The Willow Tree


From ‘Tree Fairies’ illustrated by Franke Rogers

Latin: Salix alba; Salix caprea
Type: Deciduous Tree | Size: 10-30m (33-100ft)
Other Names: White Willow; Goat Willow, Pussy Willow, Sallow; Withe, Withy

If the Alder tree is the “King of the waters” then the Willow tree is the “Queen”. It’s natural habitat is by bodies of water in wet soil. Because willows grow fast and have deep, strong roots, they are often planted along riverbanks in order to stabilize the land and control erosion. There are around 400 species of willows (or Salix), the most well known being Salix babylonica, the weeping willow.

However, since it’s native to China, the weeping willow is not the willow referenced in the Celtic tree calendar. Rather, the willow referenced in the calendar is most likely the Salix alba—the white willow—or the Salix caprea—known as goat willow, pussy willow, or sallow—which are both native to Europe and western & central Asia, but also, most importantly, most of England, Ireland, & Scotland. Both trees have plenty of lore attached to them and seem to be interchangeable with in the lore as well. Which is fitting, seeing as (as you’ll see) the two trees have similar medicinal properties as well.

In eastern North America, the native species of willow is the Salix nigra or Black Willow. It appears as far north as New Brunswick, west to Minnesota, and south to northern Florida and central Texas. The black willow has many of the same properties as the white and pussy willows, with the exception of its black bark which gives it its name.

Willow trees are said to be the first to arrive and the last leave. This is because the willow blossoms in early spring and drops their leaves late in the fall season. Because of this, they are an early source of both nectar and pollen for bees.

Parts of the willow trees have been used for many different purposes. Because of how pliable the branches and stems are, willow has been used for a plethora of items that would be more difficult to shape with harder woods. In fact, the oldest known net (8300 BC) was made from willow branches. The most well known use today is probably wicker furniture, but in the past many cultures have used willow to make baskets for carrying fish, eel traps, ropes, bridles, fencing and woven hedges, gates, shields, coffins, beehives, living garden sculptures such as domes or tunnels, cricket bats, dolls, flutes and whistles, sweat lodges, paper and even charcoal for writing or drawing. 

Identification

The most prominent part of all willow trees are the branches. The branches are flexible and droop down towards the ground, though not all willow’s branches droop to the degree that the weeping willow’s does. The white willow and the pussy willow are both vastly different in looks, though most else between the trees are similar.

Salix alba

The white willow gets its name from its leaves which are a shiny, dark green on the top and a muted white on bottom, making the tree look a silvery green color from a distance. The leaves are also long and thin, being about 2-4 inches long and 1 inch wide. The bark is grey, rough, and furrowed into narrow ridges, looking almost like a lighter oak. The flowers are called catkins and generally grow to be 1-2 inches with scales that are yellow and hairy and grow in the early spring.

  

Salix caprea

The pussy/goat willow gets its name from the fluffy catkins that look almost like fur. The catkins are much shorter than those from the white willow and are more oval shaped. The bark is a green-gray color and is mostly smooth with diamond shaped fissures that develop more with age. The leaves are wide and oval shaped with a pointed tip and have a felt like texture on the bottom side.

  

Medicinal Properties

The primary medicinal use for willow is the salicylic acid which is found in the bark of salix trees.

In modern times, salicylic acid is an active ingredient in Aspirin, Pepto-Bismol (which is a combination of salicylic acid and a salt from probably the most interesting looking metals, Bismuth), and, it’s most common use, skin care products that require the removal of the top layer of skin (eg. warts, calluses, psoriasis, dandruff, or acne).

However, both the bark and the leaves of the willow have been used since the times of Hippocrates at the least and in places from Egypt to Ancient Greece to England and even native tribes throughout the Americas. Historically, the willow was used to treat aches and pains and to reduce fevers and inflammation.

So bury me beneath the willow,
Beneath the weeping willow tree,
And when she knows I am sleeping
Then perhaps she’ll think of me.
– The Weeping Willow Tree (Traditional)

Metaphysical Properties

Today, the willow is most closely associated with grief and death/mourning, however, in the past, it has also been a correspondent for fertility and creation, as well as the element of water and the moon, night, and dreams. It has been used to attract the powers needed for protection, divination, inspiration, healing, fertility, love, grief, death, and anything water related.

For more, in depth lore about the willow check out my post “Willow Lore”

Associations

Water, creativity & inspiration, fertility, protection, healing, grieving, death
Deities: Sumerian Belili (the Willow Mother), Greek/Roman: Artemis/Diana, Demeter/Ceres, Mercury;
Moon Deities: Greek/Roman: Selene/Luna; Nordic: Mani; Celtic: Aine
Underworld & Death Goddesses: Greek/Roman: Persephone/Proserpina, Circe, Hera/Juno, & Hecate, Celtic: Morgan le Fay, Cailleach, & the Morrighan
Holidays: Beltaine, Halloween/Samhain, the festival of Green George

Sources:
“Tree Lore: Willow”
“The Willow Tree”, Controversical
“Willow”, The Goddess Tree
“Salix alba”, Wikipedia
“Salix caprea”, Wikipedia
Photo Credits:
“Saliz alba bark”. By Andreas Plank (Own work). CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
“Salix alba leaves”. CC-BY-SA-3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
“Salix alba3″. By AnRo0002 (Own work) CC0, via Wikimedia Commons”
“Salix caprea 008” By Willow (Own work) CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
“Salix caprea 024” By Willow (Own work) CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
“Salix caprea20110423 109By Bff (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

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