There around 400 forms of Salix – deciduous trees and shrubs found on moist soils in cold and temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The leaves and bark of the willow tree have been mentioned in ancient texts from Assyria, Sumer and Egypt as a remedy for aches and fever, and the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about its medicinal properties in the 5th century BC. Native Americans across the American continent relied on it as a staple of their medical treatments. This is because Willows contain salicylic acid, the precursor to aspirin. Willows all have abundant watery sap; bark which is heavily charged with the salicylic acid; soft, usually pliant, tough wood; slender branches; and large, fibrous roots.
Willow wood is also used in the manufacture of all kinds of things – boxes, brooms and particularly cricket bats! But, it is also used for wands – Willow is one of the nine sacred trees mentioned in Wicca and witchcraft, with several magical uses. In the Wiccan Rede, it is described as growing by water and guiding the dead into the “Summerland”, a commonly used term in Wicca to refer to the afterlife.
Willow has many uses in agriculture and has an emerging role in ecology. But its the Willow’s role in religion, in folklore and in fiction, including Shakespeare, that is fascinating! It is one of the “Four Species” used in a ceremony on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story called Under the Willow Tree (1853) in which children ask questions of a tree they call willow-father, paired with another entity called elder-mother. Green Willow is a Japanese ghost story in which a young samurai falls in love with a woman called Green Willow who has a close spiritual connection with a willow tree. And as we all know from Harry Potter, there is an old tree on the school grounds of Hogwarts called the “Whomping Willow”. It was planted in order to conceal a secret passageway that Professor Remus Lupin roamed through every full moon when he began his transformation into a werewolf.
Here’s to the wonderful Willow!