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Keep Close to the Willows

Keep Close to the Willows

by Billie Holladay Skelley

Skinny-dippers in willow-bordered creeks are encouraged to “Keep close to the willows!” It’s good advice if you want to avoid being seen because the arching, ground-sweeping branches of weeping willows provide a concealing curtain. These majestic trees are one of the most easily-recognized trees in the world, and we have had a close relationship with them since ancient times.

Weeping willows have flexible, delicate branches that bend without breaking—giving rise to the expression “bend like a willow.” For centuries, people have used these branches to make shelters, furniture, fencing, rope, brooms, beehives, lobster pots, and wicker baskets. The willow’s wood is used for wands, bats, whistles, flutes, and divining rods. A dye, extracted from the tree’s bark, is useful for tanning leather.

The medicinal benefits of weeping willows have been known for thousands of years. The Sumerians and Egyptians used the willow’s bark to treat pain, fever, and inflammation. Hippocrates described the tree’s medical uses, and Native Americans called the weeping willow the Toothache Tree—because chewing its young twigs relieved tooth pain.

The active agent in willow bark is salicin, and this ingredient was used in the 1800s in the development of aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid)—one of the most widely used drugs in the world.

Long considered symbols of fertility, new life, and even immortality, willows can grow several feet in a single season. Branch cuttings stuck in the soil (even upside down) will easily root and develop into a new tree. The trees grow well near water and are valued for preventing erosion and hosting wildlife.

Weeping willows are also associated with heartbreak, grief, loss, and death. Funeral torches often were made of willow wood. The trees are frequently planted in cemeteries, and willow images are used to adorn gravestones and sympathy cards.

How the beautiful and useful weeping willow received its haunting name is unclear, but theories are plentiful. Some believe the name arises because rain, dripping from the tree’s pendulous branches, looks like tears. One legend claims after Adam and Eve’s transgression, two angels, resting in a willow, wept so profusely for man’s misfortune, it caused the tree’s branches to drop and weep. Other stories assert it was the willow that hung over the sleeping apostles, as Christ suffered his agony, causing the tree to weep with shame and lower its branches in misery ever since.

Many believe the “weeping willow” name derives from the Bible’s 137th Psalm. The Jewish people, exiled to Babylon, wept remembering Zion and hung their “harps upon the willows.” The heavy harps pulled the tree’s branches to the ground—where they remain.

The botanist Linnaeus assigned the weeping willow its scientific name, Salix babylonica, after the “willows” mentioned in this Psalm, but many scholars believe those trees were actually poplars, not willows—but the link to willow lore persists.

Native to China, weeping willows have a dignified and graceful presence. They seem to capture the attention of people everywhere they grow, and the trees have had a great impact on cultures the world over.

The Greeks believed the spirit of the dead rose through mourning willows. The Druids and the Irish considered willows sacred, and in Japan, spirits are thought to live where willows grow.   

In British folklore, weeping willows were believed capable of uprooting themselves and stalking people. The trees were thought to have souls or spirits living within them, and telling a secret to a willow would keep it safely bound in its wood forever. Knocking on a willow’s trunk could make bad luck disappear—likely giving rise to the superstition of “knocking on wood.”

Several historical figures have had close encounters with weeping willows. Alexander the Great’s death was predicted when a weeping willow brushed his crown off his head. Napoleon enjoyed a weeping willow’s shade on St. Helena and was buried beneath it. Later, the French government donated clippings from this tree for planting around George Washington’s grave—who also admired weeping willows.

Our close relationship with weeping willows is evident in the inspiration they provide to artists, from Claude Monet to Vincent van Gogh, and songwriters, from the Carter Family’s “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” to Chad & Jeremy’s “Willow Weep for Me.” Writers frequently weave the weeping willow into their work, as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Othello, and Twelfth Night, Hans Christian Andersen’s “Under the Willow Tree,” and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in The Willows. J.R.R. Tolkien included Old Man Willow in The Fellowship of the Ring, and J. K. Rowling’s Whomping Willow has an integral role in the Harry Potter books.

Enchanting and elegant, weeping willows have an enduring appeal. Ji Cheng, a seventeenth-century Chinese garden designer, wrote that “A curving bay of willows in the moonlight cleanses the soul.” Just another reason to keep close to the willows.