Willow, grey (Salix cinerea subsp. oleifolia)

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Grey willow is very similar to goat willow, with which it often hybridises. It is also known as common sallow.

Common name: grey willow

Scientific name: Salix cinerea subsp. oleifolia
Family: Salicaceae

UK provenance: native

Interesting fact: grey willow and other broader-leafed species of willow (including goat willow) are sometimes referred to as 'sallows'. Goat willow is known as ‘great sallow’ and grey willow as ‘common sallow’. Both species are also sometimes called 'pussy willow' after the silky grey female flowers, which resemble a cat's paws.

What does grey willow look like?

Overview:. mature trees grow to 10m. The bark is grey-brown and develops diamond-shaped fissures with age. Twigs are hairy at first but become smooth, and can appear red-yellow in sunlight.

Leaves: unlike most willows, the leaves are oval rather than long and thin. However, unlike goat willow, the leaves are at least twice as long as they are wide. They have a fine silver felt underneath (hence its name) with rusty hairs beneath the veins.

Flowers: grey willow is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers grow on separate trees, in early spring. Male catkins are grey, stout and oval, which become yellow when ripe with pollen. Female catkins are longer and green.

Fruits: once pollinated by wind, female catkins develop into woolly seeds. Most willows can also propagate themselves by lowering their branches to the ground, which then develop roots. 

Look out for: the young leaves are hairy but become hairless above and only sparsely hairy underneath, quickly as they age.

Could be confused with: there are several native willow species in the UK and many hybridise with one another, making them hard to identify. Grey willow often hybridises with the goat willow (Salix caprea), to which it is closely related.

Identified in winter by: red hairless narrow buds are pressed close to the twig.

Where to find grey willow

Like goat willow, it grows in woodland and hedgerows, as well as damp areas such as near canals, rivers and streams. It is native to Europe and western Asia.

Value to wildlife

Grey willow foliage is eaten by caterpillars of a number of moths, including the sallow kitten, sallow clearwing, dusky clearwing and lunar hornet clearwing. It is also a food plant for the purple emperor butterfly.

Catkins provide an important early source of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects, and birds use grey willow to forage for caterpillars and other insects. 

Mythology and symbolism

All willows were seen as trees of celebration in biblical times, but this changed over time and today willows are more associated with sadness and mourning. Willow is often referred to in poetry in this way, and is depicted as such in Shakespeare's Hamlet, with Ophelia drowning near a willow tree. In northern areas, willow branches are used instead of palm branches to celebrate Palm Sunday.

How we use grey willow

Traditionally willows were used to relieve pain, and the painkiller Aspirin is derived from salicin, a compound found in the bark of all Salix species.

Threats

Grey willow trees are susceptible to watermark disease.

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