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Salix alba, white willow

Summary

It is often said that the bark contains aspirin but, in fact, it contains a substance which is far more likely to cause bleeding in the stomach than aspirin.

Much of the folklore associated with willow has a sexual dimension.

Family

Salicaceae

Meaning of the Name

Salix
Latinised version of the Greek ‘isalos’, ‘waterline’ from the place where the willow grows.
 
alba
White

Common Names and Synonyms

white willow

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

This tree contains phenolglycosides, salicortin and salicin. This last is an analgesic which led to the formulation of salicylic acid, aspirin.

Hippocrates is said to have prescribed willow leaf tea in 400BC to reduce the pain of childbirth. 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.

In the debate about manufactured pharmaceuticals versus herbal remedies, willow is often cited as an example of the benefits of using 'natural' products completely ignoring the harm which consumption of willow bark could cause.

Incidents

Stomach bleeding from aspirin is a well documented problem.

At one time, aspirin was a favourite way to commit suicide but the frequency seems to have decreased with the availability of other medication.

Folklore and Facts

There are very many pieces of folklore associated with the willow. What follows is only a selection.

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 Proserpina, Orpheus, Hecate, Circe, Belenus, Artemis and Mercury.

Salix alba, white willow

Salix alba, white willow

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.

The willow’s connection with water links it directly with the moon goddess.

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.