crack
Willow, the male catkins are about two inches
long, proportionately stout, each flower bearing
two stamens (occasionally three, four or five).
The female catkin is more slender, the flowers
each containing a smooth ovary, ending in a short
style that divides into two curved bi-lobed stigmas.
The catkins appear in April or May.
Like most of the Willows, this species is fond
of cold, wet soil in low situations, but it is
not restricted to the plains. In Northumberland
it is found at 1,300 feet above sea-level. Its
northward range extends as far as Ross-shire,
but it is a doubtful native in both Scotland and
The Bedford Willow (Salix viridis) is believed
to be a hybrid between the Crack Willow and the
White Willow. It grows to a height of fifty feet
with a girth of twelve feet. The leaves are more
slender than those of the Crack Willow, taper
to a point at each end, and are very smooth on
both sides. It occurs in swampy woods.
The White Willow (Salix alba) is so called from
the appearance of the leaves as the light is reflected
from their silky surfaces. It is a tree from sixty
to eighty feet high, with a girth of about twenty
feet, covered with thick and deeply fissured bark.
The leaves are from two to four inches long, of
a narrow, elliptical shape. In the typical form
the twigs are olive-coloured, but in the variety
vitellina (known as the Golden Willow) these are
yellow or reddish. The Golden Willow has less
hairy and narrower leaves than the White Willow.
The White Willow is found as far north as Sutherland,
but although it is believed to be an indigenous
species, most of the modern specimens appear to
have been planted. It affords good timber, and
the bark is almost equal to that of Oak for tanning.
A great number of the old Willows met with are
partially decayed, a condition frequently the
result of lopping large branches, for the wound
never heals, and decay sets in.
The Cricket-bat Willow (Salix coerulea) is now
regarded as a hybrid (S. alba and S. fragilis).
It differs in its pyramidal habit and its less
hairy and thinner leaves. It is quick growing
and reaches a height of a hundred feet. The wood
is elastic and tough and is the most suitable
for making cricket-bats.
The Sallow or Goat Willow (Salix Caprea) is the
only other species that can properly be considered
as a tree, as it attains to a height of forty
feet, though fifteen to twenty feet is more common.
Its usually egg-shaped leaves vary from almost
round to elliptical or lance-shaped, and from
two to four inches in length. In the typical form,
which occurs chiefly in woods, dry pastures, and
hedgerows, they are broad, smooth, and light-green
above, covered with soft white down beneath; the
stipules are half-kidney-shaped.
This is the earliest of all our Willows to flower,
and the gold (male) and silver (female) catkins
are put out before the leaves.
Those who imagine that insect life is suspended
until spring is on the verge of summer should
visit the woods when the Sallow is in bloom; they
will be astonished at the swarms of bees and moths
that are collecting the abundant pollen or sipping
the nectar provided for them.
The all but invariable rule among the Poplars
– as among Oak, Beech, Hazel and Pine –
is to depend upon the wind for the transfer of
pollen from one tree to the stigmas of another
of the same species, but in the Willows we find
a breaking away from what was doubtless the primitive
arrangement in all flowering plants, by the bribing
with nectar of more reliable and less wasteful
The Grey Sallow (Salix cinerea) is a close relative
of S. Caprea but it has hairy and rather blackish
twigs and buds. The leaves are smaller and narrower
and the margins are often slightly inrolled. It
is the commonest and most widely spread species
of Willow in the British Isles.
The Eared Sallow (Salix aurita) is distinguished
by its small, bush-like proportions (two to four
feet high), long branches, and red twigs; its
small wrinkled leaves, which are usually less
than two inches long, are of almost oblong shape,
downy beneath, and with large ear-shaped stipules.
It is fond of the acid soil of damp copses and
moist places on heaths. Where it may be found
at considerable elevations.
There are Willows of dwarf habit, some with long
straggling branches and more or less prostrate
stems, that grow upon heaths.
The Creeping Willow (Salix repens). One form or
another of this species will be found in all parts
of the British Islands where there are heaths
and commons; in the Highlands it occurs as high
as 2,500 feet.
It is a low bush from six to twelve inches high,
the stem lying along the ground. Some of the branches
straggle in the same fashion, but those which
bear the flowers are more or less erect. The leaf-buds
and the young leaves are silky. They are broadly
or narrowly lance-shaped; in size from a half
to one and a half inches in length, and may have
lance-shaped stipules, or none at all. The scales
of the catkins are yellowish-green or purple,
with dark tips. After they have shed their pollen
the anthers turn black.
Another group of small Willows that form bushes
have been united under two species – the
Dark-leaved Willow (Salix nigricans) and the Tea-leaved
Willow (Salix phylicifolia). None of them occur
south of Yorkshire, and the chief distinction
between them consists in the leaves of S. nigricans
turning black when dried, whilst those of S. phylicifolia
The Osier (Salix viminalis). Many of the foregoing
Willows, when cut down low and induced to send
out long, slender shoots, are known as Osiers,
but only two species are botanically regarded
as Osiers – this and the Purple Osier (Salix
The present species may remain as a shrub or grow
into a small tree, thirty feet high, with long,
straight branches, which are silky when young,
but afterwards become polished. The leaves vary
in length from four to ten inches, and are lance-shaped,
tapering to a point at the top and narrowing into
the foot-stalk at the base. They have waved margins
without teeth, and the upper surface netted with
veins, the under surface silvery and silky; stipules
The Osier may be seen in Osier-beds and wet places
generally throughout the country as far north
as Elgin and Argyll.
The Purple Osier (Salix purpurea) gets its name
from the red or purple bark which clothes the
thin but tough twigs. It is a shrub, growing from
five to ten feet high. The leaves, which are rather
thin in texture, are from three to six inches
long, of slender lance-shape, with toothed edges,
smooth and glaucous on both sides. They are almost
opposite on the twigs. There are several varieties
of this shrub.
There remains a group of several small species
of very local occurrence.
The Woolly Willow (Salix lanata) is a small shrub,
two or three feet high, with twisted branches,
woolly twigs, and hairy black buds. The leaves
are broad, egg-shaped and leathery, two or three
inches long. There are half-heart-shaped stipules
at the base of the very short leaf-stalk.
It is an Alpine plant, and is found about the
mountain rills of Perth, Forfar, Inverness, and
Sutherland at elevations between 2,000 and 2,500
feet. It is conspicuous in spring for its rich
Sadler’s Willow (Salix Sadleri), of which
only two or three specimens have been found, is
probably a form of S. lanata.
The Lapland Willow (Salix Lapponum) is of similar
proportions to S. lanata, sometimes erect, sometimes
trailing. Its leaves are more elliptic in shape.
In S. lanata the raised veins form a network pattern;
in S. Lapponum they are straight. The stipules
are small or altogether wanting. It is restricted
to Scotch Alpine rocks, at elevations between
2,000 and 2,700 feet.
The Whortle-leaved Willow (Salix Myrsinites) is
a small, wiry, creeping, or half-erect shrub,
six inches to a foot high, with toothed, dark
glossy leaves, an inch or less in length, whose
net-veining shows on both sides. It is restricted
to the Alpine parts of mid-Scotland, from 1,000
to 2,700 feet.
The Small Tree-Willow (Salix Arbuscula) is a small
shrub, whose stem creeps along the ground and
roots as its goes, sending up more or less erect
branches a foot or two high. The downy twigs are
yellow at first, then reddish-brown. The small
toothed leaves are shining above and glaucous
beneath. In the highlands of Aberdeen, Argyll,
Dumfries, Forfar and Perth between 1,000 and 2,400
The Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea) is not so restricted
in its range, for it is found in all parts if
the United Kingdom, where there are heights sufficiently
Alpine (2,000 to 4,300 feet) for its tastes. It
is only an inch or two high, and has consequently
the distinction of being the smallest British
Willow. Its shrubby stem and branches creep along
underground, sending up only short, scantily leaved
twigs. The curled, roundish leaves do not exceed
half an inch in length; they are net-veined, toothed
and shining. The catkins appear after the leaves.
The Net-leaved Willow (Salix reticulata) is another
of the Scotch Alpines. It is similar in habit
to S. herbacea, but larger, its buried branches
sending up twigs a foot long. The roundish, oblong,
leathery leaves are not toothed; they are smooth
above and glaucous beneath, strongly net-veined
on either side. The purplish or yellow catkins
do not develop till after the leaves. It is restricted
to the mountains of Merionethshire, Aberdeen,
Forfar, Inverness, Perth and Sunderland.
The Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica), so popular
an ornament of riverside lawns, is not a native
tree. Its slender hanging branches make it a conspicuous
feature of the banks of the upper Thames. It grows
to a height of thirty to fifty feet and has large,
lance-shaped leaves, dark green above and glaucous
beneath. The female tree, which is much more common
than the male, has two-inch long catkins appearing
in April with the leaves.
The Weeping Willow was given the name of babylonica
because it was thought to be a native of the region
of the Euphrates and to be the Willow referred
to in the Psalms. It is really a native of China,
but it has long been cultivated in Eastern Europe,
North Africa and Western Asia, and was probably
introduced into England during the eighteenth
century. Napoleon was very fond of this tree and
its greatly increased popularity shortly after
his death was said to be due to the introduction
of young Weeping Willows raised from the tree
under which he was buried at St. Helena.