Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Salix alba - The Sacred White Willow

Salix alba - White Willow, also known as European Willow, Tree of Enchantment, Witches Aspirin, Osier, Pussy Willow, Saille, Salicyn Willow, Saugh Tree, Withe, and Withy.  Salix is a Latin version of the Greek  ‘isalos,’ meaning ‘waterline’ and refers to the Willow's preferred habitat beside streams, rivers, marshes, and wet fens on rich soils.  Alba means 'white'  referrng to the white tone on the undersides of the leaves.

It is a medium-sized to large deciduous tree with a rough grayish bark growing up to 80 feet tall, with an irregular, often leaning crown.  The leaves are paler than most other willows, due to a covering of very fine silky white hairs, particularly on the underside.  It flowers in April and May  while the leaves appear from March to June.  The tree is dioecious, having separate male and female plants.  White Willows are fast-growing, but relatively short-lived, being susceptible to several diseases.

It is often said that the bark of the Salix Alba contains aspirin but, in fact, it contains a substance which is far more likely to cause bleeding in the stomach than aspirin.  This tree contains phenolglycosides, salicortin and salicin. This last is an analgesic which led to the formulation of salicylic acid, aspirin.

In 400 BCE Hippocrates wrote about a bitter powder extracted from willow bark that could ease aches and pains and reduce fevers and is said to have prescribed willow leaf tea to reduce the pain of childbirth..  This remedy is also mentioned in texts from ancient Egypt, Sumer, and Assyria.  In 1763, an English clergyman, Edward Stone, gave dried willow bark to people as a relief from rheumatic fever but it was known to cause stomach problems especially bleeding.

In 1823, Italian scientists extracted the active ingredient and gave it the name salicin.  A race started to produce this painkiller in a marketable form but, the problems of stomach irritation meant that it was 1899 before Aspirin, a patent medicine, was launched.  Aspirin is a modified form of salicin which gives reduced gut irritation and bleeding.

White Willow was used as a tonic, antiperiodic and astringent.  The bark was macerated in ethanol to produce a tincture.  It has been used in dyspepsia connected with debility of the digestive organs.  Its tonic and astringent combination makes it very useful in convalescence from acute diseases, in treating worms, chronic dysentery and diarrhoea . It was also useful for bursitis, gout, tension headaches, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.  

Cautions:  Stomach bleeding from aspirin is a well documented problem. Excessive use may also cause nausea and diarrhea.

The bark is harvested in the spring or early autumn from 3 - 6 year old branches and is dried for later use. The leaves are used internally in the treatment of minor feverish illnesses and colic.  An infusion of the leaves has a calming effect and is helpful in the treatment of nervous insomnia.  When added to the bath water, the infusion is of real benefit in relieving widespread rheumatism.  The leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season and are used fresh or dried.

The wood is soft, yet strong, it is light weight, elastic, easy to split, and does not splinter, but it has minimal resistance to decay.  The young stems are very flexible and are used in basket making.  A fibre obtained from the stems is used in making a lovely reddish-brown colored paper.  Charcoal made from the wood was important for gunpowder manufacture. The bark was used in the past for tanning leather.

Witches use willow to treat rheumatism and fever, and the old word for witches, "wicca", may be the origin of the term wicker, applied to baskets woven from willow twigs. Wearing a sprig of willow in your hat signified rejection by a loved one. The willow tree is associated with gods and goddesses, like Hera, Hecate, Proserpina, Orpheus, Circe, Belenus, Artemis and Mercury. The willow’s connection with water links it directly with the moon goddess.

One of the main properties of the willow is fertility and, due to its slender branches and narrow leaves, it also became associated with the serpent. In Athens it was an ancient custom of the priests of Asclepius to place willow branches in the beds of infertile women, to draw the mystical serpents from the Underworld and cure them, the connection being the phallic symbolism of the snake form itself. However in later times this was turned around, and the willow became protective of snakes by driving them away.
The ancient Spartan fertility rites of the goddess Artemis also demonstrate the willow’s connection with fertility and fecundity. Here male celebrants were tied to the tree’s trunk with willow thongs and flogged until the ground was fertilized with their blood and semen.

The sound of the wind through the willow provides inspiration to poets. Orpheus received his gifts of eloquence and communication from the willow by carrying its branches with him while journeying through the Underworld.

It is also associated with grief and death. The Greek sorceress Circe is said to have had a riverside cemetery planted with willow where male corpses were wrapped in ox-hides and left exposed in the tops of the trees. Willow branches are placed in the coffins of the departed, and young saplings are planted on their graves. Watching willow grow through life eases the passage of your soul at death.   The ancient Celts believed that the spirit of the dead would rise up into the sapling planted above, which would grow and retain the essence of the departed one.

Romanian Gypsies celebrate the festival of Green George which takes place on the 23rd of April. A man wearing a wicker frame made from the willow represents the character of Green George which is then covered in greenery and vegetation from the land. Pregnant women assemble around a willow tree, and each places an article of clothing beneath it. If a leaf falls onto the garment an easy delivery will be granted by the willow goddess. For the main festival Green George uses willow branches dipped in a river to shake water onto farm animals to give good fertility in the following season.

Tree, showing whitish  foliage compared to surrounding trees

Propagation by seed  must be done almost immediately.  It involves surface sowing as soon as it the seed is ripe in late spring.  It has a very short viability period, perhaps as little as a few days.  It can also be propagated by cuttings of mature wood from the current year's growth, taken between November and February, and placed in a sheltered outdoor bed or planted straight into their permanent position and given a good weed-suppressing mulch.  Branches of older wood can also be used.  Plant into their permanent positions in the autumn.  Cuttings taken of half-ripe wood, between June and August, should also be placed in a sheltered outdoor bed.

Resources include: 

A Modern Herbal
The Poison Garden

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