Leaf fall at Little Owl Gully: Part One
Graham R. Cooper
The gully willows are sprawling, tall and very old. There are almost as many dead branches as there are live ones; once they shed their leaves it’s not easy to tell the difference. But come spring, new leaf tells you that their root system and much of their above ground structure are sound and very much alive.
We have other deciduous trees – poplars, oaks, silver birches, elders and fruit trees – but none come close, at leaf fall, to the gully willows’ stark, skeletal forms. The cyclical fall of their leaves in autumn makes you keenly aware of their life and death struggles.
The leaves of the gully willows or their absence, more than for any other trees at Little Owl Gully, are life and death beacons. The living parts of the skeleton race into bud and leaf in early spring but the profusion of new growth doesn’t hide the bones of the dead parts of the tree, most of which tower above the still living form. The loss of leaf by late summer-early autumn is extensive, and by the onset of winter you could be forgiven for thinking that the willows are either dead or dying.
Crack willow is the common name of the willow species in the gully. Their branches and twigs are quite brittle and thin branches can be cracked by hand – useful when you need to break some off for goat fodder. They plummet to the ground when laden with snow, or, when in full leaf, buffeted by strong winds. Twig and new leaf growth in the first flush of spring increase the burden branches have to bear and makes them vulnerable when weighed down by torrential rain.
We have lost trees when fungi have attacked the heartwood and left little more than rotten wood and spongy pith at the centre of the trunk; the dead and living bark, growing cambium and vascular bundles no more than a shell structure held together by the fibrous strength of lignin and cellulose surrounding the massive dead heart of the tree. Little resistance could then be offered to the gale, or leaves heavy laden with water, or snow burden, that brought the tree crashing to the ground.
You can be left with the shell: a hollowed out trunk still a metre or two above ground level. New growth will soon sprout from the cambium layer under the bark and within a few years a bushy willow tree will have formed above the gaping hole at its base.
We’ve got a classic example of that next to the footbridge that straddles the base of the gully. The tree, after several years of regrowth, now has sufficient height and density for Little Owls to feel secure enough to perch in it. The branches are slender and they are well-attached to the trunk; the tree has just enough vigour to produce several modest branches and a proliferation of twiggy growth.
It’s vigorous enough to prune heavily so that the leafy twigs can be used as goat fodder. The hollow adds a fairy grotto magic to its character. We like the way it sits in next to the bridge, and that it poses no threat to life and limb. What a successful adaptation to the loss of a once tall, sprawling form. And yet another willow, once again, providing a haven for Little Owls. What more can you ask of a tree?
That’s all from Little Owl Gully for this week. Next Monday we’ll take a look at some of our other deciduous trees as they shed their leaves.
Bye for now. Thanks for your company.