White willow is a deciduous broadleaf tree native to the UK and Europe, through to western and central Asia.
Common name: white willow
Scientific name: Salix alba
UK provenance: native
Interesting fact: the cricket bat willow is a hybrid of the white willow and crack willow. As its names suggests, it is used to make cricket bats.
What does white willow look like?
Overview: mature trees grow to 25m and often have an irregular, leaning crown. The bark is grey-brown and develops deep fissures with age, and twigs are slender, flexible and grey-brown. Its name is derived from the white appearance of the undersides of the leaves.
Leaves: the slender, oval leaves are paler than most other willow due to a felty covering of fine, silky white hairs on the underside.
Flowers: white willow is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Catkins appear in early spring – male catkins are 4-5 cm long and female catkins are 3-4 cm long.
Fruits: after pollination by insects, the female catkins lengthen and develop small capsules, each containing minute seeds encased in white down, which aids dispersal by wind.
Look out for: the leaves are hairy all over at first then, as they age remain downy underneath and sparsely hairy on the top.
Could be confused with: other willow species which all freely hybridise.
Identified in winter by: green to yellow-brown hairy narrow buds are pressed close to the twig.
Where to find white willow
Like most willows, trees are found growing in wet ground such as river and stream sides.
Value to wildlife
Caterpillars of a number of moth species feed on the foliage, including the puss moth, willow ermine, eyed hawk-moth and red underwing. The catkins provide an important source of early nectar and pollen for bees and other insects, and the branches make good nesting and roosting sites for birds.
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 white willow
Willows are prized for their slender, flexible stems, which have been used for many years to weave baskets and ‘cribs’ for animal food. Larger stems were traditionally used to make small sailing boats.
White willow is fast-growing, but quite short-lived as trees are susceptible to watermark disease.