Once used to pro­duce an­cient med­i­cal reme­dies, the eye-catch­ing wil­low tree helps to com­bat river-back col­lapses

Canal Boat - - Contents -

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

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