Quick facts

Common names: grey willow, pussy willow, common sallow

Scientific name: Salix cinerea subsp. oleifolia

Family: Salicaceae

Origin: native

Grey willow is very similar to goat willow. Mature trees grow to 10m. The bark is grey-brown and develops diamond-shaped fissures with age. Twigs are hairy at first but become smooth, and can appear red-yellow in sunlight.

Look out for: the young leaves which are hairy but become hairless above as they age and only sparsely hairy underneath.

Identified in winter by: red, hairless, narrow buds which are pressed close to the twig.

What does grey willow look like?

Grey willow leaves in autumn

Credit: Marcus Harrison / Alamy Stock Photo

Leaves

Unlike most willows, the leaves are oval rather than long and thin. However, unlike goat willow, the leaves are at least twice as long as they are wide. They have a fine silver felt underneath with rusty hairs beneath the veins.

Grey willow catkins covered in dew

Credit: Ray Wilson / Alamy Stock Photo

Flowers

Grey willow is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers grow on separate trees. The catkins arrive in early spring – the male catkins grey, stout and oval, becoming yellow when ripe with pollen; the female catkins longer and green.

Grey willow tree female catkin releasing seeds

Credit: Colin Varndell / naturepl.com

Fruits

Once pollinated by wind, female catkins develop into woolly seeds. Most willows can also propagate themselves by lowering their branches to the ground to develop roots.

Not to be confused with:

Several willow species native to the UK as many hybridise with one another, making them hard to identify. Grey willow often hybridises with the goat willow (Salix caprea).

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Where to find grey willow

Grey willow grows in woodland and hedgerows, as well as in damp areas, such as near canals, rivers and streams. It is native to Europe and western Asia.

Great tit perched on grey willow

Credit: Alan Mather / Alamy Stock Photo

Value to wildlife

Grey willow foliage is eaten by caterpillars of a number of moths, including the sallow kitten, sallow clearwing, dusky clearwing and lunar hornet clearwing. It is also a food plant for the purple emperor butterfly. Catkins provide an important early source of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects, and birds use grey willow to forage for caterpillars and insects.

Mythology and symbolism

All willows were trees of celebration in biblical times, but this changed over time and today willows are more associated with sadness and mourning. In northern areas, willow branches are used instead of palm branches to celebrate Palm Sunday.

Did you know?

Grey willow grows to over 600m above sea level in Scotland.

Uses of grey willow

Traditionally, willows were used to relieve pain associated with a headache and toothache. The painkiller Aspirin is derived from salicin, a compound found in the bark of all Salix species. In medieval times, in many parts of Europe, the bark was chewed to release the salicin for pain relief.

The bark was also boiled in water and the liquor drunk to relieve diarrhoea, help reduce joint inflammation in arthritis and as a gargle for sore throats. The liquor was also used to stop bleeding, clean wounds and to treat general aches and pains.

Threats and conservation

Like other willows, grey willow is susceptible to watermark disease caused by the bacterium Brenneria salicis. Over time, this leads to affected branches dying back and red leaves developing in other parts of the crown. If left untreated, the tree can die.