Willows for wildlife

We all welcome the cheering appearance of early spring flowers and for some of us it’s the bigger and brighter the better with strong yellow daffodils, vivid violet hyacinths and double flowered primulas now available in every colour under the sun.
Others find the subtle beauty of delicate wood anemones and single primroses more appealing and for me there is one flower to which I look forward more than any other.

Our favourite flowers are often those familiar in childhood and this is no exception. Salix caprea better known as pussy willow is one of the first I remember picking just to stroke the furry little buds. I still love to see a tree in full bloom especially on a sunny blue sky day as their silver sheen gleams in the sun and then as the flowers mature and turn to gold the bumble bees can be heard droning in the canopy as they gorge themselves on the pollen.
Like most willows they like plenty of moisture in the soil and so are happy in our heavy clay, but unlike many other willows they don’t outgrow their welcome, remaining a relatively small tree throughout their lives.

Weeping willows, Salix alba ‘Chrysocoma’, are the ones we all know for their dramatic shape, fresh new spring growth and the way their graceful curtains fall over water. But they are much too big for most of our gardens, so an alternative for small spaces, the Kilmarnok willow which is a dwarf weeping version of pussy willow, is often recommended. Try before you buy though and look at a photo of a mature one. Although it does have furry flowers it has none of the grace of the weeping willow and eventually forms a squat congested mushroom of a tree – it's only a personal view but you can tell I’m not a big fan!
Instead I much prefer two relatively small but still elegant willows. Most of us will have room to accommodate one of them and both give year round good value for the space they take up.  Salix exigua, sometime called the coyote willow is fairly tall and upright with typical narrow silver blue leaves. Similar in leaf shape but more grey green in colour and rounded in habit, as wide as it is tall, is Salix eleagnos ‘Angustifolia’. Both are lovely garden worthy plants with fine textured foliage which catches the light and ripples in the slightest breeze.

As early spring begins to break, new foliage creates a soft green haze in the hedgerows, buds burst and pristine leaves start to unfold. Sharp spears of Iris and ornamental grasses pierce through last year’s leaf litter and frilly fern crosiers slowly uncurl. There’s something new to see every day now, look up or look down, the world is once again becoming green.