Goat willow is a familiar and widespread shrub found on the margins of ponds, lakes, streams, canals, rivers and damp woodlands all over the British Isles. It often owes its survival as a wild tree to the inaccessibility of its natural seedbeds. Its tiny wind-borne seeds can sprout on a soft bog where animals cannot tread, or on a shingle bank or overhanging rock face that animals cannot reach. When it springs up on bare earth or gravel elsewhere it is very apt to be cropped back by a sheep, cow or horse. Livestock find its leaves and young shoots palatable, and it Is called Goat willow because a goat was drawn, browsing it in the first known illustration of this species.
The leaves of Goat willow are oval in outline, with well marked veins; they open early in the spring. The catkins are rounded and showy as they open before the leaves, in late March. They are often gathered for decoration. In many districts they are known as 'palm,' because they are sometimes used to ornament churches on Palm Sunday, instead of real eastern palm leaves. [Book of Leviticus, chapter 23, verse 40: 'And ye shall take on the firsttiay the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook.']
Winter twig of Goat willow, bearing leaf and shoot buds (life size), with a single bud (XS).
Winter twig of Goat willow, bearing the larger catkin buds, ready to burst into flower in spring (Xj) with a single bud (X4).
Goat willows in full bloom.
Left: flowering twig from female tree (Xj), Right- flowering twig from male tree (x|).
Lower left: single male flower with hairy bract, two stamens, and basal nectary (xs).
Lower right single female flower, with hairy bract, stalked, two-stigmaed ovary, and basal nectary (XS). Late March.
This Goat willow is typical of a group of similar shrubs found in various parts of Britain. Its twigs are rather brittle and it has no value for basketry, while it is always too small to be useful as timber. Gypsies, however, once made willow branchwood into clothes pegs.
Other shrub willows, such as the Common osier. Saiix vimin-alis, have tough and supple branches and are cultivated to supply basket rods. The best willows for this purpose are, however, varieties of S. triandra which are always grown on the best agricultural soil, both well drained and well watered. Stools are established by setting out cuttings every 35cm in rows 65cm apart Each year these stools send up clusters of very long thin shoots. These rods are cut off at the base in autumn, and the crop is renewed naturally by fresh shoots for several years before the stools and the soil are exhausted. The rods may be used just as gathered, as 'brown willow/ or else be stripped of their bark to give 'white willow,' or boiled with their bark on, before stripping, to give 'buff willow,' coloured by a natural dye in the bark. For fine work they are split into thin bands. They are woven when moist, and set firm as they dry.
Today, extensive willow beds can only be found around Lang-port on the moors of mid-Somerset, but there are smaller ones in coastal districts, used mainly as sources of rods for fish traps and lobster pots.
Goat willow seedling (life size). Note the small paired round seed-leaves and the fact that early true leaves are paired, not alternate.
Leafy twig of female Goat willow bearing fruit in June (life size). Left: single stalked fruit pod splitting from above down and releasing hairy seeds.
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