After the leaves are gone from the trees in the fall, and before they make their miraculous appearance in the spring, I only have eyes for willow!! Not quite true, but it is during late fall, through winter, and into early spring when the willows – the small reddish bushes by sloughs, water of any kind or in ditches – claim my heart. Especially in the season of spring, when the colours of their branches seem to change daily, when they start to look like burning bushes along the road. One willow bush can have branches that are gold, yellow, olive green, copper, rust, red, burgundy, purple/black, grey, brown and a myriad of shades in between.
This spring, the spring of the pandemic, we will all remember. Amongst the gifts of this time for me has been more time outdoors to truly take time to notice. Just across the road from our farm are two small sloughs, both surrounded by willow, aspen, and red osier dogwood. Each day, I have visited the willows, noticing not only 4 varieties of catkins, but especially the vivid and ever-changing colours of their bark. How a very old gnarled willow, which is mostly grey, can have young shoots of every colour. How some branches are greeny gold at their base, moving into an almost orange, and as we get towards the top they turn red or burgundy.
Taking time to notice meant that I could bring willow boughs into the house to paint as it has been wintry and cool outside. I spent a week painting “Willow Meditation#1”. You will see some red osier dogwood here as well because I simply couldn’t resist it! Painting is a way of becoming acquainted with my plant relatives, and teaches me to notice, to take a second or third look. Painting humbles me – the colours look different once I bring the branches inside, and they are very hard to replicate. I never quite do, but I certainly have fun trying!
As i was painting Willow Meditation #1, I began to notice more and more yellow and orange branches, so I began a second willow meditation. Sometimes I ran outside with a branch, looked at it with the sun on it, and ran inside to see if I could I could come a little closer to the vibrancy.
This spring, I have been inspired to paint the willow branches close up. Other years, I have tried to catch a bit of their spirit from far away.
Not all willow trees have pussy willows. An individual tree will produce either male (pollen-producing) or female (seed-producing) flowers, so cross-pollination and fertilization is necessary.
A compound called salicin is found in the inner bark of willow trees – this compound is used as pain relief in aspirin, and many other herbal medicines.
What will I do with my bouquets of willow branches? I will enjoy them a bit longer and then can cut them up and put them in jars of water. After a few days, remove the willow stalks and you have root hormone which will help you with spring transplanting! New transplants also love to be watered with this willow water. Or perhaps I could plant them and create a “living willow hedge”? I could scrape out the inner bark, add it juniper berries collected on the hillsides, and put in my bath with epsom salts – this combination is said to soothe aching muscles.
Willow is flexible and has long been used to make baskets, and more recently furniture, fences and art. The photos below show outside art made with willows in Dawson City, Yukon.
Thanks to Beverly Gray, The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North, Aroma Borealis Press, 2011, pages 269-273