Willow, goat (Salix caprea)

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Goat willow is a deciduous broadleaf tree native to the UK, most of Europe and parts of Asia.

Common name: goat willow, pussy willow

Scientific name: Salix caprea
Family: Salicaceae

UK provenance: native

Interesting fact: goat willow and other broader-leafed species of willow (including grey 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 male flowers, which resemble a cat's paws. 

What does goat willow look like?

Overview: mature trees grow to 10m and can live for 300 years. 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. They are hairless above, but with a felty coating of fine grey hairs underneath, and have a pointed tip which bends to one side. 

Flowers: goat 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 tips of the leaves often appear bent to one side and are densely hairy below and slightly hairy above. Catkins appear before the leaves.

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

Identified in winter by: the greenish-brown rounded hairless buds are only slightly pressed close to the twig.

Where to find goat willow

It is found growing in woodland, hedgerows and scrub, and on damper, more open ground such as near lakes, streams and canals.

Value to wildlife

Goat 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 the main 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 goat 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 goat willow

Goat willow timber is soft and yellow in colour. Unlike most willows, its brittle twigs are not suitable for weaving, but traditional uses for its wood included clothes pegs, while the foliage was used as a winter feed for cattle. The wood also burns well and makes a good fuel. 

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

Threats

White willow is fast-growing, but quite short-lived as trees are susceptible to watermark disease and willow anthracnose.

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