Blog June 27, 2024

A Tree for a Child’s Fantasy

A Tree for a Child’s Fantasy

One of my favorite trees even as a child was the willow tree.  The 2 that I love the most is Weeping Willow and Corkscrew Willow. We had a Weeping Willow tree that had wisteria ground in it.  So playing under it was magical.  I had a large umbrella shaped structure with beautiful hanging flowers.  This I could transform into any structure. A castle, cottage, teepee you get the drift of where I am going with this.

So let’s talk about my beloved willow tree. 

The willow tree has been popular part of the herbal pharmacy with many cultures for centuries.

There are over 400 species in the genus Salix growing around the world and the impact that they have had on gardens, mythology and medicine is massive. Since this tree survives tough conditions and is easy to root from cuttings, or just a branch stuck in the ground, we see them everywhere.

Weeping willow legends

The iconic weeping willow is native to Asia and features prominently in their folktales and art. The ancient Chinese believed that willow branches would ward off evil spirits and they were often carried or placed over doorways to keep those spirits away.

It is said that the first weeping willow grew in Babylon where the Children of Israel were taken into slavery.

Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.”

When they hung their harps on the willow tree, the branches were forever destined to ‘weep’ and grow downward. Its actual origin was further east in China, but it’s a popular legend. My grandmother had an enormous weeping willow and the branches hung to the ground all around it. I have fond memories of playing with cousins and friends in our weeping willow ‘house’Willows are found around the globe and have many legends attached to them.

Willows are found around the globe and have many legends attached to them.

However other willows are just as popular in Native American and Celtic legends. Many notable sayings and practices were born around the willow. One of the most common traditions today has its roots in an old Celtic custom. If you knock on a willow tree, it is said to send away bad luck and that is where the custom of ‘touch wood’ or ‘knock on wood’ originated. European peoples also believed the wind in the willow leaves were elves who whispered and talked among themselves as people were passing underneath. However, they do plant willows near their homes to ward off bad luck. It is also said that if you confess your secrets to a willow tree, the secret will be forever trapped inside the wood. Native Americans tied willow branches to their boats to protect them from storms and to their lodges for the protection of the Great Spirit.

Willow branches make great baskets and here’s a set of basket-making tools to help you get started.

Willow wood has a natural pain and fever reducer.

Willow wood is supposed to be the best choice for divining water, magic harps and some wizards use it for making their spell casting wands. (however Harry Potter fans already know this) Whether you believe in magic or not, willows do possess some powerful characteristics. Willow bark contains salicin, which is a natural form of aspirin. Willow bark has been used for thousands of years as a pain reliever and to reduce inflammation. Willow wood is also able to absorb trauma or shock without splitting and some of the best cricket bats and Dutch wooden shoes are made from willow. Since the wood is pliable, it is popular with basket-makers as well.

If you don’t have any willows handy, here’s natural, made in USA willow bark tincture.

Willows are good choices for butterfly gardens

North American willows are a host plant for the Mourning Cloak butterfly and the catkins that bloom very early in the spring are one of the first pollen sources for honeybees. This makes them an excellent choice for helping our fragile pollinator population. Ancient Europeans and the Inuit of the Alaskan peninsula also made a type of porridge from the catkins and used them as food. Many early peoples discovered the catkins also produce a reddish dye. The willow was one of the most useful plants for early peoples.

Here’s three different types of willow trees that are hardy in just about every garden.

Growing willow trees

Willow trees prefer a sunny area where the ground stays moist. The area around a pond or along a stream is perfect. Don’t worry if your tree isn’t completely straight, or develops crooked branches. Willows are planted for ‘character’ and the best ones are often bent and twisted. There are many willow species and commercial cultivars that are hardy in a wide range of climates. Here’s a few options that our PlantScout vendors are offering and you can always check with your local nursery to see what grows best in your area. There’s a willow for just about every garden or space, so it is an excellent choice for just about every one. They are even very good bonsai choices and bonsai weeping willows are very popular.

Use a cutting of a weeping willow tree that is perfect for training as a bonsai.

Interesting Information:

The Weeping Willow tree is a native of the extra-tropical Asia and belongs to the group the Crack Willows. This oriental tree’s bark owns mainly all of the medicinal and tanning properties of the willow group. It has been long known in China and Turkey that the Weeping Willow is known its tearful symbolism, used in some places as a cemetery ornament signifying an association of grief for the loved one in the grave. In the ancient times the torches used in funerals were made precisely by Willow wood. It could have been a tree of ill omen as well as in ancient Babylon it is said the soothsayers predicted the death of Alexander the Great deriving from the fact that it was the Willow that swept the crown from his head as he was crossing the Euphrates river in a boat.


Corkscrew Willow

The Chinese willow, Salix matsudana ‘Tortusa’, is a species of willow native to northeastern China. Named in honor of a Japanese botanist, Sadahisa Matsuda, this unusual deciduous tree is also known as curly willow, tortured willow and corkscrew willow.

Unlike weeping willows, these trees have an upright form. The corkscrew willow has a unique branching habit. As the tree grows, its branches reach out horizontally and then twist every way possible, creating curls or corkscrews.

Corkscrew willows are fast-growing. Like most willows, they grow about 24 inches a year, reaching a mature height of 25-30 feet with a spread of 15-20 feet. They prefer moist soil and their roots stay shallow and near the surface.

Aggressive roots are a challenge with corkscrew willows. It is best to plant these trees away from homes and other structures because their moisture-seeking, shallow roots have been known to crack sidewalks, driveways and even sewer and water lines. They are hardy from Zones 4-8 and can grow equally as well in clay, loam or sand. They can grow in sunny or partly shady areas, but because they like moisture, be sure to water this tree during periods of drought.

The corkscrew willow has a characteristically short lifespan. Many fast-growing trees suffer from weak trunks, brittle branches and are prone to weather damage and breakage. Prune the corkscrew willow regularly to allow air and sunlight to enter the center of the tree. A healthier tree, free of damaged or dead branches, is less prone to insect damage.

phids, borers, gypsy moths and willow beetles are pests commonly attracted to willows. Most horticultural extension offices do not recommend sprays, but rather sticky bands that can be placed around the tree which capture the crawling critters as they head upward. The tree is relatively disease-resistant, although it is susceptible to powdery mildew and leaf spot.

Truly a tree for all four seasons, the corkscrew willow adds interest to your garden all year round. In the spring, it has lovely buds. In the summer, its fall colored leaves provide shade and during the fall, the leaves turn a bright, almost pure yellow before dropping to the ground. Winter highlights the corkscrew willow’s branches, which are dramatic and interesting when the leaves are gone.

The corkscrew willow is a popular tree choice, as it grows to its mature height very quickly, it has a beautiful shape and is generally disease-resistant. In the right location and with the right care, a corkscrew willow will provide you with year-round enjoyment.

As a child I found that the corkscrew will made excellent magic wand.