Pussy willow

The Goat willow (Salix caprea) is also commonly known as ‘pussy willow’, as the fluffy male catkins on the willow can look like cat’s paws.

Other name for the goat willow are the Great Sallow, Sally, Black Sally, and the Palm willow.

Given from what I have observed, I have concluded that this tree is a goat willow. I may, however, be wrong as this willow is very similar to others within the Salix genus, particularly with the catkins. Especially as during this time of year (April time), when the leaves are starting to form, and differ to what descriptions and example pictures may give. If anything, this may have been a grey willow (Salix cinerea), or even a mix of both, as these two trees can often hybridise.

The goat willow is one of the UK’s commonest willows, and grows on wet, neutral, and lime-rich soils. It can also grow on drier soils than other willows. S. caprea can be found annually in ditches, reedbeds, wet woodlands, and on urban waste grounds.

Goat willows are deciduous shrubs, or small trees which can grow up to 10 m tall. Their bark is usually smooth and grey, but on younger branches, it is more of a red-brown and is shiny. The buds are yellow with pointed reddish tips, and, compared to other willows, are more oval in shape, and broader. Older goat willows have more brittle branches, and have cracked bark near its base.

Unlike other willows, S. caprea has leaves that are oval, rather than long and thin. These leaves tend to grow up to 12 cm long, and are a dull, dark-grey green on top. They are also hairless on top, but have a fine coating of grey hairs, which gives them a felty feel, underneath. The leaf margin is wavy and bluntly toothed, and the shortly pointed leaf tip is usually curled.

The goat willow produces flowers that are arranged in catkins that are 2-3 cm long. This plant can be described as being dioecious, meaning that the male and female flowers grow on separate trees. These trees rely on both wind and insects for pollination. The male catkins are more grey, stout, and oval at first, but become yellow once ripe with pollen. On the other hand, the female catkins are longer and green. Both these catkins in early Spring.

Goat willow and (presumably) its female flowers. Featured picture (very top) the male catkins.

Once pollinated, the female catkins mature into woolly fruits, which contain many seeds. The woolliness helps the seeds to disperse via wind, giving them the potential to travel far distances. However, only fresh seeds will germinate in moist soils. These fruits are ripe in May-June time.

S. caprea has a major value to wildlife, with the leaves providing as a food source for numerous moth caterpillars, including the sallow kitten (Furcula furcula), sallow clearwing (Synanthedon flaviventris), dusky clearwing (Paranthrene tabaniformis), and the lunar hornet clearwing (Sesia bembeciformis). This tree is also the main food source for the purple emperor butterfly (Apatura iris).

As for the catkins, they provide an early pollen and nectar source for bees and other insects. Birds also use the goat willow to forage for caterpillars and insects.

Due to the brittleness of the goat willow’s branches, they are unsuitable for weaving, unlike the other willow species’ branches. However, the wood does burn well, making them a common use as fuel, and for artists charcoal.

Many members of the Salix genus contain the compound salicin, within their bark. This lead to the willows to be traditionally used to relieve pain associated with headaches and toothaches. The painkiller aspirin also derives from this salicin compound.

During biblical times, willows were seen as trees of celebration. Nowadays, willows are more associated with sadness and mourning, and this is commonly seen in poetry. One such example is in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, where (spoiler alert) Orphelia drowns near a willow tree.

During Palm Sunday, in the north of the UK, willow branches are often used as a substitute for palm branches during this celebration. Also hence the goat willow’s alternate name, the ‘Palm willow’.

Unfortunately, like the other willows, S. caprea is prone to the watermark disease caused by the bacteria, Brenneria salicis. The disease can lead to affected branches dying back, and red leaves developing in parts of the crown area. This can be fatal for the tree if left untreated.

Resources:

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/trees-and-shrubs/goat-willow

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/a-z-of-british-trees/goat-willow/

https://treegrowing.tcv.org.uk/identify/goatwillow