Salix alba L.

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Article from Bean's Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles

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'Salix alba' from the website Trees and Shrubs Online ( Accessed 2024-07-17.


Common Names

  • White Willow


Lying flat against an object.
Lacking hairs smooth. glabrescent Becoming hairless.
Native to an area; not introduced.
Lance-shaped; broadest in middle tapering to point.
Gland or surface from which nectar is secreted.
Lowest part of the carpel containing the ovules; later developing into the fruit.
Lacking a stem or stalk.
Generally an elongated structure arising from the ovary bearing the stigma at its tip.


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Article from Bean's Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles

Recommended citation
'Salix alba' from the website Trees and Shrubs Online ( Accessed 2024-07-17.

A tree up to 90 ft high in Britain (very rarely taller), of elegant habit, branches ascending at a fairly steep angle, pendulous at the ends; bark shallowly fissured; twigs at first grey with silky down, slowly becoming glabrous and brown; buds flattened, appressed. Leaves lanceolate, 112 to 312 in. long, 14 to 58 in. wide, much tapered at both ends, very finely toothed, permanently covered beneath with silky down, less so above; stalk 18 to 12 in. long. Catkins appearing with the leaves on short leafy laterals, dense, cylindric, more or less erect, about 112 in. long; scales yellowish, deciduous, downy at the base and on the margins; axis downy. Male flowers with two, rarely three stamens, filaments united at the base, hairy in the lower part; nectaries two. Female flowers with a single nectary; ovary glabrous, almost sessile; style short, the stigmas two-lobed or merely notched.

Native of Europe and W. Asia; widely distributed in the British Isles, though not genuinely indigenous throughout its range. It varies considerably in the colours of the leaves and young shoots, some being much more silvery than others. Its timber was at one time put to many uses. ‘In the roofs of houses, rafters of this tree have been known to stand a hundred years… . The wood is also used in turnery, mill-work, coopery, weather-boarding, &c; and the stronger shoots and poles serve for making hoops, handles to hay-rakes, clothes-props… . The bark, which is thick, and full of cracks, is in nearly as great repute for tanning as that of the oak; and it is also used in medicine, in the cure of agues, as a substitute for cinchona… . The charcoal is excellent for use in the manufacture of gunpowder, and for crayons.’ (Loudon, Arb. et Frut. Brit., Vol. III, p. 1525 (1838)).


A golden-leaved clone.


First-year stems bright red in winter, likened in the original description to those of ‘Cornus sibirica’. Leaves about {7/8} in. wide. Raised from seed by the German nurseryman Späth at Britz near Berlin, and put into commerce in 1878. Male. The cultivar-name. ‘Chermesina’, wrongly used for ‘Britzensis’, derives from S. alba var. chermesina Hartig; the willow so named had carmine-red twigs and was found near Braunschweig in Germany before 1851.Like the var. vitellina this is usually grown for the winter-colour of its stems and therefore pruned hard each spring. Left to itself it makes a tree of narrow habit.

'Caerulea' Cricket Bat Willow

This fine tree, sometimes called the ‘blue willow’, occasionally reaches a height of 100 ft and 15 to 18 ft in girth. It differs from the white willow in its pyramidal growth and erect branching, and by the leaves losing their silky down and becoming glabrous late in the summer, and blue-grey beneath. It is a female clone, which first came to notice at the end of the 18th century, at which time it was, and largely still is, confined to the eastern counties, though whether it originated there is not known. It was named S. caerulea by James Smith and described by him from a tree growing in the collection of Dr James Crowe at Lakenham in Norfolk (Engl. Bot., t. 2431 (1812)). It has been suggested that ‘Caerulea’ is a hybrid between S. alba and S. fragilis, but such an origin would not explain its distinctive characters, and most authorities now accept it as a variant of the white willow.The timber of ‘Caerulea’ is more prized by cricket-bat makers than any other. It grows with extraordinary rapidity in good situations (it likes a stiff, moist, but not waterlogged soil), and, raised from a cutting, will, in twelve or fourteen years, attain a girth of 4 to 5 ft.Botanically, ‘Caerulea’ belongs to var. calva G. F. W. Meyer (S. alba subsp. caerulea (Sm.) Rech. f.), which comprises all forms of S. alba in which the leaves are glabrescent and bluish grey beneath. These are said to occur occasionally with the type on the continent.


Stems coloured as in ‘Britzensis’, but the leaves narrower; it also differs in being a female clone. Cultivated since the 1880s as the Cardinal willow, it is probably older than ‘Britzensis’ (S. alba var. britzensis sens. J. Fraser in part, in Rep. Bot. Exch. Club, Vol. 9 (1930), p. 720; S. cardinalis Hort. ex A. B. Jacks., in Tr. & Shr. at Westonbirt (1927), p. 178).


This was described by the French dendrologist Dode as a male tree with the habit of a Lombardy poplar but broader; the name he chose for it, meaning ‘column of gold’, refers to the colouring of the young stems, which were as golden as in S. alba var. vitellina but red-orange at the tips (Bull. Soc. Dendr. Fr., 1930, p. 93). Plants in commerce as “Chrysostella” may be of this clone, which Dode would certainly have distributed. These, if pruned hard in spring, produce orange-red stems maturing to yellow at the base.


A tree with a well-developed central leader and ascending branches, forming a rather narrowly ovoid crown. Selected in Holland, where it is much planted, and available in Britain. This and other selections of S. alba are described in Dendroflora, No. 6 (1969), pp. 67–74, with a summary in English.

var. sericea Gaudin

Common Names
Silver Willow

S. alba f. argentea Wimm.
S. alba var. splendens (Bray) Anderss.
S. splendens Bray ex Opiz
S. alba f. splendens (Bray) Schneid.
S. alba var. leucophylla Hartig
S. argentea Hort. ex K. Koch
S. regalis Hort. ex K. Koch

This is the most striking of all the forms of S. alba in the intense silvery hue of its leaves, conspicuous in their shining whiteness at long distances. It occurs occasionally in the wild, where it is usually of dwarf stature. Cultivated plants, too, are less robust than the common white willow, and probably belong to one or only a few clones, sometimes distinguished by such epithets as argentea and regalis.

var. vitellina (L.) Stokes

Common Names
Golden Willow

S. vitellina L.
S. alba subsp. vitellina (L.) Arcangeli

Twigs yellow or orange-yellow, the colour brightest in autum and early spring. Leaves rather paler green than those of the white willow, and not so silky-hairy. This variant is not known in the wild (as early as 1623 it was referred to by Caspar Bauhin, the Swiss botanist, as ‘the cultivated golden willow’) but has been widely grown in Europe, possibly since Roman times, for its tough and flexible twigs, once much used for tying and bundling. Being of only second- or third-rate quality for basketry, the golden willow is now chiefly planted in gardens for the fine effect produced in winter by its yellow shoots. For this purpose it is pruned hard every spring so as to develop a low thicket of wands; several plants should be grouped together.The var. vitellina is rather a group of clones than a proper botanical variety. In Britain the clone once commonly planted in osier-beds is female, and is distinguished by rather long and narrow catkin-scales – a character erroneously attributed by some writers to the var. vitellina as a whole. But some at least of the plants grown for ornament are male.

'Vitellina Pendula'

see ‘chrysocoma’ under S. × sepulcralis.

'Vitellina Tristis'

A semi-pendulous form of S. alba var. vitellina received by the botanist Seringe from Baumann’s nursery in Alsace a few years before 1815. For the S. alba ‘Tristis’ of some continental works of dendrology, see ‘Chrysocoma’, under S. × sepulcralis.