Dirty aul’ sallies

Outdoor Living

SPRING FEED A queen bumblebee foraging on willow. Pic: Oliver Whyte

The amazing life-giving world of the oft-underrated willow

In the garden
Oliver Whyte

A man once advised me to ‘get rid of those good for nothin’ dirty aul’ sallies’. He was referring to young willow trees – a very important native pioneer tree species. Pioneer species are those that colonise an ecosystem early and greatly improve the ground for the next wave of ecosystem inhabitants.
Willows are fast growing hardy trees that thrive in damp soils. A mature grey or goat willow will grow to 10 to 20m (30 to 60 feet) in height and live for 300 years. As can be seen along the Westport Quay Greenway, willow is unique in being our only native tree that can grow permanently in water without dying. (Alder can exist in water for six months.)
Willow bark contains a natural rooting compound (indolebutyric acid), which is why simply cutting off a branch and placing it into moist soil will grow a new tree. Soaking willow cuttings in water creates a natural rooting solution which can be used to stimulate root growth in other plants. Some synthetic commercial rooting powders contain toxic compounds, so it is good to know a natural and cost-effective alternative is easily created.
The practical uses for willow are many – it is a fast-growing biomass for fuel, it is used to weave baskets, its bark contains salicin, an aspirin-type compound historically used for pain relief. Willow has also been used historically to construct the harp.
Willows also make hardy and fast growing wind shelter belts in gardens and farms, reducing wind chill and storm damage. They stabilise water banks and control soil erosion and flooding. They’re even good for farm animals: Willow’s tannin rich forage slows protein digestion, reducing bloat in livestock, and protects animals from gut parasites such as sheep nematode.
Amazingly willow aids neighbouring trees and plants by sharing its salicin through its root system to help fight infections, such as apple scab. And of course willow’s nefarious historic use was that of educational motivator in the form of the much feared ‘sally rod’.  

Species supporter
Our commonest willow species in Ireland are the Goat willow (Salix caprea) and the very similar Grey willow (Salix cinerea). The easiest way to distinguish the two species is by their leaves – the goat having rounder leaves with a curled leaf tip.
Willow is one of the most important trees in a wildlife garden. Willow comes in a very close second place in supporting almost the same number of insect species (266) as the mighty oak and is a critical part of our native wildlife ecosystems. Willow leaves are eaten by caterpillars of several moth and other insect species. Many of these caterpillars are in turn essential food sources for birds – in a way willows produce baby birds!  
Hairy ‘catkins’ containing pollen and nectar emerge in early spring and are a very important first food source for a range of insects emerging after a long winter. Many a queen bumblebee can be seen on the willow before her workers have hatched to take over foraging duties. Willow trees are about now buzzing with emerging queen bumblebees, honey bees, a range of solitary bees and many other essential insects.

Bee bliss
Later, in May, the willow seeds will be seen as airborne fluff drifting through the air. Pioneer tree seeds such as those from alder, birch, and willow tend to be very small as they have little competition when they arrive on poor fertility terrain. They do not need large energy stores to battle against dense competition.
A recent outing to Kilsallagh revealed an impressive mature grey willow tree humming with a platoon of queen bumblebees (see photo). This one tree must have been responsible for ensuring the survival of thousands of bee colonies for over more than a hundred years. ‘Kilsallagh’ is written as Coill Salach, which translates to ‘dirty wood’. The vast concentration of willow trees in this area makes me wonder if its true name may actually be Coill Saileach – willow wood?
And so after rejecting contempt and ignorance associated with this wonderful tree, we will, with great pleasure, be adding lots of dirty aul’ sallies to our wildlife garden.

Oliver Whyte’s garden, Coill an Chúir at Sandyhill in Westport, is a member of the Clew Bay Garden Trail. A chain of beautiful and unique private gardens, the trail opens to the public during summer to raise funds for charity (see www.clewbaygardentrail.ie for more). Each month, an article by a trail member will appear in these pages.