Eared willow (Salix aurita) is a member of the willow family, Salicaceae.
It is a large, multi-branched woody shrub and a pioneer species, commonly occurring in wet sites.
Eared willow occurs throughout Scotland, including the Western Isles and Orkney, and it is one of the few trees that grow as far north as Shetland. It prefers moist sites and slightly acid soils, and is more common in the north and west of the country, occurring especially in damp woods, heaths and moors. It also forms part of the montane scrub community at the treeline, and has been recorded at elevations up to 750m.
Eared willow is considered to be a shrub, rather than a tree, and generally grows to a height of less than 2.5m. It is typically rounded and bushy in shape, with multiple stems spreading out at, or near, ground level. The bark is grey and smooth, although in older individuals there can be large cracks or splits running longitudinally on the stems. Twigs are a dark reddish-brown in colour, and the scales which cover the buds are yellow-brown and darker at their tips.
Eared willow is deciduous, with the new leaves appearing in April or early May. The leaves are grey-green in colour, and are wrinkled in texture. They are slightly hairy, or pubescent, especially on the underside. The shape of the leaves is elliptic or lanceolate, meaning lance-like, and the widest point is closer to the tip than the base of the leaf. The leaves measure up to 4 or occasionally 6 cm in length and 3 or sometimes 4 cm in width. The most distinctive feature is the 'ears' or stipules which give the species its common name. These are small leafy appendages that are somewhat ear-like in shape, and grow on each side of the leaf stem, near the base of, but separate from, the leaf itself. The leaves turn yellow in October before being shed for the winter.
Eared willow is dioecious, meaning that individual trees are either male or female. The flowers take the form of catkins and appear just before the leaves open in spring. Eared willow can either be propagated by seed or from branch cuttings that are inserted directly into the ground.
Eared willow is a pioneer species and it can often be the first woody species to get established on wetter areas. It can grow rapidly, branching profusely to produce its characteristic spreading bushy shape. Like other willows, it readily hybridises, particularly with grey willow (Salix cinerea), tea-leaved willow (Salix phylicifolia) and creeping willow (Salix repens), and this can make identification of the species problematical at times.
Eared willow supports a wide range of flora and fauna like aspen and like aspen it is also an important food plant for the European beaver. Its preference for growing in wet sites and its ability to naturally coppice means that eared willow is well-suited to thrive in the presence of beavers.
Together with some of its close relatives, such as grey willow (Salix cinerea) and goat willow (Salix caprea), it forms an important component of willow carr habitat (wet woodland dominated by willows), which is an important habitat for invertebrates.