Wednesday Weed – Goat Willow

Goat Willow (Salix caprea)

Dear Readers, I hope that you will forgive my preoccupation with goat willow this winter, but having read about what an excellent plant it is for bees, I thought that it deserved a few moments of our attention. The plant apparently gets its name from Hieronymous Bock’s Herbal, in which the tree is seen being browsed by goats. In some Northern countries, flutes are made from goat willow, and that immediately makes me think of Pan, the god of the forest. In fact, I rather remember seeing a sculpture of Pan having sex with a goat at the Royal Academy a few years ago, and being rather surprised – apparently the Romans would have plonked this in their dining room or courtyard garden as a talking point. I imagine it would certainly have got the conversation going. I shall leave you with a rather more sedate illustration.

‘Pan Reclining’ by Sir Peter Paul Reubens

Goat willow has the reputation as a rather feral plant, but it’s also a favourite with children and flower arrangers because of those gorgeous catkins. Goat willow has male flowers on one tree, and female flowers on another – the male catkins mature with yellow pollen, the female ones mature to a green colour, and apparently both are great for the pollinators.

Like all willows, goat willow likes it damp and disturbed, and is a true pioneer of ‘dodgy’ environments. It’s found right across Europe and Western Asia. As some of you will remember, I recently bought a Kilmarnock Willow, which is a goat willow made a bit more user friendly – it’s a male clone grafted onto another willow, which controls the size. You can get a female version called a Weeping Sally.

Kilmarnock Willow

Buds on the Kilmarnock willow

The timber of goat willow is not widely used, owing to its propensity to crack (rather like the related species Crack Willow (Salix fragilis).However, it’s big claim to fame is as a food plant for  ‘His Imperial Majesty’, the purple emperor.

Purple emperor (Apatura iris) Photo by Charles J.Sharp

The caterpillars of some very interesting moths feed upon goat willow, including some of the clearwing species. I think most people would look at this animal and assume that it was a wasp. What excellent camouflage! It’s only the antennae and the lack of a wasp waist that give it away.

Dusky clearwing (Paranthrene tabaniformis) Photo by Graham Wenman at

And finally, willows of all kinds have been the subject of songs and poems, from Desdemona’s song in Othello to the ‘Tit Willow’ song in the Mikado. But here’s something to cheer us all up on a miserable January afternoon – Steeleye Span’s ‘All Around My Hat’. Enjoy!



3 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Goat Willow

  1. sllgatsby

    Ah, I love Steeleye Span. I think I have all their CDS and they were difficult to get in the US! I rarely come across any American who has even heard of them.

  2. Susan E.

    I too love Steeleye Span, and especially Maddy Prior. I’m Canadian, and can’t remember how I discovered their music many years ago.


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