So-called ‘pussy willows’ are a welcome feature of the spring landscape in Assynt. They are usually the male trees of one of the sallows, broad-leaved members of the willow clan, of which three species occur locally. On 22ndMay 2018 I was walking with my daughter along the road bordering the river at Inverkirkaig when we noticed something rather different. In a thicket bordering a damp rushy patch of ground just north of the road (NC082194) there was a sprawling tree sporting handsome elongated male catkins. On closer inspection, the unfolding leaves were relatively narrow, smooth and shiny, with finely toothed margins, quite unlike the rounded furry leaves of the sallows.
This rang a distant bell and on consulting my records I found that I had first noted this tree on 31stMay 2012 and later identified it (with some difficulty) as almond willow Salix triandra. It was the first record of this species in either Assynt or West Sutherland as a whole; it has not, to my knowledge, been found anywhere else in the area.
Almond willow may be recognized by its leaves, by the three stamens of the male flowers, and by its smooth bark, which flakes off in large patches. It is widely distributed in lowland England, where it was once extensively planted for basket making. However, it becomes much scarcer in Scotland, with no previous records from the north and west. It is likely to have been introduced to this area in the past by someone with an eye to its usefulness, but we shall probably never know by whom or when.
P.S. I have since learned from Mary Bangor-Jones, long-time resident of Inverkirkaig, that this willow is on a croft that once belonged to ‘Lackie’ MacGillivray, and its establishment certainly pre-dates 1964 when she arrived in the area with her late husband Alan.