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Tree of the week: Osier

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March 2015 – 

It is often found growing in wet or damp situations, such as beside rivers and streams. This fast-growing willow has been cultivated for centuries for its flexible shoots, which can be woven into baskets, living sculptures and other products.

What does osier look like?

Mature trees grow to 7m. The bark is greyish brown with vertical cracks. Twigs are smooth and yellow-green. The leaves are very long and thin (20cm x 1cm), glossy and dark green with a felt-like covering of silvery-hairs beneath.

The osier is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are found on separate plants. Flowers are greenish catkins, which appear in late-winter to early spring before the leaves. Male catkins are yellow. Once pollinated, the greenish female catkins develop fruit capsules, which split open when mature to release tiny seeds.

Interesting fact: more than 60 different kinds of osier hybrids and cultivated varieties are grown in Britain for the basket-making industry.

Value to wildlife

Caterpillars of a number of moth species feed on the foliage, including the lackey, herald and red-tipped clearwing. The catkins provide an important source of early nectar and pollen for bees and other insects, and the branches make good nesting and roosting sites for birds.

Mythology and symbolism

There is little folklore associated with osier. However, there is a local custom in Chediston, Suffolk, known as a ‘willow stripping’ ceremony. This is usually held at the first full moon in May. A Green George figure is dressed in willow strippings, dances around and is then ceremoniously thrown into the local pond.

How we use osier

Osier withies (strong, flexible willow stems) are traditionally used for basket-making and weaving, and are becoming increasingly popular for use as willow screens and sculptures. Osier, like all willows, is also grown for its ability to absorb heavy metals, and is often planted to ‘clean up’ contaminated wasteground.

Threats

Osier may be susceptible to watermark disease.

Information and images courtesy of the Woodland Trust
www.woodlandtrust.org.uk