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The Willow that Weeps

By Audrey Stallsmith

salix babylonica

Have you no purpose in the world
But thus to shadow me
With all your tender drooping twigs unfurled,
O weeping willow tree?

With all your tremulous leaves outspread
Betwixt me and the sun,
While here I loiter on a mossy bed
With half my work undone. . .

"In the Willow Shade"--Christina Georgina Rossetti

One of the most graceful of trees, the water-loving weeping willow (Salix babylonica) usually grows near a pond or stream, where it can dangle its silky tresses to view its reflection  Unfortunately, it is also considered one of the most ill-fated of trees.

That may have originated with a famous passage in the Old Testament:  "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."  (Psalm 137:1-2)  Tradition holds that it was those harps which bent the tree's limbs into their current drooping form. 

That Biblical passage explains the weeping willow's species name, babylonica, as well.  Most  experts believe, however, that the tree mentioned in Scripture--although it too grew near water--was probably Populus euphratica or Euphrates poplar instead.  The weeping willow actually originated further east, in China, and didn't make it to Britain until about 1700.

At any rate, the tree came to stand for loss in folk songs from the ancient "Willow, Willow, Willow" to the more modern "Bury Me Beneath the Willow."  Willow means "forsaken" in the Language of Flowers and weeping willow stands for "mourning."  

To "wear the willow," in Victorian times meant to have lost a loved one--either to death or another love.  In Great Expectations, one of Dickens characters was described as one who " appeared to have sustained a good many bereavements; for, he wore at least four mourning rings, besides a brooch representing a lady and a weeping willow at a tomb with an urn on it."

Ironically enough, however, the tree stands for vitality and eternity in the Orient.  The genus name salix is believed to have sprung from the Latin salire ("to leap") in reference to the tree's rapid growth.  There are a large number of other family members as well, with some of the most beloved being the pussy willows (Salix caprea and others) whose furry catkins welcome spring.

Like meadowsweet, willow contains salicin, the ingredient from which aspirin was originally made, so perhaps we should credit the tree with relieving pain rather than causing it.  In the past, it treated many of the aches and fevers now covered by aspirin.

Rose rustlers, those enthusiasts dedicated to preserving heirloom roses by taking cuttings, frequently use willow tea in place of rooting hormone.  Because willow roots so easily itself, it has gained a reputation for helping other plants do so as well.

The "whips" of almost all willows have also been used in the weaving of baskets and fences.  The old-time Sally gardens derived their name from salix and were meant to provide ingredients for such crafts.  Willow is popular for the making of rustic arbors and outdoor furniture as well.

Since many of the hybrids are hardier than the original species, some form of weeping willow will grow in almost any climate.  As it can reach 50 feet in height, however, you'll probably want to plant it at a far remove from the house.  It looks best from a distance anyhow and can be messy with its constant dropping of leaves and even brittle limbs.  Also, its aggressive roots could damage your foundations.

It has always been extremely popular with poets, however, including Alexander Pope.  It was reportedly cuttings from his tree that were first brought to America.

There may have been a double meaning in Rossetti's "thus to shadow me," as folklore held that willows would occasionally stalk unwary travelers along the road at night.  It could be the tree's air of constant movement that contributes to that impression, and inspired the belief that when brought into a house, willow would compel the inhabitants to dance. 

Because the undersides of its leaves are silvery, the tree changes color in portent of a coming storm.  As Tennyson noted in The Lady of Shallot, "Willows whiten, aspens quiver; little breezes dusk and shiver." 

Despite its rapid growth, this willow is usually a short-lived tree, so perhaps it weeps for its own mortality. Rossetti seems to have sensed its enigmatic nature, as later "In the Willow Shade"  she wrote:

Slow wind sighed through the willow leaves,
The ripple made a moan,
The world drooped murmuring like a thing that grieves;
And then I felt alone.

I rose to go, and felt the chill,
And shivered as I went;
Yet shivering wondered, and I wonder still,
What more that willow meant. . .

Salix babylonica image is from Illustrations of the Forest Flora of North-West and Central India by D. Brandis, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.