Plant: Willow
Botanical Name: SALIX

Synonyms, Country Names: The Willow is a native of Britain. It belongs to a large family (SALIX), numbering 160 species. According to Henry Nicholson Ellacombe (Ellacombe} in his book the Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare published in 1884, there were seventeen distinct species in Great Britain, besides many sub-species and varieties.

Ellacombe indicated that Willow is an old English word, but the more common and perhaps the older name for the Willow is Withy, a name which was still in constant use during his life, but was more generally applied to the twigs when cut for basket-making than to the living tree. "Withe" is found in the oldest vocabularies, but the name "Willow" did not appear until the fifteenth century. Another name for it was the Sallow, which was either a corruption of the Latin Salix, or was derived from a common root. It was also called Osier, from the old French term for basket willow.


Quotations: Even to the next Willow, about your own business,
country. What fashion will you wear the garland of?
About your neck, like an usurer's chain? Or under
your arm, like a lieutenant's scarf? You must wear it
one way, for the price hath got your Hero.

Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Sc. 1.
I offer him my company to a Willow tree either to make
him a garland, as being forsaken, or to bind him up a rod,
as being worthy to be whipped.

Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Sc. 1.
These thoughts to me were Oaks, to thee like Osiers bow'd.

Nathaniel, Love's Labour's Lost. Act IV. Sc. 2.
In such a night
Stood Dido, with a Willow in her hand,
Upon the wild sea-banks.

Lorenzo, Merchant of Venice, Act V, Sc. 1.
There is a Willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the grassy stream.
There on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hand, an envious sliver broke.

Queen Gertrude, Hamlet, Act IV, Sc. 7.
The poor soul sat sighing by a Sycamore tree.
Sing all a green Willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee.
Sing Willow, Willow, Willow.
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur'd her moans;
Sing Willow, Willow, Willow.
Her salt tear fell from her and soften'd the stone,
Sing Willow Willow, Willow.
Sing all a green Willow must be my garland.

Desdemona (singing), Othello, Act IV, Sc. 3.
I must up-fill this Willow cage of ours
With baleful Weeds and precious juiced Flowers.

Friar, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Sc. 3.

Cultivation: Many of the Willows were used as shrubs for the garden, and some were so low as to be called carpet plants. Ellacombe mentioned some of the Willows know during his life in England. SALIX Regina is one of the most silvery shrubs we have, with very narrow leaves; SALIX lanata is almost as silvery, but with larger and woolly leaves, and makes a very pretty object when grown on rockwork near water; SALIX rosmarinifolia is another desirable shrub; and among the lower-growing species, the following will grow well on rockwork, and completely clothe the surface: SALIX alpina, SALIX Grahami, SALIX retusa, SALIX serpyllifolia, and SALIX reticulata. They are all easily cultivated and are quite hardy. The White Willow, SALIX alba, also native to the Briish Isles, grows beside water and in wet woods. Willows generally flower in the spring, and all Willows produce abundant pollen and are attractive to bees.

The Useful Plant: Ellacombe states that the Willow, a common plant with the peculiar pliability of the shoots that distinguishes all the family, was often used. Its more common uses were for basket-making and huts, or "Willow-cabins", but it had other uses in the elegancies and even in the romance of life. The flowers of the early Willow (SALIX caprea) were called Palms on Palm Sunday, and not only the flowers but the branches also seem to have been used in decoration, a use which was extinct during Ellacombe's lifetime.
He felt that was probably no tree that contributed as much to the conveniences of English life as the Willow. It was used in the manufacture of gunpowder and cricket bats, and Willow baskets were used in even the most scantily-furnished house. As far as was known at that time, British baskets were exported to Rome.
While Ellacombe maintained that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Willow did not appear to have had any value for its medical uses, other resources indicate that, in the distant past, the bark of the White Willow would be crushed and then dropped into a cup of boiling water. After boiling for a period of time, the bark would be strained and the resulting tea drunk to relieve headaches, fevers, and swollen joints. In Ellacombe's day salicine and salicylic acid were produced from the bark, and had a high reputation as antiseptics and in rheumatic cases. Chemists eventually took one component from the White Willow bark, synthesized it into acetylsalicylic acid and made it into aspirin.
According to Laurel Dewey in her book the Humorous Herbalist, the stomach upset and irritation that some people experience after taking aspirin for a period of time is nonexistent with White Willow bark which contains substances not present in aspirin, including tannins, an aide for digestion. White Willow bark is a natural pain killer and a natural anti-inflammatory and is effective in reducing fevers and the aches and pains of a cold or flu. The tea is more effective than the capsules.
Mrs. M. Grieve in her book A Modern Herbal, published in 1931, indicates that the powdered bark from the Red American Osier, also known as the Red or Rose Willow, has been used to make toothpowder to preserve the gums and make the teeth white and that the flowers have been used in place of chamomile.

Folklore: The following is from Ellacombe. But if we only look at the poetry of the time of Shakespeare, and much of the poetry before and after him, we should almost conclude that the sole use of the Willow was to weave garlands for jilted lovers, male and female. It was probably with reference to this that Shakespeare represented poor mad Ophelia hanging her flowers on the "Willow tree aslant the brook," and it is more pointedly referred to in some of the other quotations found in Shakespeare. The feeling was expressed in a melancholy ditty, which must have been very popular in the sixteenth century, of which Desdemona says a few of the first verses which are above, and which concludes thus-

"Come all you forsaken and sit down by me,
He that plaineth of his false love, mine's falser than she;
The Willow wreath weare I, since my love did fleet,
A garland for lovers forsaken most meet."

Ellacombe looks back to see explore the melancholy association with the Willow. With one exception the Biblical references are connected with joyfulness and fertility. The one exception is in the 137th Psalm.

"By the streams of Babel, there we sat down,
And we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the Willows among the rivers we hung our harps."

He maintains that this one record has been sufficient to alter the emblematic character of the Willow which appears never again to have been associated with feelings of gladness. This is the more remarkable because the tree referred to in the Psalms, the Weeping Willow (SALIX Babylonica), which by its habit of growth is to us so suggestive of crushing sorrow, was unknown in Europe until a very recent period.

Personal: There are no Willows in the garden, but we would love to plant one some day in the garden or nearby.

Carol Mellinger
March 6, 2015