Contrary to what you might believe, I was never the recipient of the harsh end of a willow switch. I was threatened with one a time or two by older relatives who lived by the rule that children should be seen and not heard, but I quickly learned to stay far away from those particular relatives. Keeping my distance was much easier than keeping my mouth shut. But I also learned a lot about the white willow tree that grew overhanging the creek up the hollow from my house. I had a small set of willow furniture, a little rocker and a tiny table. Most of the time they sat on the front porch and if I had played with dolls I could have had tea parties, but instead I put a bonnet on Kitty Fluff's head and she usually let me rock her to sleep in the rocking chair.
The egg basket that I carried to the hen house was made of young willow shoots because the shoots are very pliable. It was my Granny Ninna who taught me to weave with them, but at that time I was not quite a master craftsman, so I doubt if my baskets held much of anything for very long. I did pretty well weaving flat things, but building up the sides was a different story, and I soon lost patience trying.
Gathering the small leaves of the willow was fun to do, because the branches drooped and swayed in the breeze. I grabbed hold of one of the thin branches as far up as I could reach and by sliding my fingers downward, the leaves just slid right off the branch. I held a handful of willow leaves with no effort at all. These were dropped into a brown paper sack and when it was full of leaves, the filled sacks were taken to Aunt Bett's house. She dried the leaves on a screen on her back porch, and when they were dry enough to be crunchy, she used them to make tea.
Overall, my experiences with the white willow were those of learning useful things. There was, however, always the lingering threat of the much dreaded powers of the willow switch.
The white willow, Salix alba, grows in damp, low places, especially along rivers and streambanks. Native to Europe and central Asia, it is now naturalized in North America, especially from Nova Scotia down the Appalachian chain to Georgia. It is a deciduous tree growing up to 70 feet tall or taller, and has finely toothed, lance shaped, short stalked silky leaves, several times longer than they are wide. The leaves are a light green on top, and have a silvery look underneath. The tree has a gray bark that becomes heavily ridged in older trees. The flowers are borne in catkins in April and May.
More than 300 species of willow range across the northern temperate and frigid zones, from the weeping willow with its trailing boughs to the tiny ground creeping willow of the Far North. The Greek physician Dioscorides, writing in the first century A.D., was probably the first to describe the use of willow to reduce fever and pain. The tree's bark and leaves are rich in salicin, a glucoside closely related to acetylsalicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. Over the centuries the list of willow's medicinal uses expanded to include remedies for insomnia, colds and rheumatism. It owed its effectiveness in these uses to salicin's fever reducing, anti inflammatory, antiseptic, and painkilling properties.
In the 1800s researchers isolated salicin and its derivative salicylic acid from white willow and various other plants. But they found that its side effects, stomach pains and nausea, greatly limited its value. In the 1850s a derivative, acetylsalicylic acid, was synthesized from salicylic acid. This was the prototypical aspirin, but it took researchers close to 50 years to recognize that the new drug had all of salicylic acid's therapeutic properties without the side effects. Aspirin contains no willow derivatives now, but is entirely synthetic. I sometimes think that the white willow could be called nature's aspirin. It was used in those days in the mountains as frequently as folks take aspirin now, in very mild dosages, of course, and only by people like my Aunt Bett, who had an inbred knowledge of home remedies. It is not something, however, that I would ever try myself, even though I was probably given it many times.
Sixth grade was a year of discovery because it was the first year I studied World History. I fell instantly in love with the textbook, on its first page there was a picture of a cave painting. We had an old set of encyclopedias at home, and I searched through them for more pictures of cave paintings and I learned that most of them were done with charcoal to which was added animal grease. I could just imagine roasting a slab of meat over an open fire then taking the greasy, blackened end of the stick and drawing on the rock walls of the caves. I decided when I grew up I was going to become a cave painter, but first I had to figure out the charcoal thing. I roasted hot dogs, I roasted marshmallows, I roasted anything I could put on the end of a willow stick. I chose them because they were always thin and straight. I remember finally giving up on making my own charcoal, though, because even though it worked for a few drawings, I never could make enough to last very long, and too, I soon tired of hotdogs and marshmallows. I never found a cave to paint either, but I managed to draw on the underside of a few cliff overhangs.
Lucky for me, I had a college art teacher who taught us to make our own charcoal, and my cave painting interest was renewed when I learned that willow is a perfect twig to use for it. It is simply a matter of wrapping several in a bundle, then wrapping the bundle tightly in foil that is airtight. Baking it in an overnight oven at 250 degrees Fahrenheit will usually do the trick, and all through college I made my own willow charcoal.
All of these things are good, I learned meaningful things from the willow, but in the back of my mind, I can still see the willow switch hanging over the top edges of the fridge. I was afraid to ask why it was there.
"If you don't get those dishes put away......" she said, with eyes swishing up toward the top of the fridge.
"There are kids starving all over the world, and there you sit not eating a bite...." and those blue eyes lifted upward.
"Don't you come to the kitchen with that mop of hair tangled with briars and leaves. No telling what's nestin' in there. Now go clean yourself up before you come to the table. And look at your hands, what on earth have you done to yourself...." eyes up, higher than my head.
It was the strangest thing to me that I only was threatened with the willow switch while in the kitchen. No one ever even said a word or swooshed those blue eyes upward when I was in any other room of the house.
I tried it with my children a time or two, threatening to go find a willow switch when they had misbehaved in one way or another. It might have worked for a time or two, until my six year old said with great dignity. "Mom, I think you would have to drive a few miles to find the nearest willow tree."
Aside from the switches that can be made from its branches, the white willow remains one of our most beautiful trees. Graceful and charming, its leaves dance and flutter in the gentlest breeze. I do wish I still had some of the little furniture from all those years ago, and maybe one of my grandmother's egg baskets. One thing I do have is a good supply of willow charcoal.
I learned early on that I do not like being inside caves, so I eventually did give up my plans to become a cave painter, and my disciplinary skills did not include the use of willow switches, but the willow tree is still one of my favorites.
All photos come from Wikipedia Commons Public Domain and are the photographs used by USDA.