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.
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.