When I think of willows it brings back such happy memories from my childhood. While I was growing up we were lucky enough to have an extended garden that we referred to as ‘The Willow Garden’ because an ornamental golden willow was its focal point and looked so impressive within the space. I spent a lot of time outdoors playing with my sister under the shade of that wonderful tree and fell in love with it.
It’s a beautiful species with pretty catkins. Male catkins (pictured) start off grey, then become bright yellow with pollen – they’re meant to look like a cat’s paws, which is why the goat willow is also known as ‘pussy willow’. Female catkins are longer and green.
Sallow kitten and dusky clearwing moths love to munch on goat willow.
Where can you see it?
Willow can be found in lots of places, including woods, hedgerows and open spaces. You may also spot it in damper spots by the banks of rivers and streams.
Careful, though, different species of willow hybridise easily so you may be looking at a goat willow that has crossed with a grey willow.
Is it easy to identify?
Willows are hairy! Look out for hairs on the red-yellow twigs and for a felty coating of grey hairs under the leaves. If leaves are still on the trees, they tend to be more oval-shaped than other willows.
If the tree is bare, note that the bark is grey-brown in colour, and when it gets older diamond shaped cracks appear.
Why is it valuable to other species?
Moth caterpillars love to munch on goat willow leaves, including the sallow kitten, sallow clearwing, dusky clearwing and lunar hornet clearwing.
It’s also the main food source for the gorgeous purple emperor butterfly and its catkins provide an early source of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects.
Willows are often seen as trees of sadness, especially in poetry and plays (in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia drowned near a willow tree). But in Biblical times they were trees of celebration – I prefer looking at them in this way. It’s a fascinating species and deserves to be adored. Did you know willows were used to relieve pain? It acts much in the same way as aspirin.
Have you always been interested in wildlife?
I am very grateful to my mum and dad as I grew up surrounded by their passion and enthusiastic interest in flora and fauna. When I was younger I often collected ‘families of worms’ in the garden and gave them all names.
Since working with the BBC Natural History Unit on programmes such as Live ‘n’ Deadly and Naomi’s Nightmares of Nature my own love for nature has grown ten-fold.
How can we learn about trees?
To find out about native and non-native trees, get tree identification tips and read the tree stories that have been nominated for the Tree of the Year competition 2018, visit woodlandtrust.org.uk/treeoftheyear.
The expert view
“Most plant species bear hermaphrodite flowers with both male pollen and female ovules, so every plant can set seeds. The goat willow is dioecious – there are separate male and female trees –so both sexes need to grow close together for successful pollination and only half the population can produce seeds. Willows have the same properties as aspirin because their twigs contain acetylysalicylic acid, which is the aspirin molecule.”
Phil Gates is a botanist and Guardian country diarist.