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The White Willow Tree

Despite being associated with sadness in literature and language, the willow is a resilient tree with a rich history.

| January 2019

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

In wet soil, the willow is ludicrously easy to propagate: cut a stem, pop it in wet ground and … er … that’s it. The roots and suckers spread widely and make a beeline for water, a talent that can cause havoc when a willow explores the tiniest leaks in pipes and sewers and then infiltrates, expands and clogs. By a riverbank, however, the willow’s mass of tangled roots prevents erosion and provides shelter for wildlife.

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

There are about 450 species of willow, widespread across Europe, and the frequent intermarriage between them means they have much in common and are easily distinguished as a group. Mature white willows can reach 30 metres (98 feet) tall with graceful foliage but sometimes lopsided crowns. The leaves are long and narrow, initially velvety on both sides but tending to lose their nap on the upper surface as they mature, giving the tree a silvery-grey appearance from afar, hence the common name. The flowers, borne on slender catkins in early spring, are especially striking since they appear before the leaves. Looking like long, fluffy caterpillars with a dusting of egg-yolk-yellow pollen, they are particularly attractive to both bees and flower-arrangers.

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

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