The spring rain clings to the branches
Of the willow tree
Like pearls on a string
– Loose translation of a poem by a female Japanese poet, around 900 A.D.
Willow trees have been revered and celebrated in poems and art for centuries, perhaps most notably in Japan and China. Today, willows grow nearly all around the world, continuing to inspire people to appreciate and enjoy their lovely attributes.
The willow family of trees includes 300 to 500 types world-wide, with about 100 of them native to North America. Willows freely cross-breed, which makes it difficult to identify the species of individual willow trees. But that’s alright. Most of us just call them “Weeping Willows” and that seems to work out fine.
Willows have a fascinating history. In ancient Greece, the physician Hippocrates wrote about the medicinal benefits of using willow leaves and bark to reduce pain and fever. The aspirin we have available today was developed from a substance found in willow trees, called salicin.
Branches of willow trees are highly flexible. Native Americans used the branches to weave baskets, fences, fish nets and huts. Today, willow branches are used to create wicker furniture (“wicker is an old term for “weave”), as well as decorative garden features like trellises and obelisks. Willow is also used to produce charcoal for drawing.
Environmentally, willow trees are planted to help control erosion, stabilize riverbanks and to establish wildlife habitat. Butterflies and bees, which currently face a multitude of environmental challenges, rely on willow nectar as an important food source.
Willows go way back in literature but are also familiar to fans of the wildly popular Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series, where willows have magical powers and what you might call big personalities.
Perhaps you have visited “Salem Willows”, a public park in Salem, MA. Salem Willows was named for willows planted in 1801 to form a shady walkway for convalescing patients from a nearby smallpox hospital. In 1858 Salem Willows became a public park. Many of the older willows have been lost there in the last fifty years, but a good number persist today.
Spring brings willows into an early flush of yellow in otherwise grayish landscapes. Their “blonde heads” stand out and are easily recognizable now. Look for magnificent willows at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and along the Charles River. Closer to home, look for willows at MacDonald Park, along the Malden River by Route 16 across from the Wellington T station, and along Route 93 northbound from Medford.
The willow in the photo is one of many, some old, some planted in the last 6 or 7 years, along the Mystic River at Mystic Riverbend Park. Take a walk there after a spring rain, and you may forever after have a fondness for willows and “pearls on a string”.