The humble willow has many qualities

April 12th, 2017 5:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

Catkins on a willow branch in a local wood.

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I’VE been given a lovely present of four young willows for my garden. I love these trees, they provide so much sustenance to wildlife and are very pretty too. And they can certainly be described as native, being one of the first plants to colonise this island after the last ice age.

There are so many types of willow now in Ireland that it’s almost impossible to differentiate between them and there are a variety of hybrids too. They are most obvious in springtime when the fuzzy grey catkins turn to gold.

Pussy willows, or sallows, grow in water-logged ground but some grow in drier woodland, hedgerows and scrub. They are small, rounded, quietly beautiful trees with broader leaves than many other willows.

Like all in the willow family, pussy willows bear male and female flowers on separate trees. The grey willow catkins are the emerging flowers of the male tree and the catkins turn golden yellow as their anthers mature.

Female pussy willows have less conspicuous catkins that become woolly as they mature. They do not dangle like other willows. The female catkins are mainly pollinated by insects; bees being their primary visitors. When the fruits ripen and split open, hundreds of seeds emerge – each with long silver-white hairs – which are then blown around the countryside.

The light fluffy hairs of the catkins gave rise to the name ‘pussy willow’  because they are similar to the hairs on a young cat. 

Goat willow is the most common type of pussy willow found in Ireland. It grows in all types of soil, by ponds and streams, in woods and on wasteland. It is cut down so often that it seldom has the opportunity to reach its full potential height of around 10m (33ft). The soft, rounded leaves are grey, with whitish downy undersides.

The grey willow is another Irish native pussy willow. It’s a smaller bushy tree found on both limey and acidic soils. Its leaves are narrower and harder to the touch than those of the goat willow and its male catkins are also paler.

The eared willow grows as a slight bushy tree in damp woods and near streams. It’s also called the wrinkled-leaved sallow. These three species of willow support over 200 species. My sister had a pussy willow in her garden that was covered with hawk moth caterpillars each year. Willows also help to stabile the edges of streams and rivers, protecting them from erosion and aiding in flood prevention. 

From Neolithic times, willows have been used in boat building, thatching, wattle fencing and hedging and every type of basket making. It’s an easy plant to coppice and it was harvested accordingly. There was once an osiery on the site now occupied by the West Cork Hotel in Skibbereen.

Willows are used by gardeners to make ‘fedges’ or living fences as well as ‘willow tea’ which helps to generate growth in plants.

Bitter infusions of willow bark were used as an old cure for chills and rheumatism. In the early 19th century the active ingredient, salicylic acid (also found in meadowsweet) was isolated. This ultimately led to the creation of what we now know as Aspirin.

And today we have a new use for this wonder tree as ‘biomass’ for woodchip burning. New varieties of willow are being propagated for use as such. Because they absorb carbon dioxide from the air and require very little spraying or fertiliser, they are regarded as environmentally friendly and a sustainable energy source. 


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