The Willow Tree: Windswept and Interesting

Willow?! I hear you say, Willow? How come willow is wildflower of the week? It’s not a flower…it’s a tree!

Well yes.  Willow is a tree but it also bears a beautiful, if unusual flower in early spring.  It’s wildflower of the week this week because willow flowers are such an important source of pollen for bumblebees, honeybees and early butterflies.

A Versatile Plant

Not only is the willow extremely bee-friendly, it’s a fast-growing and very versatile source of timber. Cricket bats are traditionally made from willow and the long straight flexible stems are fantastic for basket weaving. They’re a truly traditional material.  Easily sourced and cheap.

Willow is a sustainable source of firewood and used in many modern-day wood-burning boilers.  It’s also great for weaving into living structures such as dens, tunnels and even sculptures.

Easy To Grow and Oh-So-Pretty

No-one can deny that willow is easy to grow.  That’s why it’s not popular in small gardens – if it’s not kept in check it can get too big too quickly. But it is common in the English countryside.  Particularly in damp areas near to streams and rivers.

One of my favourite things to do in springtime is pick myself a bunch of “pussy willow” (these little buds that look so much like cats’ paws are actually the catkins of goat willow) and put in it a vase on the kitchen windowsill sometimes I’ll add some daffodils from the garden.  On less than sunny days, it reminds me that summer is most definitely on its way.

Willow In Folklore and Medicine

Willows do have a claim to fame beyond their good looks, undemanding habits and their support of pollinating insects.  In ancient times, infusions of willow bardk were used by countryfolk to ease aches and pains.  Early in the 19th Century, scientists gathered this knowledge from herbalists and started looking closely at the chemicals involved.  They isolated the chemical compound that is found in both willow bark and in meadowsweet and acts as a painkiller.  The compound was named salicylic acid.

Later in the century, in 1899, salicylic acid was used the synthesise what is now a globally used drug that is pretty much taken for granted – Acetylsalicylic acid – aka Aspirin.

Nature Provides Many Cures

Willow being used by herbalists to relieve pain is just one example of how our ancestors used wildflowers as medicine. 

Violets were used in ancient times to cure headaches, insomnia and depression.

Coltsfoot was the main ingredient in cough mixture

Yarrow was used as a treatment for tendon problems

The list is endless! Even in modern times, new medicines are being developed from natural sources.  A good reason to make sure that we look after our wildflowers and don’t lose any more species from anywhere in the world.