The wonders of willows: A key part of Ireland’s biodiversity

The wonders of willows: A key part of Ireland’s biodiversity
Salix alba ‘Tristis’ is also known as the weeping willow or golden weeping willow. Picture: iStock

Peter Dowdall takes a look at a plant that thrives in damp soil and is a key part of Ireland’s biodiversity

Some plants have perfect flowers and that’s not a personal opinion, more a scientific term. Other plants are either monoecious or dioecious and produce only male or female flowers. That’s not to say that their flowers don’t look perfect in the general meaning of the word.

Rather, the word ‘perfect’ in this instance refers to the fact that they are complete flowers, containing both the male and female flower parts.

Perhaps the plant best known as being dioecious is ilex or holly but there are many others. Ilex plants can be either male or female and for the female to create berries, it’s flowers need to be pollinated so that the seed can be created within the attractive holly berry.

The pollinator, normally a bee, will feed on the pollen-rich male flowers, fly onwards to the female, often lured by the sweet smell of nectar and in the hunt will drop some of the collected pollen within the female flower and the wonder of fertilisation begins, then a seed, covered by a berry and finally a new plant emerges.

It’s truly fascinating when you stop for a moment to think about exactly what’s happening in front of our eyes, every day.

Willows too are dioecious, needing both male and female catkins produced on different plants. Salix caprea or the pussy or goat willow is a very common plant in Ireland being native to here and most of Europe.

It will grow up to 10 metres in height if left unchecked, producing beautiful, soft and furry silvery catkins during late winter. It’s as these catkins open up in early spring that you can spot a male from a female.

The male form will mature to pale yellow at the time of pollen release whilst the females will be green.

All willows thrive in damp and poor soil and are an important part of Ireland’s biodiversity.

They sustain many moths and butterflies, the caterpillars of which feed on their leaves, while bees feast on their pollen as there is little else available to sustain them at that time of the year. In fact, recent studies are proving just how important willow is as a food source for bees.

The species, Salix caprea is most suited to growing in the wild and in the open countryside but for our smaller domestic gardens, there are several hybrids and cultivars available.

Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’ or the Kilmarnock willow is grafted to the top of a straight stem of Salix caprea to create a dense mophead of pendulous branches, what we refer to as the weeping willow.

It depends at what height the plant is grafted to determine its overall dimensions but normally it stays between 2m and 2.5metres in height. Whilst it is deciduous, it is still a great addition to the winter garden as the catkins are really quite special.

The winter sun, lying low in the sky, creates that wonderful light which reflects upon the silvery catkins to create a mystical effect.

The term weeping willow in itself is a good example as to why we use Latin in the world of horticulture.

For you could go out in search of one for a small garden that can take a tree of two-three metres and you could bring home a beautiful specimen of Salix alba ‘Tristis’, also known as the weeping willow or golden weeping willow.

This is another truly beautiful cultivar, breath-taking in maturity but suitable for a small garden it ain’t. No, Salix alba ‘Tristis’ will reach up to 20 metres in height, that’s 60 or 70 feet in old money. Not a tree for all gardens.

But if you do have the space, then look no further for it’s beautiful, bright golden, pendulous stems will drape right down from the main stems to touch the ground creating a perfect silhouette if planted next to a still water pond or lake.

Even without the added dimension of water beneath, a mature specimen is quite simply a living work of art again possessing that mystical, magical quality in appearance.

In Druid mythology, the universe was hatched from two eggs hidden beneath a willow, one became the earth and one became the sun.

Willow, or ‘saille’, is the fourth letter of the Ogham alphabet and willow water which is easily made by immersing willow stems in water is credited with a multitude of benefits as far ranging as helping to root plant cuttings, relieving headaches and even curing psoriasis.

The bark of willow contains high amounts of Indolebutyric Acid (IBA), the hormone used to promote root development in plants and as far back as the first century, it has been used to treat pain.

The Ancient Greeks commonly made poultices and teas containing willow to treat pain and there’s science behind that too as willow contains high amounts of salicin, an anti-inflamatory which is used to create salicylic acid, a key ingredient in modern asprin.

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