Wondrous willows

Wondrous willows

The lore and the science

Headstone of Eliza Hagaman with willow motif

An 1840 headstone with a willow tree in relief.

A familiar sight to many New Englanders, the urn-and-willow gravestone motif on early American gravestones was popular as a symbol for immortality as well as for the sense of mournfulness it evoked.

Not unique to the US, however, the use and symbolism of willows is common in many traditions. In the United Kingdom, willow was traditionally used to build gallows. For this reason, using willow wood in the building of a home was believed to bring disaster to the family within.

European peoples once commonly claimed the wind in the willow leaves was elves who whispered and talked among themselves, and a tradition of planting willows near homes was said to ward off bad luck. It was believed that if you confessed your secrets to a willow tree, the secret will be forever trapped inside the wood (which might be tied to the origin of the reflexive habit to “touch wood” or “knock on wood” to prevent bad luck).

In Asian traditions, however, willow trees are associated with vitality and eternity. The genus name Salix is believed to have come from the Latin salire (“to leap”) in reference to the tree’s rapid growth. Not only do willows grow quickly, but they contain Indolebutyric acid, a plant hormone that stimulates root growth and is present in high concentrations in the growing tips of willow branches. In fact, I am currently using “willow-tea” to create a home-grown rooting medium which I will use to establish some new shrubs on my own property.

Willow wood is supposed to be the best choice for divining water and magic harps. And as Harry Potter fans are already aware, some wizards use it for making their wands. Whether you believe in magic or not, willows do possess some powerful characteristics. Willow bark contains salicin, which is a natural form of aspirin. Willow bark has been used for thousands of years as a pain reliever and to reduce inflammation.

Ancient Europeans and the Inuit of the Alaskan peninsula made a type of porridge from the catkins and used them as food. Many early peoples discovered the catkins also produce a reddish dye. Historically, willow has been used to treat rashes, dandruff, and mouth inflammations as well as to prevent fever and dyspepsia.

Willow wood is able to absorb trauma or shock without splitting, and some of the best cricket bats and Dutch wooden shoes are made from willow. Since the wood is pliable, it is popular with basket-makers as well.

For many, the willow that most readily comes to mind is the weeping willow (Salix babylonica, a native of China previously thought to have originated in Babylonia), but there are over three hundred species in the genera. In North America alone, there are approximately thirty native and naturalized tree species and sixty native shrubs. Not all willows found locally are native, but Maine does have 26 species that grow here – including pussy willows (Salix discolor).

Willows are dioecious, meaning that male and female parts are found on different plants. The males have the larger, showier catkins, while the female catkins tend to be smaller and greenish. What we commonly know as pussy willows are actually the flowering parts of the plant.

Willows are a host plant for the mourning cloak and viceroy butterflies, and the catkins that bloom very early in the spring are one of the first pollen sources for pollinators. The insects, in turn, provide a smorgasbord for songbirds. This makes them an excellent landscaping choice for helping our fragile pollinator population.

So how can you plant willows at home? It could not be easier! Live staking (or propagation by cutting) almost seems too good to be true. Before the buds open in late winter or very early spring, cut a branch from a chosen tree or shrub, including any willow, and drive it into the ground – and a new plant will grow! This method has a high success rate, and can be a very affordable way to plant native trees and shrubs. It also works with red-osier dogwood (Cornus serecia), gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), and silky dogwood (Cornus amomum). Live-staking is a great way to protect an eroding stream bed or seasonally flooding area and it is an excellent way to enhance native habitat.

An illustration of live staking to prevent erosion in a stream bank

Illustration of a live-stake planting intended to prevent erosion in a stream bank. 

Rossetti, the English poet, captured the essence of Salix well in her poem, “In the Willow Shade:”

Slow wind sighed through the willow leaves,
The ripple made a moan,
The world drooped murmuring like a thing that grieves;
And then I felt alone.

I rose to go, and felt the chill,
And shivered as I went;
Yet shivering wondered, and I wonder still,
What more that willow meant. . .

Photo attribution: Eliza Hagaman headstone courtesy of smallcurio on Flickr (CC by 2.0). Live-stake illustration from leafninjas.ca.