The White Willow Tree

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Illustration by Lucille Clerc

In wet soil, the willow is ludicrously easy to propagate: cut a stem, pop it in wet ground and … er … that’s it. The roots and suckers spread widely and make a beeline for water, a talent that can cause havoc when a willow explores the tiniest leaks in pipes and sewers and then in?ltrates, expands and clogs. By a riverbank, however, the willow’s mass of tangled roots prevents erosion and provides shelter for wildlife.

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

There are about 450 species of willow, widespread across Europe, and the frequent intermarriage between them means they have much in common and are easily distinguished as a group. Mature white willows can reach 30 metres (98 feet) tall with graceful foliage but sometimes lopsided crowns. The leaves are long and narrow, initially velvety on both sides but tending to lose their nap on the upper surface as they mature, giving the tree a silvery-grey appearance from afar, hence the common name. The ?owers, borne on slender catkins in early spring, are especially striking since they appear before the leaves. Looking like long, ?uffy caterpillars with a dusting of egg-yolk-yellow pollen, they are particularly attractive to both bees and ?ower-arrangers.

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

In English, ‘willowy’ can be used to describe anything particularly slender and ?exible. Since prehistoric times, thin willow stems, or osiers, have been woven into baskets, boat frames, fences and ?sh traps. Osier-beds once stretched along the banks of European waterways to supply the trade. A recent trend for organic artworks – sculptures and even furniture woven from the stems and branches of living willows – can feel gimmicky but also a touch magical, which is appropriate for a plant that has had long association with superstition.

One species, Salix babylonica – the weeping willow – got its name from a mistranslation of Psalm 137: ‘By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down and wept, When we remembered Zion, Upon the willows in the midst of it, We hung our harps.’ The tree in question was probably the Euphrates poplar, not a willow, but the association between drooping willows and sorrow stuck. Throughout Europe, the practice of wearing a wreath or hat made from willow to signify mourning lasted for several centuries in the Middle Ages, at least in popular song. Eventually the willow’s gloomy connotations broadened to include a lover’s rejection, and ‘wearing the willow’ came to signify that a woman was not available to another man.

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

In modern Dutch, to hang up your cigarettes on the willows means giving them up.

Superstition has created a link between willow and sadness, but it has a connection with the relief of physical pain that is based on good chemistry. Ancient Egyptians were already using willow to treat fever and headaches, and in about 400 BC Hippocrates prescribed willow bark for rheumatism. In the Middle Ages there were scores of European examples of willow’s effectiveness against fever; and a popular cure for toothache was to take a splinter of bark and insert it between gum and tooth. We now know that willow bark contains signi?cant amounts of a chemical called salicin, which can be converted in our bodies to substances that have analgesic and fever-reducing effects. This ‘magic’ might therefore have worked even without the second part of the cure, which was to return the now-bloody sliver to the tree, to carry the pain away with it. In the mid nineteenth century salicylic acid was ?nally isolated and turned into what is now a ubiquitous treatment for fevers and frets, consumed in about 100 billion pills a year. That drug is aspirin. (It was named after another plant with similar chemistry, the meadowsweet, which at the time was called Spiraea.)

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

Willows’ af?nity for water has enabled them to ?ourish in the Low Countries, where they are a dominant feature of the countryside. However, in keeping with a largely man-made agricultural landscape, they are not left to grow naturally but are pollarded. The tops of the trees are pruned severely each year to just a few metres high, forcing the growth of large, knobbly, club-headed stubs from which long shoots grow proli?cally to form a bushy crown (well above the reach of browsing cattle). For hundreds of years, pollarded willows have been grown for the supply of stems and as distinctive boundary markers. Inextricably linked with the region, they feature repeatedly in paintings by Rembrandt and Van Gogh. In Belgium, some say that the pollarded willow is a metaphor for the country’s people – solid, restrained and hard to knock over.

Willows thrive by water. But what is the maximum height that leaves can be from a tree’s roots?
Learn the answer in
Around the World In 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori.
(Cover Illustration by Lucille Clerc. Cover Courtesy of Laurence King Publishing).

More from Around the World in 80 Trees:

Excerpted from Around the World In 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Drori. Excerpted by permission of Laurence King Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Mother Earth Gardener
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