Willows and Wilding

A couple of months ago I noticed that some of the huge ‘weeds’ growing in the area we’ve nicknamed the Jungle weren’t dying back like the rest of the voracious annuals that towered above us last summer. They were still reaching for the sky and were woody, more tree-like than anything else that had grown there. What were they?

To set the scene, the Jungle I’m talking about is an area about 400 sq m that has been doing its own thing for the last two years. It’s wilding itself in the absence of any plan that would tame it on our part. We have some ideas – a wildlife pond is one, an amphitheatre is another (yes, this needs more explanation – another time!), but for now our attentions are elsewhere and it’s left to its own devices.

This area has experienced enormous upheaval since we arrived. At first, in 2017, it was thick impenetrable brambles at head height. That cleared, in spring 2018 it became a weedy, bare patch of land for a while. Then its biggest transformation was late 2018 when we covered it with tons of black slimy silt dredged from the lake – there was way more than we’d expected and we had nowhere else to put it! It became a surreal, black, slimy wasteland.

From a bare and weedy patch of earth, to a plateau of black silt, held in by walls of earth – October 2018

A panoramic shot (April 2019). On the left, some of the silt has been cleared to make way for a new drive. In the middle is the area that has now become ‘The Jungle’.

We had no idea what would happen next – for many months it was too liquid to walk on without sinking thigh deep. People told us nothing would grow on it. Well, a summer later and it was dry enough to walk on, with the first pioneering weeds beginning to establish themselves. This was the end of 2019.

In 2020 Nature marched in like a carnival – vuvuzelas, feathery headdresses and all. The weeds that grew were enormous – thistles and hogweed that towered above our heads, gargantuan dock leaves like palm trees. Buddleia, burdock, teasel… As summer came, the hot air trapped within the thick high walls of the foliage buzzed with insects. It was incredible and otherwordly – a very un-British garden I would say.

May 2020 – Venturing into the Jungle

Dense forest of ‘pioneers’ – docks, teasels, buttercups, nettles, reeds (May 2020)

It was kind of unnerving. When we’re not holding the reigns tight, nature gets away very quickly – it’s powerful and swift. Before long we couldn’t ‘get in’, and had to start strimming a pathway through, just to get access. I’m not used to witnessing that in a garden – or in any place. The idea of ‘wilding’ being a positive thing to actively ‘do’ (or let happen) is something most of us are only just getting our heads around. I have voices in my head – be careful – don’t let the weeds get out of control – you’ll regret it – it’s irresponsible – it’s foolish – it’s naive. I don’t know. I’m working on ignoring them for the most part. We have many controlled and tamed areas, and why not let one area ‘get out of hand’. It’s a bit scary, but then scary and exciting go hand in hand don’t they?

By autumn the grip of the wild began to ease. The green vigour of the towering plants was replaced by brittle and greying skeletons.

In December I made this video of how it was looking by then.


At the end of the video I’m pondering the tall woody trees that I hadn’t noticed before – these are the same ones I mentioned at the start of the post. Since then, over the past month I’ve been wondering what they are, struggling to identify them from just the buds on the winter branches. Finally I took to social media to ask, and within moments I had an answer – they’re willow trees!

It’s hard to tell exactly, but there are at least twenty willow saplings, some much taller than me already. Considering there was nothing there but dense black silt 18 months ago, I think that’s amazing! Where did they come from? Perhaps the seeds were in the silt. There’s a willow tree right next to the pond that will have been dropping seeds in there for decades. Or perhaps the seeds blew over on the wind in the spring last year.

I believe it’s goat willow (Salix caprea), but from my reading yesterday it seems that grey willow (Salix cinerea) is very similar and its mostly the leaves (which I won’t be able to see for a few more months) that tells the two apart. Both are (try not to snigger people) known as ‘pussy willow’ because of the male catkins that look like fluffy cat paws.

Pussy willow, male catkins (Image by Bernie – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10100200)

Both types of willow like wet woodland habitats, and since identifying these saplings, I’ve discovered that there are many willow growing in the woody marshland a short walk from where we live.

I have read that the best approach to developing a more wildlife friendly garden is not to plan too quickly, but to wait and see what arrives, what wants to live there, and embrace that. So perhaps a willow grove should be part of the future of this area. They’re certainly pretty determined, and maybe a bit of ‘keeping an eye on them’ will be necessary. I believe there are many crafty things to do with willow branches and that historically they have been coppiced (regularly cut back) for this purpose. Maybe we could do something like that if they do need keeping in check.

For now, welcome willows to our burgeoning wilderness. How will it develop this year I wonder? And what new species will arrive? Will we regret leaving it so untamed, or be thrilled by the adventure of letting nature take the lead? Keep reading for more installments!

#Trees #britishtrees #weeds #rewilding #willows #wilding

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