Bay willow is a deciduous tree native to northern Europe and northern Asia.
Common name: bay willow
Scientific name: Salix pentandra
UK provenance: native
Interesting fact: the leaves not only resemble those of the bay tree, but they produce a yellow gum, which smells like a bay leaf.
What does bay willow look like?
Overview: bay willow was named because of the similarity of its leaves to the bay tree. Mature trees grow to 18m. The bark is dark grey in colour, with scaly, crossing ridges. Twigs are green-brown, glossy and smooth.
Leaves: the oval leaves are thick, very glossy and dark green, 5-12cm x 2-5cm, with finely serrated margins.
Flowers: bay willow is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are found on separate plants, in late spring, after the leaves. Male catkins are yellow and female catkins are greenish.
Fruits: once pollinated by insects, female catkins develop into a fruit capsule which contains a number of tiny seeds embedded in white down, which aids dispersal by wind.
Look out for: the young leaves are sticky. Older leaves are shiny. Catkins appear after the leaves.
Could be confused with: other willow species which all freely hybridise.
Identified in winter by: the green-brown, narrow buds can be sticky.
Where to find bay willow
It is found growing in the north of the UK in damp situations such as beside streams and rivers, wet woodland and in boggy ground. It is occasionally planted as an ornamental tree in southern England.
Value to wildlife
Caterpillars of a number of moth species feed on the foliage, including Ectoedemia intimella. The catkins provide an important source of early nectar and pollen for bees and other insects.
Mythology and symbolism
All willows were seen as trees of celebration in biblical times, but this changed over time and today willows are more associated with sadness and mourning. Willow is often referred to in poetry in this way, and is depicted as such in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with Ophelia drowning near a willow tree. In northern areas, willow branches are used instead of palm branches to celebrate Palm Sunday.
How we use bay willow
Traditionally willows were used to relieve pain, and the painkiller Asprin is derived from salicin, a compound found in the bark of all Salix species. The bay willow’s glossy leaves make it more decorative than many other willows, so it is often planted as an ornamental tree.
Bay willow may be susceptible to watermark disease.