Tree of leaning shapes

Although there are over five hundred species of willow, white willow is the most common and recognised by its irregular shape, where the trunk leans slantwise under a wide crown of floating silvery foliage. This habit shows its kinship with water, for willow is waterproof, and enjoys water, especially in airy soils, where it can tolerate long floods.

 

Always breaking

Its flat root system can mean willow gets washed away by rivers, or blown over by the wind and storms, however, even separated trunks or branches can just keep on growing in a new place or simply change direction. A new horizontal trunk might start growing a mass of new shoots and, as single twigs can also root in damp soil, its ability to produce new suckers or grow from cuttings makes the willow almost immortal.

 

Flood protection

Its powerful ability to regenerate makes white willow the perfect maintainer of river valleys frequently exposed to spring floods. Although all willows share fast growth and survive storm damage, their wood is soft, not very durable and soon falls prey to wood fungi.

 

Lots of relations

White willow's cousin, the goat willow (called pussy willow in England and sally willow in Ireland), has broader, elliptic leaves that can thrive in drier conditions, where it is often found in dumps, wastelands or on the edge of moors, or even in light mountain woodlands up to 6,500 feet. White willow, by contrast does not grow above 2,500 feet and is distinguished by its long, lance-shaped, pointed leaves, which are four to six times longer than they are wide.

 

The early larder

The flowers of willow appear in early March, and so are an important early source of food for bees and larvae. The grey-silver catkins and seeds are hairy, and the silky plumes allow it to be blown to new places, where its robust seeds germinate and grow strongly.

 

Practical

Basket tree

Pollarding and coppicing willow is a very ancient tradition, as its thin, quick-growing stems grown in osier beds are excellent and unmatched for making into basketry. As well as baskets, willow is made into beehives, lobster pots, pegs, floats, hedging and fencing (especially sheep), artists charcoal, artificial limbs.

Stiff joints

Willow bark is an ancient remedy for soothing pains, particularly rheumatics, digestive inflammations, kidney and bladder problems, rashes and headaches. Its main component - salicin - oxidizes in the human body to become salicylic acid. Salicin was identified chemically in 1827 and from it came aspirin in 1898.

Willow sap is used as drink to clear vision. Its seeds have feathery down, used for stuffing mattresses; while the bark mixes with oatmeal for food, is used in tanning, and making twine. Willow leaves and bark are source of salicylic acid. In fact willow is a good example of the way nature reflects the affliction in its cure - here wetness or feeling feeble. Willow’s family name is salix (latin) helice (greek).

Another potential drug has been found in willow that may have anti-cancer powers. Scientists at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, working with cancer biologists at the University of Kent, discovered a chemical called miyabeacin in willow that can kill various types of cancer cells, some of them resistant to other drugs

The Moon Tree

The ‘Moon owns it’, said Culpeper of the willow in his Complete Herbal. Willows have been associated with the moon and female power since earliest times, particularly psychic abililities and divination through water, healing and magic.

The W in the word

The tree that wickerwork was made from became associated with wicked, witches, wrong and wretched, even affecting the wryneck (a bird that uses willow to nest in).

Lucky if not burnt

For travellers, willow is lucky to carry as a rod and a branch bearing catkins in the home brings luck. It has unlucky attributes to burn as fuel, hence ‘burn not the willow’. Helice is the greek name for willow, and also for the goddess, Helice, of Mount Helicon, where also lived the Nine Muses as priestesses. Circe, the moon goddess, had a willow grove, dedicated to Hecate, the goddess of death and Persephone too had a sacred grove "remarkable for its black poplars and aged willows", to which Odysseus is sent by Circe to meet the spirit of a dead seer.

Associations

Calendar: Mar 28—Apr 25 Ogham: tip of littlefinger; top left corner. contains its doubled version ‘SS’ (blackthorn), five vertical strokes; intuition; seg (hawk); sodath (fine-coloured); serind (primrose); ss: smeolach (thrush); ss: sorcha (bright-coloured); carbuncle (kadkod, blood-red carbuncle); number: 16

the oldest and best preserved celtic harp - the twelfth century Brian Boru harp from Ireland - has a body carved from a single piece of willow wood, while the knee and pillar are made of oak, thus uniting male and female in perfect balance.

a sheilich ged a tha thu slàn
tha thu cho seang ’s gu faicinn tromhad
ach gu bheil d’aigne na dannsair gun tàmh
is d’èideadh gorm mar sgàthain do-àireamh
a’ tilleadh mo sgrùdaidh gun shamhla gàire
tha mi airson a bhith na do mheasg
ag èisdeachd ri sruthan fillte nan smuain
a’ suathadh nan deur bho na clòimhchait bhàn
ar n-aire air sìol bhradan shìos fodhainn
a’ sireadh a chuain ’s na cuairt mhòir

willow though you are whole
you are so slender I’d see right through you
except that your mind’s a ceaseless dancer
and your green clothes like innumerable mirrors
returning my scrutiny with no shadow of a smile
i want to be among you
listening to the plaited currents of thought
wiping the tears from pale catkins
our attention on smolts down below us
seeking the ocean and the great journey

poem by aonghas macneacail

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