There are a great number of different varieties of Willow growing throughout Britain and Europe and at least fifteen species have grown here since the end of the last ice age making it one of the oldest of our native trees. One variety, the common osier, has grown in Britain for the last forty-two thousand years. Most varieties grow by the sides of water-courses, although a few grow high up in the mountains, and are found nearer the North Pole than any other shrubby plant. Species vary in height from over sixty feet to a few inches.
Most varieties grow rapidly, thriving in all varieties of soil with the exception of peat and most species readily shoot from cuttings. The wood is usually white, flexible, fibrous and tough giving it a wide variety of uses. Some species, such as the Sallow or Goat Willow produce downy catkins as early as the Spring Equinox, and whenever a bright, warm day occurs at this time, bees can be seen massing to the fragrant flowers for a spring breakfast. It is usually at this time of year that the honey stored in the combs of hives over winter becomes exhausted, and there are as yet few other flowers in bloom capable of affording such a considerable supply of pollen. Before the discovery of sugar, honey was far more valuable than it is at present and in the past it was common for Willows to be planted in apiaries for the specific purpose of affording nourishment to the bees at this critical season.
The Willow ripens its seeds early enough to furnish many birds with a soft and warm material for lining their nests. The downy seeds were also used in the past as a substitute for cotton to stuff mattresses and pillows and in Germany a coarse kind of paper was made of them. The leaves of several kinds of Willow were used as fodder for cattle, being collected in the summer and stacked for winter consumption. The twigs were used for making ropes, the inner bark was woven into cloth and the soft, smooth wood was used for a great variety of purposes. Split into thin strips it was manufactured into hats, shoots were fashioned into baskets and lobster pots, larger pieces of timber were split and used to line barges and carts and it was even used as a durable and waterproof roofing material. The bark was used by tanners and the timber makes excellent firewood. The boats used by the early Britons were constructed of Willow rods covered in hides and were called coracles and indeed these are still made and used by some river fishermen to this day. They carry only a single person but are small and light enough that when the fisherman lands he takes his boat out of the water and carries it home on his back. The Roman writer Pliny, quoting a more ancient author, says that the Britons used to make voyages to an island called Mictis, a distance of six days' sail, in vessels of the same construction and to return with cargoes of tin.
The White Willow is so called because of the appearance of the leaves as the light is reflected from their silky surface and is perhaps the most useful of the genus as a timber tree. Like the rest of the Willows it grows rapidly and can reach heights of up to sixty to eighty feet with a girth of up to twenty feet. It achieves this growth within the usual period of a human life and may therefore be cut down, a fully grown tree, by the same hand that planted it. It was said in the past that the profit by Willows will buy the owner a horse before that by other trees will pay for a saddle. The White Willow is also an excellent source of the alkaloid, salicine, which is a tonic, astringent and natural pain reliever. Perhaps the smallest variety of Willow is the Herbaceous Willow. The ordinary height of this diminutive tree is just four inches and in Britain is the last plant furnished with a woody stem which meet in ascending mountains.
Its rapid growth and ease of rooting has long made the Willow associated with new growth, regeneration and inspiration. In Ireland it is known as one of the "seven noble trees of the land". It was sacred to poets and bards and has long been favoured for dowsing to divine water. Our ancestors used Willow in the annual purification ritual of "beating the bounds" and the birch twigs of the witch's broom were traditionally bound with Willow thongs. It is also associated with lunar magic and it is said that placing a leaf under one's pillow, especially around the full moon, helps promote prophetic night visions. Furthermore, a tea or incense of Willow bark can be used to help connect with the divine feminine energy within each of us teaching us wisdom and flexibility.