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The Willows

UK Garden Centre - Information about Willow trees

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Family Salicaceae
Salix

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 and worthless.
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 Ireland.
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 winged carriers.
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 do not.
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 purpurea).
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 lance-shaped.
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 golden catkins.
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 feet.
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.


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