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March 2021 - Goat Willow



March 2021 - Goat Willow


There are 2 shrubs growing in the garden area of the Rec that earlier this month were resplendent with woolly catkins along the length of their twigs These are Goat Willows (Salix Caprea) but are much more commonly and affectionately known as pussy willows, and they put on their very best show at this time of year.


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The specimens at the Rec are both male, bearing the familiar woolly grey catkins (a cluster of flowers with tiny or absent petals) which soon become covered in a dusting of yellow pollen. This gives the tree a very distinctive golden mantle making it a familiar and striking presence in the spring landscape. The female catkins are found on separate trees and are long and green. As their seeds ripen they develop fine, silky hairs which carry them on the wind and enable them to disperse widely. The name pussy willow came about because the male catkins are thought to resemble kittens or cat’s paws, according to your fancy. And the word catkin is derived, from the Middle Dutch ‘katteken’ which means kitten.

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The goat willow can grow as a large shrub or tree and it occurs throughout Europe and northern Asia. It can get up to 10 metres in height and prefers damp ground but will tolerate drier conditions than other willows. The leaves which emerge after the catkins are oval with wavy margins, downy white undersides. and a sideways twist to the pointed tip. The foliage was once used as winter feed for cattle.

The bark of the pussy willow is a greyish brown and becomes fissured with age. The timber is too soft for most uses and too brittle for weaving, although travellers would use it for making clothes pegs and also rods for their ‘bender tents’. It does burn well and makes good charcoal. But the greatest benefit to humanity was the discovery of the pain relieving property of the salicylic acid found within its bark. This is true of all the salix (sallow) species and this herbal medicine, in use since antiquity, formed the basis for the development of aspirin.

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Whilst the goat willow may have limited uses for us, it is invaluable to many forms of wildlife. Its early flowering provides a much needed source of pollen when few other flowers are out. It supports a great number of insects, most especially moths such as the sallow kitten, the sallow clearwing and the dusky clearwing. It is also the favoured foodplant for the caterpillar of the beautiful purple emperor butterfly. Our resident willows at The Rec, host a few interesting galls which according to the British Plant Gall Society (Yes, there really is one!) is probably caused by an as yet unknown virus.

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Goat willow or sallow as it was also known, features in our cultural and literary heritage. There is a history of ‘wearing the willow’, usually to mourn a lost lover, as in the 19th century song ‘All around my hat, I will wear the green willow’; a song popularised in the 1970s by the folk rock band, Steeleye Span. The flowering shoots of pussy willow were also traditionally carried into church on the Sunday before Easter, when Christians celebrate Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. The willow was used as a local substitute for the palms which were said to have been scattered in his path. Literary references to sallow include the poem by W.B. Yeats, ‘Down by the Salley [sallow} Gardens” and a mention in John Keats evocative poem ‘To Autumn’ which he wrote in 1819 during a visit to Winchester.

For most of the year pussy willow is a rather unassuming shrubby plant, but it really comes into its own in February and March when it proudly takes centre stage!


With thanks to Denise Long for the Nature Notes and Bruce Larner for the photographs




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