Thanks again to Lindsay for writing today’s entry for the “biodiversity and sports” series. As an aside to local readers, I’m lecturing on the topic on Monday: Sports and Biodiversity.
The image of the Salix alba var. caerulea plantation was taken by Flickr user mole-volio (original | Creative Commons License). The second photograph, of Salix alba, was photographed by Andrew Dunn, and shared via Wikimedia Commons | CC License.
Commonly known as the blue willow or cricket-bat willow, the fast-growing Salix alba var. caerulea is widely cultivated in the southeastern English counties of Essex and Suffolk, where it thrives in low-lying areas. Though many consider it a variety of Salix alba, others assert that this taxon is actually a hybrid between Salix alba (white willow) and Salix fragilis (crack willow). Except for its glabrous blue leaves, Salix alba var. caerulea is very similar to Salix alba in appearance and reproduction.
As the common name of this tree implies, it is a specialty timber product used in the production of cricket bats (the 6th Law of Cricket dictates that the blade of the bats must be made of wood). The tough, shock-resistant, and lightweight wood of Salix alba var. caerulea is widely considered ideal for this piece of sports equipment, with the first known reference to its use coming in 1624. Female individuals of this willow are considered best-suited to bat-making.
In the 1930s the popularity of the sport was threatened by Brenneria salicis, a bacteria causing watermark disease. This pathogen infected nearly 25 000 cricket-bat willows, and threatened eradication. Cricket bats made from infected wood would break and splinter during use, causing a frenzy in the cricket world and articles such as “Willow Disease Threatens Cricket, Sport of the English!” (The Science News Letter, 1935). Eventually, though, the cricket-bat willow was brought back from the brink. The bacteria causing the disease still creates extensive damage in pocket populations, but environmental factors are now thought to precipitate outbreaks (and can therefore be managed).
Also of interest to the topic of biodiversity and sports, extracts from willow bark have long been known to be effective pain-relievers (and fever-reducers). In 1826, the bark of the white willow, Salix alba was used during the chemical isolation and naming of the active ingredient in these extracts, salicin. Later chemical study led to the discovery of salicylic acid, and, eventually, acetylsalicylic acid aka Aspirin (or aspirin, depending on the trademark law of your country). There appears to be an opportunity for owners of Salix alba var. caerulea plantations to produce both the cricket-bats needed for a rousing game of cricket and the pain-reducing pills needed after!