When I was little, I discovered the Flower Fairies. This seemed to be the perfect combination of fantasy and nature, and I was hooked. Still am, actually. I had a figurine of the Beech Fairy that hung from window. Still do. And a calendar of the fairies. And postcards. And a book. All of which I still have. I would flip through the book, look at the illustrations, and imagine I was one of them. The one that spoke to me the loudest, that I connected with the most, was the Willow Fairy. This article is not about fairies, though. It is about willows.
Perhaps it is an older connection, something leftover from a previous life, but I have always loved willows. They seem graceful and, well, willowy. Like dancers. At a recent meeting the “check-in” exercise was to tell what tree you would be and why. I chose willow, as I almost always do. This article is the answer to why.
Why not? Willows love the edges of streams and rivers, finding a foothold among the silty curves and thriving. Willows are flexible, bending and swaying with weather and wind. Up to a point, that is, and then they break suddenly. Willows sustain myriad butterfly, moth, and insect larvae. Willows relieve pain. From them humans create baskets, toys, wicker, and artist’s charcoal. Once they were the sought-after material for prosthetics, and so they help heal. All these accomplishments yet they are content to be virtually invisible. I can get on board with that.
Let’s investigate some of those accomplishments in a bit more detail. Loving the streambank is vital to the survival of the Black Willow, the most common willow of the region. While they do produce seeds, often it is branch tips and root pieces that have broken off that start new trees. As long as these find the perfect spot to get stuck. It just so happens that a silty spot along the curve of a stream or river is it. In fact, as a willow grows, the more it gets buried in silt, the better it grows. Talk about making the best of a situation.
This characteristic is what makes willows one of the favored plants for riparian restoration. Want to hold the soil in place next to a creek? Willow can do that. Want to stop erosion? Willow can do that. Want to help wildlife and create new habitat? Willow can do that. It has a pretty impressive resume.
Let’s talk about seeds. It seems like the only reason the willow produces seeds is just to be a little more tree-like. Male and female trees are the norm among willows, and the flowers can be wind or insect pollinated. However, the fertilized seed must find a suitable growing spot within 24 hours, an unlikely feat, and even then the germination rate is appallingly low. So reproduction by seed a long-shot.
Though the flowers don’t do a whole lot for the tree as far as spreading genes, they are one of the most important pollen sources in early spring. This article was inspired by watching the hordes of insects cluster around a volunteer Pussy Willow in my yard. Loaded with pollen, they all seemed to be yellow, though upon closer study I could pick out a couple different fly species, honeybees, and what looked like a wasp, but might not be. The Eastern Phoebe was also attracted to the willow, but not for the pollen. She would sit and wait until the moment arose and then perform some intricate aerial acrobatics to snap the laden insects from the air. A veritable feast for the bird, provided indirectly by the willow.
Ask a woodsman and s/he will tell you that willow wood is weak. This makes it seem like a “junk” wood from many perspectives. Yet despite its weakness, its redeeming features include flexibility, light weight, and warp-, split- and splinter-resistant wood. This makes it ideal for many things, including toys (no splinters!), packaging such as crates and boxes, and baskets. The most surprising use of willow is its historic use as a material for prosthetics. Light and nonsplitting, it was easy to shape into a replacement limb and make someone feel more whole. That’s a significant role to play in another’s life.
Speaking of impact on the human world, willow was the go-to pain reducer for centuries. There are written records of willow being used as a pain reliever during the time of Hippocrates. This continued through the mid-1800s. Willow bark contains an extract known as salicin. When consumed, the salicin metabolizes into salicylic acid, the precursor of modern aspirin. Native Americans depended on willow as a staple in their medical practices, as many people today depend on aspirin. Okay, it may have killed Beethoven, but he really overdid it.
Finally, humans aren’t the only ones to find willow important. There are countless species of moths and butterflies that depend on this plant. Butterfly and moth caterpillars are quite specific in their food choices, and so adults only lay eggs on certain species. It turns out that willow is a food of choice, some exclusively, for some butterflies and moths.
In other words, why wouldn’t I want to be a willow? For a plant so often overlooked, it provides such resources to the world. Other things can be made from willow too, including rope, instruments, furniture, and paper and the list goes on. It turns out it is a pretty versatile and useful species.
After writing this, I am inspired to try making a willow basket or willow paper. Though I anticipate that I will end up just relaxing in the shade of one while the orioles build their nest above, imagining I’m the Willow Fairy dipping my toe into the cool, rushing water.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.