Shadows: Lamenting Rivers and the Daughters of Fire
In Praise of Brighid
In the ogham alphabet, an ancient Celtic alphabet where each letter is named after a tree, the willow is Saille — the Irish name of the fourth letter of the alphabet — which became anglicised to “sally” which means a sudden outburst of emotions, action or expression (to “sally forth”). The Old French “saille” also means to rush out suddenly and the Latin “salire” means to leap. This is the underlying energy of the willow, and the key to understanding the powerful spirit of this beautiful tree.
The Latin word Salix is derived from the Celtic word, sallis, sal – meaning near and lis – meaning water.
The Genus Salix L. comprises around 450 species worldwide, although they are mostly found in the northern hemisphere, with only 24 species that are native to the UK. The only continents where willow is not found are Antarctica and Australia.
The earliest fossils of Salix L. pollen and leaves, date back to the Cretaceous period, and they were believed to have spread widely across the northern hemisphere following the ice age.
In the UK, willow is often considered to be a tree, and can have an upright or pendulous habit. S.viminalis L, which is considered by many to be a native species, was actually introduced to the UK by the Romans. Across the various willow species, the form can vary from being a magnificent tree, to a shrub, to a creeping groundcover.
In Celtic culture, the Willow is associated with Imbolc, in early February.
The Willow is the tree of dreaming, intuition and deep emotions. Symbolically it belongs to the beginning of spring, when all of life is stirring in the depths and begins to shoot outwards once again. An attitude of thanks and gratitude for nature is also a sure way of opening up the channels of communication with trees and plants. Willow is particularly potent in the spring, when the willow energy and the earth’s energy are aligned.
Willow abounds with folklore tales, most related to water, the moon, the feminine, and they have an association with poets and poetry. The Willow speaks of the unconscious, it assists releasing and expressing emotions,it is connected with the moon, fertility, dreams and visions. It enhances our ability to follow our intuition, to understand ancient ways and spiritual teachings.
Our deep unconscious thoughts speak to us through our dreams and, if you have lost touch with your dreams or wish to increase their potency, make yourself a willow wand and sleep with it under your pillow. You will find your dreams will immediately become more vivid and meaningful.
As Glennie Kindred writes, the willow connects us with the unconscious and deeply buried emotions. Deep emotional pain blocks the energy of the body and can cause many illnesses. The willow will allow the person to move through the many levels of sadness, express the pain though tears and grief, and, by moving through these emotions, facilitate healing. When one of the willow’s branches or twigs becomes disconnected, it will easily grow into a new tree if it finds some soil and water, teaching us that contained within a loss is a new life, a new direction, and the capacity for growth and healing.
Culpeper says in his Complete Herbal “the moon owns the willow” and it was known as the witches’ tree and the tree of enchantment. Willows have a reputation for uprooting themselves at night and wandering around, often following travellers. Robert Graves suggests that witch, wicker and wicked are all derived from willow.
Nowadays, willow branches are utilised by the Orthodox Church in northern Europe during their Easter ceremonies. This is a combination of pre-Christian Pagan symbolism and a substitute for palm fronds and olive branches. In Britain, willow was also used to decorate the churches at Easter time. In many places, Palm Sunday is referred to as Willow Sunday, and marks the start of the Holy Week. In some parts of the rural West Midlands, notably Herefordshire, willow is brought into the home on Mayday, to ward off evil spirits.
Willow has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes and is responsible for the world’s first synthetically produced and widely available drug of modern times, Aspirin. Willow bark contains salicylic acid, which is the active ingredient in reducing fever and inflammation, and can thin the blood. It is the thinning of the blood that can cause internal bleeding if it is overused. These benefits and side effects are the same, whether using the natural bark or modern, synthetic aspirin.
The most used species has always been the white willow, S. alba, although all willow bark contains salicylic acid, to a greater or lesser degree. Many traditional cultures throughout the world have used willow to treat various ailments and most of these treatments are well documented.
Crafts & Uses
Basketry has been ubiquitous throughout the world since humans first required containers. One of the oldest known items made from willow found was the Antrea Net - a fishing net dating from 8300 BC, which was uncovered by a farmer in Antrea, Finland in 1913.
Until the mid-20th Century, baskets were highly specialised and each type was designed for a specific purpose, and some of these varied baskets were not only used as a receptacle for the specific harvested fruit, but also as a unit of measure. Their sizes were strictly regulated by the government.
During both the first and the second World Wars, willow baskets were an essential item. The National Willow Collection was established at Long Ashton Research Station in Somerset, in 1922. The Collection comprises around 100 pure Salix L. species and over 1500 accessions.
Up until the early 1930s, baskets were the primary container and storage vessel and many industries employed basket makers and some cultivated their own willow nearby.
Over the last 25 - 30 years, basket making has also experienced a strong revival, but it has remained largely unchanged over time. Many basket makers have taken the traditional techniques and materials used and added a contemporary twist to produce baskets with a more aesthetic than a practical use. Willow sculpture has also become very popular as it blends into the landscape so beautifully.
Willow is often used in Bioengineering now, for bank stabilisation, willow spiling & flood control. Also bio-filtration, and biomass fuels, Willow can be coppiced every 3 to 5 years, making it an excellent choice for biofuel due to its rapid growth as a short rotation crop. Also: charcoal, clogs, cricket bats, cattle fodder, hurdles & garden structures, living fences, domes & teepees, sculptures, snow fences, thatching sways (less prone to woodworm).
Willow is important as a wildlife habitat. One third of earth’s landmass is in danger of becoming desert. An increase in population, poor land management, deforestation and overgrazing on marginal land has accelerated desertification in some countries. S.repens is a species that grows on sand dunes and provides shelter for more delicate plants. This species has been used very successfully to establish a frontline of defence against the desert in some areas and local species of slower growing trees have been planted behind the front row.
The Path of Willow
Shadows: Lamenting Rivers and the Daughters of Fire
INVISIBLEDRUM ART PLATFORM
Association Number 922 955 042
Stella Onions ( UK) always had a very keen interest in plants, particularly using herbs and healing plants. She enjoys travel and is fascinated by how different cultures use healing plants, and how they incorporate plants into rituals. This has led her to grow and forage plants as well as making and using some of her own natural remedies, teas, and other products. Stella completed an MSc in Ethnobotany at the University of Kent, Canterbury, in 2017.
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