Of the many willow species, probably the most familiar is the largest one, the white or weeping willow salix alba, used to make cricket bats. White willow has long, catkin-like flowers unlike the goat or ‘pussy willow ‘ which has furry-like flowers that look like cat’s paws. They’re great trees for wildlife, providing food for bees and moth caterpillars, shelter for bats, small mammals and birds.
Large willows are not suited to small gardens but smaller ones like ‘Kilmarnock ‘, a goat willow grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock, will attract bees too. It can even grow in a pot if well-watered.
There should be plenty of pussy willow furry catkins about right now which also sustain rarities like the purple emperor butterfly. This is the time they are seen developing, the male and female flowers hanging from different trees, the male ones being grey, oval and on the fat side, yellow when ripe and carrying pollen, the females green and longer. The wind does the pollination and the female flowers grow white woolly seeds. Like most willows, they can also lower their branches to the ground where they take root. Our pussy willow is found in scrubland and hedgerows as well as in woods and open ground of the damp sort and beside streams and lakes.
Once associated with celebration, later willow became a symbol of mourning. It may be the origin of words like ‘witch’ and ‘wicked’. Medicines made from willow are recorded on Sumerian clay tablets and Egyptian papyrus. Hippocrates used salicylic tea around 400BC and they crop up in western medicine from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages.