Eared Willow

Eared Willow Salix aurita looks to be over-recorded in Herefordshire and it would be good to have more botanists understand it in order to confirm whether or not this is the case. It is a plant of peaty soils, or perhaps humic ones over markedly acid substrates (as in the Wyre Forest of neighbouring Worcestershire), both of which are very rare and local with us. Almost all our records have been made only at the tetrad level, making it impossible to check back, and the reality may be that this is a rare shrub in our County which deserves a bit more love.

It is tricky to identify as its main diagnostic characters are a matter of interpretation, and we just don’t get to see it often enough here to build up experience. Here are some pictures of material collected last Sunday in Pembrokeshire, where it is more common. The chief problem is recognising its difference from Grey Willow Salix cinerea.

Rugose‘ is a key term. A leaf which is rugose is like a deep-buttoned Chesterfield sofa, or a savoy cabbage.

Pic 1. Eared Willow (top three) and Grey Willow (bottom). Notice how although the grey willow can be a bit rugose as here, it is not so deeply rugose as the Eared Willow. Study the leaves and see if you can find your own way of singling them out. Notice also the leaf shape difference – longer and narrower (oblong to oblanceolate) in the Grey Willow, and shorter and fatter (obovate) in the Eared. Notice also the wavy margin of Eared.
Pic 2. Underside of the leaves with Grey Willow L and Eared Willow R. The rugose nature of the eared willow is equally apparent from underneath and it lacks the rusty hairs that characterise most of our Grey Willows and which are very obvious in the leaf on the left.
Pic 3. Shoots of the two species side-by-side with Eared Willow to the right. Here the persistent, rather large stipules of that species can be seen, contrasting with no (ie fallen) stipules of the Grey Willow. Reddish-brown twigs are also given as a character for eared willow, and are shown by this specimen.
Pic 4. leaf of an Eared Willow from the side, sandwiched between two leaves of Grey Willow, to show the more pronounced undulate leaf margin.
Pic 5. Eared Willow (foreground) growing in front of Grey Willow (top) at Dowrog Common, Pembrokeshire. Differences in leaf shape and rugosity can be seen, as can the difference in height.

As the key characters are not extremely clear-cut in these two species, remember to take all the evidence into consideration before making a record. We want pronounced rugosity on proportionately shorter leaves with many prominent stipules hanging on until right at the end of the season; you cannot make a judgement on the persistence of stipules until the later parts of the year. These should be on small bushes generally less than 2.5m tall (Grey Willow often much taller) with dense branching of its reddish twigs. Finally, think twice if you’re on a mineral soil unless there are other acid-loving plants nearby. Eared Willow is going to be most likely in the Black Mountains and Golden Valley area, and perhaps also, with luck, associated with some of the small peaty basin mires of the North-west Herefordshire Hills and adjacent area.

A beautiful, charismatic and neglected native shrub! I look forward to any new records you can make!!

Finally, I should not close without mentioning that Eared and Grey Willows hybridise, and that such plants are most likely where their habitat is restricted, and the eared genome is overcome by the more abundant grey willow one.

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