Salix alba var. caerulea and Salix alba

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.

Lindsay writes:

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!

Salix alba var. caerulea
Salix alba

9 responses to “Salix alba var. caerulea and Salix alba”

  1. Irma in Sweden

    This series promises to be very interesting indeed. Thank you!

  2. MsWinterfinch

    When I was touring through Kashmir India years ago the cricket bat willows were proudly pointed out. Stacks and stacks of unfinished cricket bats lined parts of the village roads.
    Also, I was wondering what this meant:
    “Female individuals of this willow are considered best-suited to bat-making.”
    Are their male and female willow trees?

  3. Mary Ann, in Toronto

    I love that second photo, the tree with its blue-green leaves, and branches arching over the river. This is an example of one of my favourite environments. It looks like Eden to me. I’d love to sit in a canoe or row-boat under that tree, and paddle down that river.
    I’m also partial to willows in general, and although I knew about ASA, I didn’t know anything about cricket bats. If I lived nearby, I’d be there at the Monday lecture!

  4. Alexander Jablanczy

    A maahvelous write up and topic. Willow hm Will mustabin one of the favourite trees of Shakespeare as it occurs in numerous key passages tit willow etc as well as in the famous drowning scene of Ophelia.
    You can still buy willow bark tablets in health food stores which prob have only salicylic acid not the acetylated kind. I remember the first organic compound we synthetised in organic chemistry lab was none other than acetyl salicylic acid and foolishly I tasted it to see if it would work. Unfortunately I survived the white powder probably with traces of sulphuric acid or arsenic or whatever was used in the synthesis.
    The idea that a fast growing hence with wide yearrings tree could be used for a very demanding pounding as in cricket intrigues me. Shouldnt it it be not only light ie low sp gr but soft as in balsa with wide spaced cell walls. Must ask a wood technologist.

  5. elizabeth a airhart

    lovely tranquil still waters thank you
    a very good write up thank you
    a very different fungus on the red list
    now back to the olmpics lovely land daniel

  6. tajalli

    Yes, MsWinterFinch, the female flowers occur on separate trees from the male flowers, so there are male and female trees. This is an example of a dioecious flowering type (di = two, oico = house or dwelling). The male inflorescences can seem more colorful and fluffy with the stamens bearing pollen. I was just out at Glen Canyon Park today in San Francisco where the willows are in bloom along Islayas Creek.

  7. Jan Phillips

    Watermark disease can still be a problem in the UK

  8. Frier

    Nice shade of green on the leaves.

  9. Hector Beaudet

    I play the euphonium (a small tuba) and looking around for good places to play today I encountered a mature Salix alba in Ottawa’s Arboretum. I played underneath it, the sound and the moment were just magic.

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