The Crack Willow Tree

Burnley Gardens’ brittle willow

The crack willow, or brittle willow (Salix fragilis) is native to Europe and western Asia. It is a dioecious tree which means that female and male flowers do not grow on the same plant. Towards the end of spring, hanging clusters of flowers called catkins usually become yellow if they are male, or green if they are female. After pollination, female catkins will take on a woolly texture and their seeds will be scattered by the wind. After the willow has flowered, leaves which are smooth and glossy on top will emerge on mature trees.

A cracked willow tree
A brittle willow planted in Burnley Gardens, Melbourne, displays twisted and gnarled branches like the tree in Robins’ The old Willow

This willow has been planted beside a lily pond in the suburb of Burnley, Melbourne. Crack willows are frequently planted beside watercourses to stabilise the banks and prevent erosion. Branches, which frequently crack off the tree – giving the willow its name – will be carried by the water and take root downstream.

On young trees, the bark is smooth; however, with age it develops fissures and becomes rough, like this tree. The bark, which has a bitter taste, serves a variety of purposes. It can be taken medicinally as an astringent or tonic remedy for aches. The wood can also be used for baskets, cricket bats and sheep pens.