The wonder of Willows

So, we find ourselves in May – the ‘business end’ of the spring, as I like to think of it. Business, or rather busyness, is certainly the order of the day just now, with wildlife everywhere gearing up for the breeding season and the endlessly long days of summer to come. We may still be in lockdown, but the natural world around us is in full throttle.

Particularly prominent in the garden at the moment are Bumblebees, droning among the shrubs in search of nectar and pollen from dawn till dusk each day. However, their favourite food source here isn’t the host of yellow Daffodils in the borders, nor the golden flowers of the Kingcups clustered around the pond. Instead, they make a beeline (literally) for the Willows standing along the back fence, which are currently laden with yellow-green catkins.These trees are unsung heroes when it comes to providing early-season sustenance for our insects.

Bumblebee on willow catkin

This got me thinking and marvelling about Willows in general. These are a massively diverse family of trees, with around 400 species known to occur throughout their natural range in the northern hemisphere. They grow everywhere from the seashore to the tree-line up in the mountains. They survive in almost every type of habitat, from dry sandy coastal heath to permanently wet marshland. Some are mighty, magnificent trees, while others barely grow as high as your bootlaces. Willows are a wonderful example of the planet’s biological diversity.

Goat Willow catkins (I think!)

Of course, with 400 species to choose from, identifying willows to species is far from straightforward. To further complicate matters, many of them freely hybridise, producing offspring that are neither one species nor the other. One thing they all have in common, though, is their reproductive strategy – all willows are dioecious, meaning that each plant is either male or female. Of the two photos above, the top one shows the catkins of a female plant, and the lower one those of a male plant.

After the catkins come the leaves, and the photo below is how some of our local willows are beginning to look just now.

Willows coming into leaf

As well as reproducing from seed, Willows have a remarkable propensity to grow from cuttings, or even from broken branches lying on the ground. At home in our garden, most of our Willows originate from cuttings taken off the hedge outside the Forvie Centre. Just strip a bit of bark off each one, poke them in the ground, give them a good watering and off they go.

These willows were all grown from cut sticks

On the Reserve, one of the commonest species present is the Creeping Willow. it can be found all along the Heath Trail and along the shore of Sand Loch. Like its full-sized relatives, this diminutive tree also produces catkins…

…but the photo probably doesn’t do justice to its size, so here’s a finger for scale!

Later on in the year, when it acquires its silvery-green leaves, it looks a bit more familiar. But it’s easy to walk past it (or indeed on it) and not realise it’s actually a tree. This species is typical of northern latitudes, where growing seasons are short and conditions harsh, and it survives in places where other trees simply wouldn’t be able to.

Creeping Willow in leaf

Elsewhere on the Reserve, the larger Willow species form clumps of scrub on the moor, often in the wetter areas. These clumps provide a refuge for Roe Deer during the day, a nesting site for breeding birds in summer, and a service station for migrating birds in spring and autumn.

Willow scrub on Forvie Moor
Roe Deer – often found in the scrub during the daylight hours

It would be possible to write an almost endless piece on the species that survive, thrive and depend on Willows. Some even bear their name, so strong is the association – the Willow Warbler and the Willow Beauty moth are two that instantly spring to mind. But what about us as a species? How do we interact with these remarkable trees? Do most of us ever even come into contact with them? Basically, yes. Consider the following (deep breath now)…

Willow bark contains salicylic acid (the scientific name for Willow is Salix). This is the active ingredient in aspirin, and in days of old, people would have chewed Willow bark to stave off a headache or other complaint. The chemical compound in question forms the basis of many medicines we know today. Meanwhile, many people did (and still do) use wicker baskets – made from Willow twigs – for carrying their washing or firewood. Speaking of which, it also makes decent if somewhat lightweight firewood, and can be harvested on rotation in a coppice system owing to its fast growth rate; a truly sustainable fuel. It’s the timber of choice for making cricket bats, so any readers fond of a bit of Test Match Special also owe this to the humble Willow. And for those of an artistic bent, some of the world’s finest artists’ charcoal also comes from Willows.

What’s not to like?

Willows – a wonder of the natural world

1 thought on “The wonder of Willows

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