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The wonder of willow

Outdoor Living

SPARE THE SALLY ROD Ireland has the perfect climate for fast-growing willows also, known as sallys, including Goat, Rusty, Grey, Bay and Eared Willows.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

When we woke at first light it was to a snowstorm. At least, that was the impression we got. But after rubbing our eyes in disbelief we realised what we were looking at – the airborne seeds of willow, which were being released en masse, by the hundreds of thousands or even by the million.
Willow seedlings have the habit of popping up everywhere, and no wonder. Each tiny seed is surrounded by a light pillow of soft down, that when caught by the wind might travel huge distances before coming to earth. If they land in a suitable spot they will quickly germinate and before we know it we have a fledgling forest springing up around our feet.
The willow is nature’s own way of reforesting. Not only does one tree produce an immense quantity of seed which is dispersed over a wide area, that same tree is hard at work in other ways that we don’t give much heed to.
Let’s follow one seed as it drifts on the breeze, over the tall beeches, across the fen and over the lake, where it finally comes to rest on wet soil at the edge of the bog. Within days it has germinated, along with countless others. Most of these will be eaten by sheep or insects, but our seedling is overlooked and soon grows a woody stem and its first generation of leaves.
When autumn swings around these leaves fall to the ground and make a tiny contribution to the humus layer, which immediately improves the soil quality to promote more vigorous growth the following spring. As our seedling becomes a sapling the quantity of leaves deposited each year continues to increase and the soil grows progressively richer.
At the same time, specialised bacteria are harboured within nodules attached to the root structure of our young willow. These bacteria take nitrogen from the air, where it is inaccessible to plants, and fix it into the soil, from where it can be harnessed by the roots and utilised to promote plant growth. So as our sapling becomes a young tree it is continually improving and conditioning the soil.
Before long it becomes a roosting place for small seed-eating birds like finches and thrushes. These bring a variety of seeds in their gut and deposit them at the foot of the willow, where they also germinate in that finely prepared ground.
By the time the willow is reaching the end of its life at 60 or 70 years of age, another generation of fruiting shrubs and small trees is ready to take over. Among these are blackthorn, hawthorn and buckthorn, spindle, crab apple, mountain ash and others, all of which continue to add years of leaf mould to the ground beneath them.
If we jump forward another 30 or 40 years we find these producing an abundance of fruit and berries, which will obviously attract more birds. Among the birds that come to feed will be the colourful jay, a member of the crow family that will perform a specialist role.
The jay has a large pouch at the base of its throat, that it uses to carry food from one place to another. One of its favourite foods is the fruit of the oak tree, the acorn. Jays harvest many more acorns than they can possibly eat. What do they do with them? They hide them away. We imagine they store them in case harder times should lie ahead.
And where do they hide them? At least some are placed in the ground at the base of the fruiting trees that now grow where our willow seedling first took root. While most of these acorns are taken by rodents and perhaps a few are reclaimed by the birds that placed them there, at least some will germinate in soil that has been enriched by a century’s worth of compost and that is sheltered by the trees that surround it – just perfect.
By the time our new oak trees are towering above the fruiting thorns, these latter will be reaching the end of their productive lives. When they die they leave the beginnings of an oak forest behind them.
Given enough time, Ireland would once more be clothed with oak. Left to itself, nature would do the job in a couple of generations. Let’s help.Come on, get your acorns, let’s go plant trees.