Goat Willow Seedling (Salix caprea)

Goat Willow Catkins

With tree identification, we often focus on the key identification factors that appear at different times of the year, the different stages dependent upon the season. For a mature tree, these can be obvious, less so in a seedling. Hence the Goat Willow seedling made it to the collection of uncertainties at the recent training weekend.

As we were looking at this, Jason told us a story of a “D’oh” moment. When looking particularly at the smaller plants of the forest floor, he was looking at a plant with two oval leaves, with slightly pointed tips in a pair on opposite sides of the stem. Not instantly obvious, until his “D’oh” moment, where was he stood? In a predominantly beech wood, and what he had was the first growth of a beech seedling. The confusion arose due to the position of the two leaves, not with the leaves arranged alternately along the twig, forming distinct angles as would appear on a more mature plant.

Beech seedling
Beech seedling.
Beech leaf growth pattern
Beech leaf growth pattern.

The purpose of Jason’s story was to reinforce the journey we are all on, not to judge ourselves by another’s abilities to identify plants (or animals’ tracks, or bird songs etc) but rather to know where we are now, and make sure we are improving our skills. I didn’t feel so bad not being able to identify the Goat Willow seedling!

How were we able to identify this one?  
Initial indicators were the leaves, unlike most willows, the leaves are oval rather than long and thin. They are slightly glossy, hairless above, but with a felty coating of fine grey hairs underneath, which has predominant veins. The leaf ends with a pointed tip which bends to one side. The leaf margins are wavy and bluntly toothed. Positioned alternately on the twig.

Goat Willow leaves
Goat Willow leaves.

The young twigs were red-brown, shiny, thin and flexible, the bark of the main stem smooth.  (On the seedling, but the trunk will become grey to black-grey and fissured with age and brittle branches). The sample was collected on the central part of a vehicle track in the forest, fulfilling its natural habitat of sun to slight shade. It often forms part of the understorey in oak woodlands, as in this case, but prefers open areas. The Goat Willow will flourish in drier soils than other willows, but it won’t tolerate very dry soil. The weather had been mainly dry for several weeks, yet the ground under the canopy was still damp.

The inner wood was very soft, yellowish-white and the heartwood brown.

And finally, with Jason’s story in mind, the other factor includes the Derbyshire wood has many Goat Willow trees!

If we were looking at a more mature specimen, there would be other indicators depending upon the seasons.

Goat Willow – also known as Great Sallow or Pussy Willow (the male catkins look like a cat’s paws). The buds are the greenish-brown, rounded, hairless, slightly pressed close to the twig, oval, broader compared to other willows with pointed reddish tips. The tree has downy flower buds in early spring. The flowers are arranged in catkins 2-3 cm long. They appear before the leaves on separate male and female trees in March or April. Unlike the catkins of birch or alder, they do not hang downwards but are upright. Male catkins are oval, grey and furry at first, turning golden yellow later. Female catkins are longer, a silvery green and more slender. Female catkins turn into the fruits, which are silver-green at first, then woolly.

Goat Willow Catkins
Goat Willow Catkins.

Seeds are produced in very large numbers, with hairs on them to help dispersion by the wind and are ripe in May-June.

The Goat willow is a deciduous shrub or small tree, usually 6-15m tall and can live for 300 years. It is branched from the bottom with a rounded crown.

Like several willow species native to the UK, Goat Willow often hybridises with the Grey Willow (Salix cinerea) making them harder to identify.

Goat willow timber is soft and yellow in colour. Unlike most willows, its brittle twigs are not suitable for weaving. The wood burns well, but it has a tendency to ‘spit’, makes a good fuel and charcoal. The wood was used for making clothes pegs, and some tool handles. Sallow wood was often used to make ‘wattle’ – a woven lattice of wooden strips which formed the framework of the walls of houses.

Traditionally, willows were used to relieve pain associated with a headache or toothache, and the painkiller aspirin is derived from salicin, a compound found in the bark of all Salix species. In medieval times, in many parts of Europe, the bark was chewed to release the salicin.

The bark was also boiled in water and the liquor drunk to relieve diarrhoea, help reduce joint inflammation in arthritis and as a gargle for sore throats. Externally, the liquor was used to stop bleeding, clean wounds and to treat general aches and pains.

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