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Tree 21: Goat Willow

Latin name: Salix Caprea
Family: Salicaceae
Origin: Europe and Central and Western Asia
Height: up to 12 metres
Lifespan: up to 300 years
Autumn leaf loss: Deciduous
Gender Type: Dioecious (Male and female flowers on separate trees)

The Goat Willow is so-called because goats have browsed on its leaves for centuries. It’s a very good tree for wildlife, supporting queen bumblebees, tits, and caterpillars of moths and butterflies, including the rare purple emperor butterfly (Apatura iris).

Goat willow trees are seen in hedges where they make good wind-breaks. They are often coppiced as the wood is good for burning. The bark is grey-brown and develops diamond-shaped fissures with age. Twigs are hairy at first but become smooth, and can appear red-yellow in sunlight. In winter the greenish-brown, rounded, hairless buds are pressed close to the twig.

Unlike most other willows, the leaves are oval and the tip often appears bent to one side. They are densely hairy below and slightly hairy above. Catkins appear before the leaves.

In early spring, the catkins develop. Male catkins are grey, stout and oval , looking a bit like a cat’s paw – hence the alternative name ‘pussy willow’. They become bright yellow when ripe with pollen. The female catkins are long and green.

Once pollinated by wind, female catkins develop into woolly seeds. Willows can also propagate themselves by lowering their branches to the ground, where they then develop roots.

Willow has been in use as an anti-inflammatory and fever reducer for thousands of years! Willow’s active substance is salicin, found in the bark. When taken internally, salicin converts to salicylic acid (the precursor of aspirin). Therefore, Goat Willow is an effective remedy for fevers, headaches, digestive disturbances and rheumatic pains. When used externally, it can be very helpful as a disinfectant and astringent in treatments of cuts and sores.

Goat willow is a very useful tree. The wood was used to make charcoal and the shoots can be woven into baskets, hampers and even coffins. It is not a good tree for small gardens as its roots seek water and can break into underground drain pipes.

Willow is one of the trees in the Celtic Tree Zodiac., covering the period April – May. It was seen as a symbol of new life, probably because of the ease with which its shoots can develop roots when resting on the ground.