by Dawn Francis-Pester
Dawn Francis-Pester looks at the magic and myth surrounding willow and why it is such a natural and versatile plant
Dating back to the Ice Age, and often featuring in myth and folklore, willow is also a popular and versatile plant for uses in the modern world. Most of us are familiar with the weeping willow tree, or have a woven willow basket at home, but why are we so drawn to this plant, and are we aware of its many properties?
As well as the elegant ornamental weeping willow tree with branches that usually hang down into rivers, there are hundreds of different willow species that can blend into a wide range of different settings. Sometimes willow grows as small shrub which is popular for landscaping or hedges, but there are also many types of willow tree that can grow several feet in a year. Some willow trees, including the red willow and the white willow, can tower up to more than 20 metres.
There is not only a wide range of willow shapes and sizes to choose from, but wood of different colours to suit every taste, with some that change colour when branches are cut. Some very dark brownish purple hues can be found, but there are also pale green and creamy white colours. Whichever shade, it looks natural and calming to the eye.
Trained in Fine Art, environmental artist Debbie Hall was drawn to the natural beauty of willow when she bought some plant supports for her garden about 18 years ago. “I’ve always been creative, and had tried a few different work avenues. Willow is the only thing I’ve stuck with. It offers a complete connection with the natural cycles. You plant it, nurture it and can even work with it when it’s alive. It’s simple to use too. There are no rules with willow and it’s financially and technically accessible to everyone.”
Willow is a fast growing, sustainable and biodegradable plant that will grow on a variety of soils. While fertile soil will produce the best results, the plant is known to clean up polluted earth and is often used for land reclamation and soil stabilisation projects. As it grows, it will improve the surrounding area by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It also adapts to a range of climates, and different species enjoy different temperatures. Black willow is ideal for colder climates, while corkscrew willow will put up with less water than some species.
But willow not only serves to improve the surrounding soil and atmosphere, it also supports a huge variety of wildlife, providing shelter as well as food. Caterpillars enjoy feasting on the leaves, and butterflies lay their eggs on willow. Many insects, including bees and butterflies feed on the nectar, and moths also seem to like willow. In turn, birds will often shelter in willow trees, and might eat a few of the insects while they are there.
Willow is a thirsty plant, and often grows by rivers or watery areas. Over time, the roots will stretch far into the soil, which makes it a popular choice for binding the earth in areas known for soil erosion. Willow’s quest for water is so strong that it will even interfere with any concrete structures that form obstacles, in an effort to reach a source. Gardeners know it is important to plant willow away from drains.
The affinity with water means that willow is naturally a pliable, rather than brittle wood, and it has a natural flexibility that makes it ideal for certain products. Cricket bats are traditionally made from willow, because of its ability to absorb shock without splintering, and this also makes it suitable for tool handles. Both cut and living willow have been used for weaving baskets and other structures such as fences, fedges (a cross between a fence and a hedge) and types of furniture for many centuries. Dried willow needs to be soaked before use, and the soaking time varies, depending on the species. Living willow is beautiful to work with, but needs plenty of water in the early stages of growth, and some after care including weaving in new growth a couple of times a year.
Traditional dowsers also choose willow as their preferred wood for finding ground water, using forked branches to give an indication of water location. Many believe the attraction of willow to water is so powerful that even if a small piece of willow is carried in the pocket, it will show some response around water.
Magic and Myth
While willow has strong links with water, we know that the movement of water is affected by the moon. It is this moon connection that has led many cultures to link willow with the moon goddess and in particular the qualities of harmony and feminine energy. The natural suppleness of the willow plant makes it the perfect symbol flexibility and a willingness to adapt to different life stages.
Flute and wand maker, Trevor Lewis, uses a variety of wood, including hazel, willow, oak, blackthorn and orange blossom, to make wands. After making wands for several years, he believes willow is the perfect wood for invocations to the goddess. For Trevor it’s the magical side of willow that makes it easy to cut, carve, polish and work with.
Willow is the wood of the moon and has to be treated with respect. If you want something, you have to ask permission and then wait for the answer to come.
We put red threads around the trees at full moon. Then we wait, and return at new moon to see which branches still have their threads. The ones with threads are giving permission to be used, so you are free to work with them. The experience is very personal, but I can feel which ones are empowered, and you can feel the magic in the wands. Alder is another goddess wood which is similar to willow. Hazel and oak are cut in the same way, but don’t hold the power in the way willow does.
After permission has been granted, we cut the branches and then leave an offering and a blessing by the trees. Even with permission, you don’t want to waste the branches you cut. Chris, a friend in my coven, lives in a willow grove, and with permission, we chose some branches there to cut. He was using them to make willow bark horns by spiralling off the bark of willow branches. Left with the stripped willow, I made use of these to craft into wands. It seemed very natural and part of the same process. I do all the crafting by hand, and I carve or burn images onto the wand. It’s important to allow the energy from the wood to inspire an image, rather than having fixed ideas about what to carve.
Despite the lengthy wand-making process, Trevor remembers sacrificing one of his early willow wands by throwing it into a burning wicker man at a camp. While his friends urged him not to, Trevor felt it was the ultimate sacrifice and an important and symbolic step for him.
Descended from Romany gypsies, with ancestry tracing back to the18th century, Trevor is very aware of the folklore and myths surrounding willow, and its strong links with feminine energy and birth. Although he felt excluded from some of the willow wisdom that was only handed down to his sisters, he always had a strong sense of its magical connections.
If you cut a willow staff and plant it in the ground it will grow again. I think this is what links it so closely with the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, and why it is connected to fertility and creativity.
Willow has many ritualistic and magical uses and while it’s an old practice, even today many witches use willow wands, either as a source of energy, or simply to represent a symbol of power and wisdom. Some believe a willow wand placed under the pillow will encourage deep dreams, or bring clarity to thoughts, especially during the full moon. Through the ages others have believed placing a willow branch in a woman’s bed will increase fertility. Willow wands are widely used as part of spells for relationship issues or in situations in which change or a fresh direction or attitude are required.
Besoms or brooms are also used by witches for various rituals. The brooms are usually made mainly from birch twigs, but these are bound with willow, because of its magical properties. These brooms were used in crop fertility rites, as well as for cleansing rituals. Today in Pagan circles small willow brooms are sometimes hung above the front door of a house, and thought to rid the home of negative energy.
Art and inspiration
Because of its magical connections, willow is the ideal plant for artistic creations and it would seem that willow stimulates the imagination and encourages creativity. Now well established as an environmental artist, Debbie Hall makes willow sculptures for gardens and school grounds, as well as larger structures for festivals. She and her family also run workshops from their 16th Century home in Cambridgeshire, using mainly locally grown willow to teach small groups to make baskets, lanterns, garden supports and other sculptures.
Although many people who come to us are unaware of the properties of willow, they seem naturally drawn to it. They are often quite moved when they manage to create something themselves from willow.
The festival sculptures I make are very popular too. Festival goers seem amazed at their size and beauty. But I think it’s the whole creative experience that they are so struck by, and sometimes I’m overwhelmed by their reaction. Some people are so grabbed by a structure or sculpture that they decide to take it further and do a course, or end up working with willow.
It is also no coincidence that the willow tree often features in literature. The famous “Wind in the Willows” is set beside and sometimes in a river with many watery characters, including a toad and a water rat. There are also many modern stories that have characters named ‘Willow’, and the collection is as diverse as kings, ponies and friends of vampire slayers. Even the modern Harry Potter stories feature a more imaginative version of willow, in the form of the magical ‘whomping willow tree’.
Children’s imaginations are drawn to the creative side of willow and willow domes, dens and tunnels are popular in playgrounds and school gardens. Children can even sit and do some of their lessons in the larger areas. Debbie Hall goes into schools to help and inspire staff, children and parents to use this natural material as a creative learning resource. The whole school can get involved in a large or small project that may have a wide range of curriculum links, because of the many properties of willow.
While the ‘whomping willow’ is a violent tree that lays into anyone who approaches it, the willow is has been used as a medicine through the ages is well known for its gentle healing properties. Back in Hippocrates’ time in 400BC it was believed to reduce inflammation, and it has been used for pain relief and fever reduction since then, across cultures and continents. In particular there are many reports of Native Americans using willow for healing. Today willow bark can be used to make a tea, or it can be bought or made into tincture or capsules.
Salicin is the key ingredient in willow, which makes it suitable for medicinal use and pain relief. This was later synthetically produced and marketed as aspirin. But willow bark, containing natural salicin is more gentle than the commercial form of aspirin, partly because it contains tannins which aid digestion rather than causing harm to the stomach lining.
Zoe Hawes is a trained nurse and a medical herbalist. She has practised as a herbalist in Somerset – a watery area rich in willow – for the last eleven years. Rather than importing herbs for medicinal uses, Zoe believes in foraging to look for local plants that will suit the ailments of local people.
As well as picking plants to use in her dispensary, Zoe takes people on foraging walks and workshops, to teach them about plants and the benefits of fresh herbs. She believes the general public should be empowered with this knowledge, but also wants to encourage herbalists to grow and harvest their own herbs, rather than relying on buying in products.
Whatever ailments people have in an area, you will always find the necessary plants for treating them nearby. All the plants that are good for joints grow by water, and it’s in these areas that you find people with fevers, bone aches and influenza. Willow loves moist or wet areas and is perfect for treating rheumatic complaints. Meadowsweet is another joint plant that grows in boggy areas and loves any dampness.
Zoe harvests willow bark in the winter before the plant becomes active and the leaves start to grow. She then makes a tincture of the bark to treat fever or inflammation.
But you have to remember as a herbalist you are treating the person, not the ailment. So it’s not as simple as picking a plant to do one particular job. At first you do your best to alleviate the symptoms, but then you gradually look at the deeper reasons behind the problem, so the prescription builds. You often end up adding other herbs, and this is always hand in hand with good nutrition and a suitable diet.
Death and grief
Throughout history the willow tree has also been associated with death and grief. The flexibility of the plant, and the well known suppleness of its branches make it an ideal image of a person coming to terms with change in their life. This change may involve coming face to face with the actual death of a loved one and grieving for the loss, or it may represent the end of a relationship or life stage, a need for closure and resolve to move on or ‘rebirth’.
Many different cultures and religions use willow as part of their funeral rituals and the branch is often used to symbolise the soul of the departed. Although willow is particularly dedicated to the moon, it is also associated with other goddesses, including Persephone and Circe, who were both said to have willow groves and also had strong links with the underworld. Persephone was married to Hades who was the Greek king of the underworld and god of death. She was also known as ‘Queen of Tartarus’, and in Greek mythology Tartarus was the lower part of the underworld.
Circe was the Greek goddess, sorceress and queen of necromancy. According to legend it was Circe’s enchantment that caused Odysseus to journey to the underworld, rather than returning home from her island. Once in the underworld, there were specific rites for Odysseus to follow including sacrifice, fire and prayers, and Circe was clearly involved in all kinds of trickery. Circe also had a cemetery, planted with willow trees. Legends describe male corpses wrapped in untanned ox hides and placed in the tree tops, exposed to the elements.
Today many cemeteries have willow trees, which seem to add to the calmness and contemplative elements of the location. Sometimes a willow branch is placed in a coffin, to help the soul of the departed to move on. It is also thought to help the family and loved ones to move through different stages of grief. Willow coffins are also becoming more popular and gradually more families are choosing them for the burial or cremation of their loved ones.
Amanda Rayner started her business Wyldwood willow in 2000. As well as baskets, play equipment, chairs and sculptures such as the willow horse she made last year, Amanda specialises in willow coffins.
Willow is the most sustainable material you can get for coffins. The more it is cut, the more it thrives, and the best thing is to coppice it each year.
Willow also rots fast and no processing is required apart from cutting and soaking, before you craft it into the shape and size you need. Cardboard coffins are quite popular as an environmentally friendly burial solution, but these aren’t as sustainable and a lot of electricity is usually required for cutting and making the pulp.
Amanda began making willow coffins after the loss of her own child, when she looked around for alternative funeral arrangements and sustainable coffins and found there was little choice in her area. On her website she describes this experience as ‘the birth’ of Wyldwood Willow, which again shows a link between death and the rebirthing experience.
Since then Amanda has made many coffins for a range of people. Ideally she likes to see a funeral as the celebration of a long and fulfilling life, attended by people who care for the departed soul. But this depends on the circumstances of death, and the attitudes and beliefs of the families, which she is always careful to accommodate. As well as offering a range of different willow shades, from a very pale buff colour to chocolate brown, Amanda is keen to provide other natural elements as part of the burial or cremation. She sometimes makes organic cotton or hemp coffin liners, but feels it is important for relatives to find liners and coverings with more personal significance, where possible. In keeping with the flexibility of willow, Amanda can also provide other natural objects that may closely suit the individual.
The coffins are beautiful natural objects to look at, as well as sustainable and environmentally sound, so Amanda encourages people to use them during their life time too, and not only after death.
An adult coffin is about the same size as a blanket box, so they can have all sorts of uses in the home before they are used as coffins. It’s a shame just to leave them to rot, without any other purpose in life. One lady particularly wanted one for storing her shoes, as woven willow is so breathable. It really pushes the recycling philosophy to its limits, when you can even find other uses for your own coffin.
Like Debbie Hall, Amanda thinks many of her customers are unaware of the properties or myths surrounding willow, but feels they are subconsciously drawn to it.
White willow is the most common herb for healing, and people seem to feel something protective about it. They like to touch the willow objects and I sometimes find them stroking the coffins, as though the coffins are healing to the touch. We don’t usually talk about the material, but I know there’s something there.
An old and magical plant, the willow is just as relevant in the 21st century as it was a few thousand years ago. While our high tech. world strives to move forward as quickly as it can, we might do well to pause a moment and take some time to consider more deeply the wisdom of our ancestors. With its unique combination of natural and magical properties, willow can offer a depth and connection to many lives.