Rusty Willow common and widespread native plant
The Sally is a very common and widespread native wild plant that straddles the boundary between the definitions of a tall shrub and a small tree. It favours damp ground so it grows best in wet, lowland areas and is a very common hedgerow and field margin species.
Sexes are separate in Sallies. The female flowers are green and are not very obvious whereas the male flowers are showy catkins known as Pussy Willows. The term Pussy Willow is used for both the catkins and the Sally that bears them.
The male catkins start off silvery in colour and as the pollen ripens they turn a bright yellow and are so attractive on the bare branches of Sally in early spring that they are sought after in flower arrangements and floral art.
The Sally grows widely across Europe and Asia and the species is divided into subspecies: Grey Willow and Rusty Willow. Both have leaves that are downy on their lower surfaces. In Grey Willow the undersides of the leaves are densely downy and, as the name states, the short hairs are grey in colour.
In Rusty Willow the undersides of the leaves are only thinly coated with grey down but are covered with stiff, rust-brown hairs. These hairs are very numerous on the veins but are tiny so the aid of a hand lens or magnifying glass is required to see them clearly.
The Grey Willow is the dominant subspecies in Asia and Eastern Europe. As one travels west, and the influence of the Atlantic Ocean makes its presence felt, Rusty Willow becomes the dominant subspecies. Rusty Willow is the dominant form along the Atlantic fringe stretching from North Africa to northernmost Scotland and is the dominant subspecies throughout Ireland.
Sally or Rusty Willow is a deciduous species but before the leaves fall in autumn the rust-brown hairs become more obvious in late summer. It used to be believed that all our Sallies were Rusty Willows. However, in recent years Grey Willows have been recorded in Ireland so it is now known that we have a mixed population comprising both the Atlantic subspecies and the eastern subspecies.
Since the tiny brown hairs are at their most obvious at this time of year now is the best time to get a magnifying glass to see if your local Sallies belong to the dominant Rusty Willow subspecies or to the much rarer Grey Willow subspecies.