Now when I think of willow, my mind goes back to that particular tree, a grand old plant which was poised on the edge of a lake in the gardens of a stately home in Wiltshire.
These days my encounters with willow trees are a bit more dignified (although I still sometimes have that urge to run through the draping branches). I’m either planting them down at Tree Nursery
here at Castle Howard, or in the summer I can be found sitting underneath one with a good book and my toes dangling in the river.
Willow trees are looking particularly lovely at the moment and we have a splendid goat willows (salix caprea) near the edge of the Great Lake here at Castle Howard. Although they do not have the full beauty of their summer foliage yet, their fresh new branches are tinged red and green and are dotted with those little silky rabbit-tail buds. Soon enough these will transform into catkins which will be an invaluable early source of pollen for foraging bees that have begun to awaken from their hibernation. Being dioecious, willow trees have male and female catkins on separate trees, the males a light grey and the females long and green. When the leaves arrive later in spring, the goat willows will be oval with soft down underneath and a feast for a host of moth caterpillars and the purple emperor butterfly. The trees will grow up to 10 metres when mature and although you can find them in hedgerows, woodlands and scrub land they will thrive in damp soil close to rivers, lakes or streams.
I don’t just love willows for their graceful and majestic appearance however. They also have significant cultural appeal for those interested in folklore and are one of the most versatile trees out there. Their astoundingly quick growth means they make excellent timber for coppicing or pollarding and make it extremely easy to take cuttings. Simply removing a branch and pushing it into the soil will create a new tree and it’ll grow several feet in one season. Willows will even propagate themselves by lowering their branches to the ground where it will form new roots. The whips are incredibly flexible and were traditionally weaved into baskets and are now often used to create living structures such as arches and ornamental shapes which come to life in the spring. Willow has also been used to build traditional buildings, to manufacture charcoal and as fodder for livestock (which is where the goat willow gets its common name). The bark meanwhile would have been turned into an infusion or chewed by our ancestors to relieve pain and provide a remedy to colds, fevers and rheumatism. These days we know that it’s the salicylic acid in willow that has these effects and which was used to create the world’s first synthetic drug – aspirin.
It’s these characteristics of willow that were behind the traditional connotations of renewal, vitality, celebration and immortality (which are somewhat in contrast with the more recent Christian images of sorrow and mourning). For me and my nostalgia of childhood pleasures, the idea of renewal and celebration rings truest. So next time you see a willow or if you are planting one in your garden, take a moment to celebrate, especially with spring in our midst.