The weeping willow is a common sign of mourning. Willow folklore often pokes tendrils into death superstitions and sayings. Margaret Baker relates the belief that “[i]n Louisiana, […] when a willow grew large enough to cast a grave-sized shadow, a family member would die” (2011: 159).
In the UK, no builders in the Fens used sawn willow, “traditionally the wood of the gallows” (Baker 2011: 160). Using this wood for any part of the built home brought disaster to the family.
But willow folklore goes far beyond mourning rituals or fears. Let’s go and meet this common tree and find out more of its secret tales.
The Willow and Religion
Baker notes that people hung crosses of willow around the house on Palm Sunday (2011: 159). Homeowners kept the crosses until the following year to protect the house. Keeping the crosses green in water helped them act as “thunder charms”, or could protect against mining disasters.
It was usually considered unlucky to cut willow wood, but it was only safe to do so on Palm Sunday. People took the wood to church to be blessed, which helped it to guard against thunder, lightning, and disease (Baker 2011: 159).
According to Baker, the willow droops as punishment for its use as Christ’s scourge (2011: 159). Yet many believe the willow weeps due to a line in Psalm 137; “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept/when we remembered Zion./There on the willow trees/we hung up our harps.” Newer scholarship actually thinks these trees were poplars, but the link to willow folklore remains.
Another explanation given for why the willow weeps is because it “hung over the heads of the apostles while they waited and slept when our Lord suffered his agony, and ever after it has wept” (Daniels 2003 : 862).
Christina Oakley Harrington further notes that in Italy people believed the willow wept due to the weight of angels’ tears, shed for Adam and Eve (2020: 130). This helped to explain the tree’s association with heartbreak and dead leaves.
Willow folklore even links the tree with the resurgence in nature religions. Druidry.org notes the potential link between those who followed the Old Ways as ‘wicca’ (men) or ‘wicce’ (women) and willow. The word ‘wicca’ referred to the abilities of these magical folk to manipulate or bend situations. It referenced the flexible nature of willow wood. Wicca became a derogatory term for anyone who pursued old crafts until it was rehabilitated by the witchcraft movement in the 1950s.
That said, I did come across people who disagreed with this belief. For them, ‘wicca’ and ‘wicker’ got confused and led to the assumption they ever meant something similar.
The Willow and Magic
Nicholas Culpeper associated the tree with the moon, while William Lilly saw it as a plant of Saturn (Harrington 2020: 130). Given its propensity to flourish in damp or watery places, I’m more inclined to agree with Culpeper.
Willow is favoured as the best tree to make divining rods (Porteous 2002: 262). I’m guessing that’s due more to its flexibility than wider willow folklore. Ruth Binney notes that when used as a wand, willow helps deter evil (2018: 50).
Plenty of cultures feature tales of nymphs or dryads that live in trees. Oak is a favourite choice. But Alexander Porteous relates a Czech story about a nymph who lived in a willow. She ventured among humans during the day but returned to the tree at night. The nymph married a human man and even had children with him. Everything was going well until he cut down her tree. At that point, she died, and he made a cradle out of the wood. Her youngest child fell asleep whenever he was placed in the cradle. When he got older, he could talk to his dead mother using the willow tree stump (2002: 166).
Other magical creatures boast links with the tree. While rowan is usually used as the tree of choice to keep witches away, people in Essex planted willow near the door for the same reason (Coitir 2003).
Willow as a flower remedy apparently alleviates bitterness. People wore willow to show they’d been rejected (Harrington 2020: 130). You could break up with someone by sending them a willow garland (Harrington 2020: 131).
Meditating under a willow or wearing willow pinned to your clothes could help heal heartbreak or ease bereavement (Harrington 2020: 132). If you want to finalise a breakup, add willow leaves to your spells. Use it in spells if your ex-partner won’t let go (Harrington 2020: 132).
The Inevitable Discussion of Aspirin
People have been using willow within traditional medicine since at least 1934BC, which is the first record of its use (Desborough 2017). The Egyptians and Sumerians used it, and the knowledge of its pain relief capacities passed to ancient Greece and then the Romans. Even Pliny the Elder discusses it.
Sadly, the knowledge didn’t continue into pharmaceuticals and wasn’t officially rediscovered until the 18th century. The Oxford clergyman, Edward Stone, experimented with willow to reduce fever. He wrote to the President of the Royal Society in 1763 to describe his success in treating fever in his patients. Just 1g of powdered willow bark in 3.5ml of water, taken every four hours, got results (Binney 2018: 63).
Yet he discovered this link by following the doctrine of signatures. This practice followed the belief that the shape or growing conditions of a plant gave clues as to its use. It takes its name from the fact people believed God left his ‘signature’ in the plant so humans would know what it was for. That’s why they used walnuts for brain conditions since walnuts look like brains.
In the case of willow, the trees grow in damp, watery places. Given this is an ideal set of conditions for fever, Stone decided to see if willow bark could therefore alleviate fever. He was right—but not for the reason he thought he was. Further developments led to the discovery of aspirin as an actual product in 1897 (Desborough 2017).
Interestingly, willow was also a component of a recipe to treat gout, along with powdered rhubarb root and woundwort (Binney 2018: 111).
Willow Folklore and Superstition
Baker describes how people used spikes of willow among their vegetables to protect crops and animals (2011: 159). Others believed striking children or animals with a willow stick stunted their growth. People once tied a sprig of willow around the churn so the fairies couldn’t steal butter (Mac Coitir 2003).
A Yorkshire marriage custom involved the willow. An unmarried girl had nine attempts to throw her shoe at a willow on either New Year’s night or Easter. If it stayed among the branches, she’d marry that year (Daniels 2003 : 862). Elsewhere, young men wore willow wreaths if they’d been unlucky in courtship (Daniels 2003 : 862).
People called willow catkins ‘goosy goslins’ since they look like goslings. In some parts of England, bringing them into the house meant actual goslings wouldn’t hatch (Mac Coitir 2003).
But willow folklore involves plenty of superstitions; some random, some fascinating.
The phrase ‘to knock on wood’ refers to the wood of a willow tree. I’m not sure why you’d knock on a tree, but it may relate to the secret-keeping capacity of the willow. Have a secret you want to keep? Tell a willow, and it’ll trap it in its wood.
‘Wind in the willows’ refers to the elves whispering among themselves in willows as people walked underneath.
It’s bad luck to burn willow wood. Weeping willows with branches growing up instead of down were even more unlucky, and people were advised to cut them down (Daniels 2003 : 862). Yet you could secure a field from storm damage by planting a willow in it at Easter (Daniels 2003 : 862).
An Irish saying claimed willows had souls that spoke through music (Harrington 2020: 131). In Poland, a belief existed that the devil lived in the willow tree. If you sat under it and renounced your faith, the devil would pop up and grant you psychic powers (Harrington 2020: 131). In Bohemian lore, the willow tree had a soul which died if the tree was cut down (Daniels 2003 : 862). Meanwhile, a West Country belief claimed the tree walked at night, following travellers through the darkness (Harrington 2020: 131).
Weeping willows in a front garden showed the family had an unhappy life (Daniels 2003 : 862). This might explain the saying from Turin that you shouldn’t buy a house with a weeping willow in the garden (Daniels 2003 : 863).
Fancy the power of prophecy? Take 99 leaves from 99 different willow trees. Burn them and turn the ash into powder. Eating it gives you the prophecy power (Daniels 2003 : 862). *Not recommended AT ALL.
A Greek proverb notes that men must pause to touch and smell a water-willow if they pass one. Otherwise, they’ll lose their sweetheart (Daniels 2003 : 862).
Willow folklore stretches far and wide.
It covers a varied range of tales and legends. Perhaps it’s so varied because the species varies. Some of these sayings relate to white willow, others weeping willow. Whatever the variety, it’s a beautiful tree. Just make sure you pause to listen next time you walk beneath one and it seems to whisper…
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Baker, Margaret (2011), Discovering the Folklore of Plants, 3rd edition, Oxford: Shire Classics (aff link).
Binney, Ruth (2018), Plant Lore and Legend, Hassocks: Rydon (aff link).
Desborough, Michael J.R. and David M. Keeling (2017), ‘The aspirin story – from willow to wonder drug’, British Journal of Haematology, 177 (5), pp. 674-683
Harrington, Christina Oakley (2020), The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic, London: Treadwells Books.
Mac Coitir, Niall (2003), Ireland’s Trees – Myths, Legends & Folklore: Myth, Legend and Folklore, Cork: Collins Press (aff link).
Daniels, Cora Linn and C.M. Stevens (2003 ), Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World, Vol. II, Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific.
Porteous, Alexander (2002 ), The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, New York: Dover (aff link) .
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