Once used to produce ancient medical remedies, the eye-catching willow tree helps to combat river-back collapses
Chewing a willow leaf or bark has been a remedy for aches and fever since ancient times: the Greek physician, Hippocrates, wrote about its medicinal properties in the fifth century BC. You may find it easier to take an aspirin – this synthetic version of the active extract of the bark has fewer side effects.
Pollarded willows are a familiar sight along waterways with their knotted trunks surrounded by a halo of young twigs, often in bright colours.
The botanical name, Salix, comes from the Celtic words for near (sal) and water (lis).
The large, spreading roots help to stabilise river banks from erosion and willow spiling is a traditional form of revetment: live willow rods are woven round upright willow posts driven into the bank where erosion and collapse is occurring. In spring, the willow sends out shoots and roots into the bank, holding the soil firm and solving the problem.
Many old and basic crafts have employed the flexible willow osiers (‘withies’), including weaving baskets, fishing traps and wattle fences.
There are hundreds of species of willow in the northern temperate zone, and numerous hybrids are produced naturally as well as being introduced by man, so willows can be difficult to positively identify. The most familiar one, goat willow (Salix caprea), is often found in hedgerows, woodland edges and waste ground. The grey willow (Salix cinerea), which is similar in appearance to goat willow, prefers much damper sites, such as marshes.
Both of these species are known as pussy willows since in early spring the ovoid male catkins are covered in greyish silky hairs. In March and April the flowers burst open revealing bright yellow stamens, providing an eagerly sought supply of nectar and pollen for insects: willows are unusual amongst catkin-bearing trees in being insect-pollinated. Insectivorous birds also know that pussy willow is a good place to find insects in early spring. Skulking under the overhanging willows, you should have no trouble identifying the moorhen with its characteristic bright red shield above its yellow-tipped, bright red bill.
Although its plumage appears black from a distance, it has a dark brown back and wings and a more bluish-black body with white stripes on the flanks and white undertail coverts.
It has a jerky way of swimming on the water and an oddly nervous manner, seeking cover at any hint of danger, but at this time of year it can become quite aggressive as it re-establishes its territory at the start of the breeding season.
Records of the name ‘morhen’ go back to the 13th century, when moor was used in its old sense of marsh. Like hens, moorhens scratch for food on the land and can also perch in trees. They are also known as waterhens, which better describes their habitat. Their widespread, long toes allow them to walk on marshy ground, muddy banks, floating debris and even water lily pads as well as swim in their hunt for food.
Pussy Willow catkins on show
Moorhens on the Stroudwater Canal