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Quick facts

Common name: crack willow

Scientific name: Salix fragilis

Family: Salicaceae

Origin: non-native

The crack willow is hard to tell apart from the white willow. Mature trees grow to 25m. The bark is dark brown and develops deep fissures with age, and twigs are slender, flexible, shiny and yellow-brown.

Look out for: mature leaves which are hairless and shiny on top and sparsely hairy below. Catkins appear before the leaves.

Identified in winter by: the twigs which are brittle and make a 'crack' sound when snapped. Yellow-brown, hairless, narrow buds are pressed close to the twig.

What does crack willow look like?

crack willow single leaf on white background

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

Leaves

The oval leaves are similar to those of the white willow, being long and slender, dark green above and light green below. However the leaves of the crack willow are shorter than those of the white willow, and they do not have a covering of fine, silky white hairs on the underside.

crack willow male catkin

Credit: Floralimages / Alamy Stock Photo

Flowers

The crack willow is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are found on separate trees. The catkins flower in May – the male’s being yellow and the female’s green.

willow seed dispersal

Credit: Terry Whittaker 2020 VISION / naturepl.com

Fruits

After pollination by bees, the female catkins transform into woolly white seeds which are dispersed by wind.

Not to be confused with:

Other willow species which all freely hybridise. Crack willow often hybridises with white willow (Salix alba).

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Where to find crack willow

Crack willow is spread across the UK and native to Europe and Western Asia. It is often found growing alongside rivers, lakes and watercourses and is regularly planted to stabilise banks and dykes.

Value to wildlife

Caterpillars of a number of moth species feed on the foliage, including the puss moth, eyed hawk-moth and red underwing. The catkins provide an important source of early nectar and pollen for bees and other insects, and the branches make good nesting and roosting sites for birds.

Mythology and symbolism

All willows were trees of celebration in biblical times, but this changed over time and today willows are more associated with sadness and mourning. In northern areas, willow branches are used instead of palm branches to celebrate Palm Sunday.

Uses of crack willow

Willows are prized for their slender, flexible stems which have been used for many years to weave baskets and 'cribs' for animal food. Larger stems were traditionally used to make small sailing boats.

Threats and conservation

Like other willows, crack willow is susceptible to watermark disease caused by the bacteria Brenneria salicis. Over time, this leads to affected branches dying back and red leaves developing in the crown. If left untreated, the tree can die.