There are over 400 species in the genus Salix growing around the world and the impact that they have had on gardens, mythology and medicine is massive. Since this tree survives tough conditions and is easy to root from cuttings, or just a branch stuck in the ground, we see them everywhere.
Weeping willow legends
The iconic weeping willow is native to Asia and features prominently in their folktales and art. The ancient Chinese believed that willow branches would ward off evil spirits and they were often carried or placed over doorways to keep those spirits away.
It is said that the first weeping willow grew in Babylon where the Children of Israel were taken into slavery.
Psalm 137: “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.”
When they hung their harps on the willow tree, the branches were forever destined to 'weep' and grow downward. Its actual origin was further east in China, but it's a popular legend. My grandmother had an enormous weeping willow and the branches hung to the ground all around it. I have fond memories of playing with cousins in our weeping willow 'house'.
Willows are found around the globe and have many legends attached to them.
However other willows are just as popular in Native American and Celtic legends. Many notable sayings and practices were born around the willow. One of the most common traditions today has its roots in an old Celtic custom. If you knock on a willow tree, it is said to send away bad luck and that is where the custom of 'touch wood' or 'knock on wood' originated. European peoples also believed the wind in the willow leaves were elves who whispered and talked among themselves as people were passing underneath. However, they do plant willows near their homes to ward off bad luck. It is also said that if you confess your secrets to a willow tree, the secret will be forever trapped inside the wood. Native Americans tied willow branches to their boats to protect them from storms and to their lodges for the protection of the Great Spirit.
Willow wood has a natural pain and fever reducer.
Willow wood is supposed to be the best choice for divining water, magic harps and some wizards use it for making their spell casting wands. (however Harry Potter fans already know this) Whether you believe in magic or not, willows do possess some powerful characteristics. Willow bark contains salicin, which is a natural form of aspirin. Willow bark has been used for thousands of years as a pain reliever and to reduce inflammation. Willow wood is also able to absorb trauma or shock without splitting and some of the best cricket bats and Dutch wooden shoes are made from willow. Since the wood is pliable, it is popular with basket-makers as well.
Willows are good choices for butterfly gardens
North American willows are a host plant for the Mourning Cloak butterfly and the catkins that bloom very early in the spring are one of the first pollen sources for honeybees. This makes them an excellent choice for helping our fragile pollinator population. Ancient Europeans and the Inuit of the Alaskan peninsula also made a type of porridge from the catkins and used them as food. Many early peoples discovered the catkins also produce a reddish dye. The willow was one of the most useful plants for early peoples.
Growing willow trees
Willow trees prefer a sunny area where the ground stays moist. The area around a pond or along a stream is perfect. Don't worry if your tree isn't completely straight, or develops crooked branches. Willows are planted for 'character' and the best ones are often bent and twisted. There are many willow species and commercial cultivars that are hardy in a wide range of climates. Here's a few options that our PlantScout vendors are offering and you can always check with your local nursery to see what grows best in your area. There's a willow for just about every garden or space, so it is an excellent choice for just about every one. They are even very good bonsai choices and bonsai weeping willows are very popular.
When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commissions at no cost to you.