Growing up in the northern reaches of England’s fen lands, willow has featured in my life from the very beginning. Now, in the northern highlands of Scotland, I see it growing steadfast at the edges of the flow country. Some willows should be classed as shrubs rather than trees – like the osier – but the crack willow may grow up to twenty five metres in height. The osier, the crack willow, the bay willow, the purple willow and the grey willow are all native to Britain and their various catkins delight children and adults when much of Nature is still sleeping.
Because of the stunning appearance of the weeping willow, introduced to Britain in 1692, it is easy to have its image fixed in the mind as a classic illustration of Salix. My parents planted one such in the lawn of our garden and, after a few years, it was impressive – until the furry caterpillars found it. Then it was horrible to see – they covered it – and soon denuded it of its foliage. This is a sad story but a happier one is to follow.
A little while after that we were given, on one Palm Sunday, little crosses made of willow twigs. My mother, on arriving home from church, put hers in water. It started to develop roots and very soon there was quite a root system at the bottom of the jar. She decided to plant it in the garden and it began to grow. Soon after that we moved house. The willow came with us and was planted at the bottom of the new garden and in a corner. It grew and grew and grew – like Topsy. Some years later our children decided that Granny’s tree was good to climb. They did just that. It had become a source of fun as well as – well – a bit of a miracle really.
All of these things happened in the villages of the Isle of Axholme. Now we have all, except for Granny, left the area, but still the willow legacy lives on. I discovered recently that cricket-bat willow is commonly grown in Suffolk and Essex – the current stomping ground of a slender young shoot close to our hearts. The cricket-bat willow is one of the fastest growing trees in all of Britain.
Topsy followed us to Hope Cottage – Topsy in the growth-spurt sense – because we had a self-set willow there, by the garden pond, which grew so big that it had to be cut back in order to let in the light. This, of course, worked in the same way as does pollarding, hence the unwanted bushy growth that followed.
Willows are greedy plants. They cover a much larger underground area than you might imagine, spreading their thirsty roots very quickly. They don’t mind sharing, however, and this makes them good bedfellows in an uncut hedgerow. Here, in the far north of Britain, along our riverbank, willows provide perching places for the teasing sedge warblers and reed buntings. The reed buntings haven’t been here in the Highlands very long, but they seem happily settled, at least for now. Patterns of bird life change in an area; for example, many puffins have recently flitted to the west to breed. So who knows how long the reed buntings will remain? They are, at present, a delight to watch and to listen to through spring and well into summer. Other birds which attach themselves to the willow are the willow tit and the willow warbler. I haven’t seen any willow tits here in northern Scotland but I do know that they are difficult to tell apart from the marsh tit. The willow tit, perhaps oddly, prefers damper areas than does the marsh tit. It will rarely visit gardens whereas the marsh tit sometimes will. More common up here is the willow warbler which, as one would expect from the name, makes a beautiful warbling sound ending in a gentle murmur. They can sometimes appear quite yellowish – especially the young.
Nature walks from my primary school, as a little girl, invariably took in an appreciation of the native willow trees. My brother and his friends had a den in the hollow of an old willow tree. The undergrowth was well trampled so the whole thing was not very secret at all really. I’m not sure what Enid Blyton would have made of it. The tree stood amongst ashes and alders and other willows. They all lined the little road leading to the turbary which, years before, was inhabited by wildfowlers and their families, probably drawing on the healing qualities of the willow to ease their rheumatism. For us ,as children, lots of adventures began there and these remind me of that great adventure film “Willow”. We first watched this film over twenty years ago and we love it even more now. One special person I know included it in a study of theology on film for her degree. Its special effects were ground-breaking but their power pales into insignificance when the interpretation of the central theme – good versus evil – is considered. The powerful battle between the forces of darkness and the belief and hope for a secure future in the sacred child is classic. Completely bewitching.
Willow has long been a sanctifying symbol. As well as the Palm Sunday crosses it was customary in some areas of England – one such being the county of Dorset – to lay willow rods on every seat in church on that day. Some say it is unlucky to cut willow except for on Palm Sunday when it would be blessed in church as protection against disease and thunder and lightning.
There are many stories and associations regarding the willow, some fairly grim, others endearing. For example, if a Yorkshire lass were to throw her shoe at a willow on Easter or New Year’s Night, and it struck the branches, then she would marry within the year. Now girls, I know things are different now but it would be rather fun don’t you think? Willows have seemingly forever been acknowledged as treatment for rheumatism. Modern research vindicates this as it is the salicin in the willow bark which gives the tree its medicinal properties.
William Morris used the willow as inspiration for his designs. Willows grew along the banks of the River Thames where he lived and worked and their pleasing leaves occur in several of his creations. A favourite of mine is the “Tulip and Willow”. This design gave Morris a bit of a headache. He was keen to use indigo but the first printing was the wrong shade for Morris so he struggled to solve this problem – and he did solve it – by making his own dye. The result is calming and subtle. There are more famous Morris designs with willow but “Tulip and Willow” is well worth seeking out.
Creativity and willow appear to go hand in hand. Not only in the visual arts is willow much in evidence, but also in the field of sound. Irish harps are traditionally made of willow wood. More sinisterly though, willow trees were reputed to mumble and mutter as they followed travellers across Exmoor:
“Ellum do grieve,
Oak he do hate,
Willow do walk
If you travels late.”
Personally I would rather consider the work of American poet, Robert Frost, in “Tree At My Window”. I have to say that I have no idea of what type of tree with which he was interacting in this poem but I am put in mind of the lithe willow receptive to his conversation and bending to his will:
“Vague dream-head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongue talking aloud
Could be profound.”