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A tree 80 to 90 ft high, with a rough corrugated trunk; branchlets growing at an angle of 60° to 90° to those from which they spring; young shoots glabrous. Leaves narrowly lanceolate to narrowly oblong, 2 to 7 in. long, 3⁄8 to 11⁄4 in. wide, tapered at the base, the apex drawn out into a long slender point, distinctly and regularly toothed, usually somewhat silky at first, soon becoming glabrous; stalk 1⁄4 to 3⁄4 in. long. Stipules often present, semi-cordate or kidney-shaped, deeply toothed. Catkins 2 to 21⁄2 in. long, drooping, produced in April and May on short leafy shoots; scales pale straw-coloured, narrowly oblong or oblong-lanceolate, usually blunt at the apex, hairy except at the very tip, soon falling. Stamens two, hairy at the extreme base only. Ovary very shortly stalked (more distinctly so in fruit), flask-shaped, much tapered at the apex, shorter than the subtending scale; style slightly longer than the spreading stigmas.
Native of much of Europe, including Britain, extending in Russia as far east as the Altai and south to the Caucasus; also occurring in parts of S.W. Asia. It obtains its common name from the readiness with which the twigs snap off in their entirety at the joint when bent. Another peculiarity is that the rootlets which it sends into water are red. It is allied to S. alba with which it hybridises (see S. × rubens), differing in the wider angle of branching, its larger, glabrous, greener leaves, its larger catkins, and its stalked, more elongated ovaries. It produces a reddish timber, used for various purposes where a wood that is tough and capable of withstanding much friction is needed. It has been used for wheelbarrows and cart bottoms. Cheap cricket-bats are also made from it; manufacturers know it as the ‘open-bark’ willow.
S. × rubens Schrank S. viridis Fries – This willow occupies a place intermediate between S. alba and S. fragilis, and is considered to be a hybrid between them. It fills the gap between these two willows by an almost complete series of intermediate forms, sometimes approaching one of them in vegetative characters, whilst resembling the other in reproductive ones. What may be termed the central form is a tree branching at angles of about 60°, with leaves broader and larger than those of S. alba, and averaging 2 to 5 in. in length, 5⁄8 to 1 in. in width, silky at first, but soon becoming glabrous, dark glossy green above, glaucous beneath. The male catkins are longer and more densely flowered than those of S. alba and the ovaries are more distinctly stalked and have more distinctly formed styles. This hybrid in one form or another is commoner in Britain than pure S. fragilis.
The timber of S. × rubens is of some value to cricket-bat makers, but ordinarily is much inferior to that of S. alba ‘Caerulea’, being heavier and coarser. This refers to the central form of S. × rubens; as it approaches S. alba in relationship its value improves. By leaves alone it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between some of these forms and S. alba ‘Caerulea’, and the influence of S. fragilis is only to be seen in the stalked, more tapered seed-vessels. It is never pyramidal in growth like S. alba ‘Caerulea’.
S. ‘Basfordiana’ – A vigorous tree with polished orange-yellow branchlets. Leaves bright green, finely serrated, glabrous, up to 6 in. long, 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 in. wide. A male clone, with drooping catkins 21⁄2 to 4 in. long, appearing with the leaves in April; scales acute, ciliate. It was raised by the willow-grower and basket-maker William Scaling of Basford, Notts, in the 1860s and named by him S. Basfordiana, under which name it was described by James Salter in 1882 (but see also ‘Sanguinea’ below). It is possibly a hybrid between S. alba var. vitellina and S. fragilis or S. × rubens. Pruned hard each spring it might be even more effective than S. alba var. vitellina in the winter-colour of its stems.
S. ‘Russelliana’. Duke of Bedford’s Willow, Leicestershire Willow – A large and vigorous tree with straight, slender branches. Twigs olive-brown. Leaves light green, deeply serrated, long-tapered at the apex, silky beneath when young, becoming glabrous. Only female trees are known: catkins as in S. fragilis though laxer; ovary slightly longer than the subtending scale (S. russelliana Sm.; S. fragilis var. russelliana (Sm.) Koch).
This willow first came to scientific notice when a Mr Bakewell sent it around 1800 from Leicestershire to the Duke of Bedford, after whom Smith named it in 1804 (Russell being the family name of the Dukes of Bedford). It is most probably a clone of S. × rubens, selected originally for its fast growth and excellent timber, and is still common in the north of England. For Dr Johnson’s willow, supposed to have been ‘Russelliana’, see Loudon, Arb. et Frut. Brit., Vol. III, p. 1517 and figs 1312-3.
S. ‘Sanguinea’. – Similar to ‘Basfordiana’ but with small, less tapered leaves up to 21⁄2 in. long and 5⁄8 in. wide, and with redder twigs. A female clone; catkins 13⁄4 in. long, scales slightly ciliate or quite glabrous. Like ‘Basfordiana’ this willow was distributed by Scaling, who found it growing in the French Ardennes, probably as a cultivated tree, and later obtained cuttings. Salter considered ‘Sanguinea’ to be of the same “species” as ‘Basfordiana’ and his S. basfordiana is founded on both these willows.
S. decipiens Hoffm. S. fragilis var. decipiens (Hoffm.) Koch – A smaller tree than S. fragilis; branchlets at first red on the exposed side, becoming clay-coloured and very lustrous, as if varnished. Leaves narrow-elliptic, rather short, up to 31⁄2 in. long and 1 in. wide, coarsely serrated. It is not known in Europe as a truly wild tree, and in Britain is represented by a male clone, much planted for basket-work, with catkins not much over 1 in. long; according to Sir James Smith it was known in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire as the White Welsh willow, but more recent names for it are ‘White Dutch’ and ‘Belgian Red’.
It has been suggested that S. decipiens is a hybrid of S. fragilis with either S. triandra or S. alba. According to another theory it represents the pure and original state of S. fragilis, which later became modified by hybridisation with S. alba.
Desmond Meikle points out that 80 to 90 ft is too great a height for this species in its normal wild state, in which it attains some 50 ft, with a short, thick trunk. It is only ‘Russelliana’, which is widely spread though probably planted, that grows as tall as stated.
S. ‘Russelliana’. – See above. Meikle considers this to be a straightfoward sport of S. fragilis, not a hybrid.