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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, 11⁄2 to 31⁄2 in. long, 1⁄4 to 5⁄8 in. wide, much tapered at both ends, very finely toothed, permanently covered beneath with silky down, less so above; stalk 1⁄8 to 1⁄2 in. long. Catkins appearing with the leaves on short leafy laterals, dense, cylindric, more or less erect, about 11⁄2 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)).
S. alba var. sericea Gaud.
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, distinguished by such epithets as argentea and regalis.
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.