A bald crown, sideways stoop, shattered limbs:
This old boy could go at any time,
Collapsing into his twin’s outstretched arms as his gnarled heart cracks.

But until the fall he’ll give life.
Ducks nest in his hollows, bees mine his catkins, ferns sprout green in every furrow,
And each spring his seed drifts across the wetland acres, growing the family tree.

REBECCA DOWMAN | Willow | Sussex

Willow: a tree without boundaries

All around the world men – and women – still go into combat with blades of willow. Light, shock-absorbent and splinter-resistant, a willow cricket bat provides an ideal foil to a hurtling leather ball. 

But the ‘cricket-bat willow’, the hybrid tree that yields the wood for bats, is just one of 450 different types of willow. And across the millennia the wood has been used for many other – arguably far more crucial – purposes. 

Willow pre-dates plastic as the default raw material for containers. The slender, flexible stems of three species – almond, common and purple osier/blue arctic willow – are ideal for basket-weaving and have furnished everything from household storage boxes and livestock feed troughs, to lobster pots and beehives. As plastic’s star wanes basket-weaving is making a comeback, for creative as well as functional purposes. Willow landscape sculptures, which often continue to grow in situ, are now seen in all the best gardens. 

Coracle frames and chariot wheel spokes, leather dye and clothes pegs have all drawn on willow. For the more niche market, willow is one of three woods used to make a witch’s ‘besom’ or broomstick. Druids, meanwhile, consider it the best wood for divining water, channelling the Earth’s energy, and finding lost objects. And willow – according to – was one of the seven sacred trees of the Irish.

This mystical link may not be as kooky as it seems. Willow has an incredible – even supernatural – life force, as evidenced by a snapped branch’s propensity to burst back into life – even when planted the wrong way up. And willow isn’t just adept at bringing itself back to life – it revivifies its environment too. Planting willows is a proven means of purifying contaminated land, such as former oil refinery sites. And willow is a notable biofuel, that flourishes on land not suitable for food crops or animals.

Willow has nursed humankind, as well as the planet. For centuries people brewed up willow to treat colds, fevers and rheumatism, and chewed its twigs to ease pain. They weren’t aware that willow bark contained salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, they just knew it made them feel better. And willow’s full restorative powers may yet be revealed: the research body that oversees the National Willow Archive is now investigating its use for treating cancer, Alzheimer’s and depression. 

A sacred tree, indeed.