Willow has long been associated with mystical properties along with the moon and water. The Greek poet Orpheus carried willow branches with him to the underworld. Hecate was the Greek Goddess of both the moon and the willow. In Druid mythology, man was hatched from two scarlet eggs hidden in a willow tree.
Mystical or not, willow has always had an important place in the everyday lives of humans. Its flexible, fast growing branches were used for a myriad of purposes from making baskets to making Welsh coracles (boats). Willow wood is the source of charcoal used in drawings. Tannin from the bark was used for making leather. Willow wood absorbs shock well and so is still favoured in making cricket bats. Sound boxes for harps were originally carved out of willow. Coppiced willow twigs are still used for fodder and, in Sweden, willow is being used as a high energy bio-mass fuel.
But perhaps the most important use of willow in the early years was its ability ease pain and reduce fever because willow contains an abundance of salicin which turns into salicylic acid in the human body.
It was used as medicine by the early Sumerians and by the Assyrians, Greeks and Egyptians. In North America, willow was a staple in the medicine chest of the indigenous people. It was the salicin in willow that eventually led to the development of aspirin, a synthesized salicylic acid derived from spirea.
Of all the willows, the weeping willow is the most cherished. Its long sweeping branches form a graceful veil at the margins of a pond or a stream where it loves to locate for the water it needs to survive. It is hardy to at least zone 3 as long as it has enough water. It will be happy if you plant it beside a stream or on the edge of a pond.
And willow has another quite magical property: stick a willow branch into the ground and a new tree will sprout from the branch, sending out roots where the stick touches the soil. However, the same magic that causes it to grow so spontaneously can be troublesome with some varieties that have stoloniferous roots. These are roots that send up shoots along its nodes otherwise known as suckering.
It should be noted that there are exceptions to this. Some species, such as the Goat willow, Salic Caprea, and the peachleaf or almond willow Salix amygdaloides do not respond so readily to planting from cuttings.
Another extraordinary property of the willow is its ability to make other plants send out roots. The growing tips of the weeping willow contain indolebutyric acid (IBA), a plant growth hormone. Aided by the salicin which prevents the growth of bacteria, chopped willow tips can be soaked in water to make willow water. If you use boiling water, the chemical can be leeched from the willow over a 24-hour period and then used to prepare cuttings from a plant you wish to propagate. Just stick the new cuttings into a glass of willow water, leave them for several hours and then plant. You can also use a bit of the willow water a couple of times to hydrate your newly planted cuttings.
Willows are among the earliest plants to flower, making them a welcome host to bees. The mourning cloak butterfly relies on the willow to lay her eggs and willow catkins (the flower or “pussies” of the willow tree) can be mashed and eaten by humans.
There are more than 400 species of willow and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Willow trees include the weeping willow (Salix babylonica), the acute willow (Salix acutifolia) has spreading branches and blue green leaves. It grows to 50 feet tall and wide and is great for shelterbelts, lasting 40 to 50 years. Black Willow is a shrubby tree hardy to zone 3. It likes to grow in wet conditions in sunlight or part shade. Its height and spread are 20 to 30 feet. The peachleaf willow (Salix amygdaloides) is a multi-stemmed tree with a spreading crown. The wood is weak, and it needs copious amounts of water. And then there is the corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortusa’) with its tortured branches that is hardy to zone 4 but is short lived and will not stand up well to heavy winds.
Despite all these virtues, there is one even closer to the heart of a gardener: its beauty. The willow inspired Chinese poet, He Zhizhang (659 to 744), to observe “Thousands of verdant branches drape like silk ribbons”, and William Makepeace Thackery to write, “Know ye the willow-tree, Whose gray leaves quiver, Whispering gloomily, To yon pale river . . .” in his poem about how the willow tree affects young ladies who stray too close. Indeed, the word willow stimulates an image of grace and elegance.
If there be a second life then coming back as a willow tree would be a lovely reward for a life well lived. You would be useful, beautiful and flexible, your days spent with feet bathed in cool waters, the sun in your billowing hair which would make leaf music in the wind. You could welcome birds and small animals and feed the bees in earliest spring.
There are fates much worse!