Wind in the Willows – and so much more

Who does not know a willow on sight, those elegantly slim trees with long, flexible branches?
Did you know there are more than 400 known species of willow, also known as salix? Varieties range from trees to shrubs to creepers. Willows can often be found in parks near ponds or along rivers, making a wonderful, ornamental feature. They are also ideal for keeping waterlogged areas dry.

Thanks to the willow we now have a medicine that revolutionised pain treatments. An acid contained in the sap was the base for the later invented synthetic version known as aspirin. People in the older days would chew or brew the bark to treat fever and pain such as head- or toothache. Now we just conveniently swallow a pill. Worth hugging a tree for, don’t you think? Go on then.

In mythology and literature the willow is often connected with mysticism or life of one sort or the other. In the Northern Hemisphere the willow tree symbolises death or grief, whereas in China the willow stands for immortality and rebirth. In Shakespeare’s “Othello” Desdemona puts her fear and sorrow into “The Willow Song”. Hans Christian Andersen mentions in his story “Under the Willow Tree” an Elder Mother and Willow Father, under which the main character Knut finds solace. Similarities can be found in Disney’s “Pocahontas” where Grandmother Willow, a wise and ancient figure, is depicted as a speaking willow tree. Another famous willow is “The Whomping Willow” from the Harry Potter book series, a tree with attitude, standing tall in the grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Other legends tell of witches crafting brooms from willow tree branches.

My favourite variety is the weeping willow due to its very distinctive, roundish shape. During my childhood I had one in front of my bedroom window. I could (and probably did) spent hours just looking at the branches moving like long hair in the wind. The leaves would flick in the breeze, showing their whitish underside. Sunlight would filter through them, bringing the tree to life, mesmerising me. During the flowering period, the tree looked like as if it was wearing curlers – or was inhabited by millions of hairy caterpillars.Caterpillars are pretty but turn creepy if there are more than twenty in one spot, therefore I preferred the curler version. I imagined the willow would have liked to be a corkscrew willow rather than a weeping one. I could relate to that, having had very long straight hair at that time (spaghetti hair as I called it) and was wishing for a mop of curly hair. I got my wish in the 80s but it was more poodle perm than corkscrew. One is never happy with what one has…

If you want to plant a willow close to any structure you have to take into account that they tend to spread their roots everywhere and often close to the surface to get as much water as possible. My willow lifted up the paving alongside our block of flats and of the carpark – a mortal sin. Also the sticky flowers (catkin) would drop on cars and were hard to remove – another mortal sin. I tried to rescue my tree but there is only so much a teenager can do against a chain saw. The front of the house never looked the same after the removal. I rescued two young twigs and just stuck them in the ground at my secret hide-out. They took root and have been growing quite tall since. Sorry, location is still secret.

Willows grow amazingly easy and fast. A reason why they can be grown as hedge and branches can be “harvested” almost yearly for making baskets, furniture or other creations.
Have you ever wanted a handmade wicker basket? Don’t be put off by the price. Just pay for it. I once tried making one myself (with emphasis on “tried”) and I assure you, the money is well spent. Basket making is a skill. So is creating any other willow feature.

On my sightseeing trips through the United Kingdom I came across some astounding art creations in the gardens of the National Trust house “Knightshayes” near Tiverton, Devon.
I recently contacted the local artist and the magnificent creations should to be on display again from Easter onwards. Enjoy!


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