It is amazing how easy it is not to notice things. Until recently the very tall willow tree in our garden has been largely ignored or regarded as a nuisance, It casts a shadow over the vegetable patch and also drops endless twigs into the garden pond. Perhaps it was the sight of this willow, not ours but sited along the quaintly named Spinfish Lane at Freshwater that made me change my mind. Photographed in September, this wonderful tree with its golden spreading foliage whispers peacefully in contrast to the busy stream passing beside it.
This is our willow. It doesn’t have quite the presence of the one above, does it? but bear in mind that this is February, it has been battered by hurricanes with middle-class names like Imogen and being deciduous, it has lost its foliage. Give it time.
Collectively, the willow is known as Salix and about four hundred species populate the world, including the Arctic. Willows love water, lots of it. That’s why they are so useful in a boggy area because they absorb plenty of liquid. They have other uses too. Early scientists recognised the trees’ pain relieving qualities and sufferers would chew the buds for relief from sore throats and toothache. It was also recommended for joint pains. Unfortunately, like its modern successor – Aspirin, it can cause digestive problems.
Willow is rich in folklore. Egyptians, Buddhists, Jewish and Christian traditions have given it a place. It symbolises the fifth month of the Celtic calendar and the Goddess Hecate made it her own, along with her sovereignty over water.
Its connection to water is underlined in Psalm 137 where: ‘By the rivers of Babylon, Here we sat down and wept, When we remembered Zion, On the willows there, we hung our harps… Perhaps this link is more widely known today thanks to the musicians Boney M.
Man was quick to discover many uses for the willow. These pictures are taken by some old withy fields at Shalfleet village on the Isle of Wight. Known as osiers, the willow was cultivated for both its bark and its wood, and not least the long pliable fronds that could be woven into baskets, linings, cane seats and lobster pots, Break off a branch, stick it into the ground and it will invariably take root. Coppice it and you have a fence strong enough to contain livestock. Pollard it and within months, it will have regrown by several feet.
The wood also has its uses. Perhaps dearest to that sports-loving Englishman is the production of cricket bats. The factory workers in the north of England protected their feet in wooden clogs. The wood being softer it is also easier to carve.
Unlike the oak, it is not long lived. Few willows pass their fiftieth birthdays. This is bad news for us because we have known ‘our’ willow for nigh on forty years and it was at the very least a teenager when we moved in. So, as I wonder at its ability to bend and sway with even the fiercest wind, I look forward to the appearance of feathery spring catkins and hope that it will survive for many years to come. We had better make the most of it while we have it.