Tree Lore: Willow

by Winter Cymreas

Willow - Saille
Salix

I am a Hawk on a Cliff

Willow is a decidedly aromatic Tree found most often near waterways throughout temperate regions, having quite a history and a long-standing relationship of usefulness - medicinal, magickal and otherwise - with us humans.

Within the Ogham, Saille is the lunar month, a Peasant, representing the letter S. Numerologically, it relates to the number 5. It is often the symbol for the Ovate Grade of Druidry, although other Trees are also used for this Grade.

Willow relates to Monday, the activity of bees and is often used as a honey Tree. The birds associated with Saille are the Hawk and the Thrush, the animals are the Hare and the Cat. Herbs most commonly associated are Moonwort, Primrose and Mistletoe. She is one of the Seven Sacred Irish Trees and is also a sacred Druid Tree.

Although the most commonly accepted concept of the Willow Tree is that which is known as the Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica), this is not the Willow utilized within the Celtic Ogham. There are over three-hundred species in the genera Willow, which is a close cousin to the Poplar. In North America alone there are approximately thirty native and naturalized tree species and sixty native shrubs. There is tremendous range, some subtle and some obvious, within this genera. We will speak on some of the different species in the areas of medicinal properties but, for the most part, the Willow that concerns us here is the White Willow, salix alba.

Ready for the botany lesson?

The White Willow is a naturalized Tree, having one-to-four trunks and an open crown of spreading branches. A tall Tree, She grows to an average height of fifty-to-eighty feet with a diameter of two feet or more. The leaves are 2 to 4 inches long, to 1 inch wide. They are lance-shaped to elliptical, saw-toothed, shiny dark green above, whitish and silky beneath. These leaves turn yellow in the autumn.

The bark is grey, rough and furrowed into narrow ridges. The twigs are yellow to brown, silky when young and, as with all the trees within this genera, flexible and droopy, although not quite as sweeping as the Weeping variety.

Her flowers are in the form of catkins 1 to 2 inches in length with yellow, hairy scales at the end of short, leafy twigs. They appear in the early spring and all Willows are the vanguards of that season. The fruit matures in late spring to early summer and is a half-inch long, hairless capsule, light brown in colour.

Being known as the first to arrive and the last to leave, seasonally-speaking, the hazy yellow appearance is, along with the arrival of the Robin, the first indication that Spring has arrived. The golden brilliance of the Willow in the autumn remains long after her fellows have shed all their finery.

The habitat of Willows, including the shrub varieties, is the wet soil of stream banks and valleys near cities. Willow can be and is often introduced in flat areas prone to flooding as a preventative measure and has often been utilized to protect river banks from erosion. It is prized as a shade Tree and for ornamentation due to its eloquent beauty and peaceful appearance.

Her range is extensive over Europe and North Africa to Central Asia, naturalized in South-eastern Canada and the Eastern United States.

Its wood, known as osier, and branches have had many historical uses and Willow has been a useful friend to us for centuries. Willow has a long and rich history and Her uses are many, however, let us first examine Her history in religious practices and Her relationship to the various deities throughout time.

In Jerusalem, the worship of Jehovah, the Feast of Tabernacles, was called the Day of the Willows. Willow branches were carried in processionals, used to roof the small temporary shelters during the festivities; the branches were later burned in the Temples.

In Sumer, 4000 BCE, Ishtars predecessor, Belili, was known as the Willow Mother. In the ancient Greek mythos, Willow is sacred to several Underworld Goddesses - Persephone, Circe, Hera and Hecate. Also in relation to this Tree are the Gods and Goddesses Artemis, Ceres, Mercury and Belenos. Again in Greek history, the Great Bear, Callisto, was also called Helice, meaning both that which turns and Willow branch. Helicon was the mountain home of the Nine Muses who inspire the arts and sciences.

[It may be interesting to note here the connection between the word, Willow, and the terms Wicce, Witchcraft, and wicker. Willow has long been associated with Witches and there is also the association of wicker with Druidry. Since Wicce actually means to bend it is not a far jump to make the connection between the two.]

Orpheus, the poet, was said to have received his Gift by touching the Willows in a grove sacred to Persephone. Groves have been used by many types of artisans to gain eloquence, inspiration, skills and the gift of prophecy. This Tree is held sacred, also, to Minerva and the ancient Great Goddess Whose bird, the Wryneck, nests only in the Willow. Cranes are also known to nest here and a grove of Willows with nesting cranes is a symbol of extremely happy domesticity.

The connotation of the letter S corresponds to the God, Semias, the master of wisdom and the original keeper of the Cauldron of Knowledge kept in Murias to the West. This Cauldron was then given to Dagda. The S is a reference, too, to Setanta, the childhood, or pre-initiate name of Cu Chulainn.

According to Druidic mysteries, two scarlet snake eggs were hidden within the Willow. The Universe was hatched from these two eggs, one containing the Sun, the other the Earth, relating to both cosmic birth and the birth of mankind. Traditionally, in spring rituals, these were replaced by hens’ eggs, coloured scarlet for the Sun and eaten at Beltane. This act transferred later to the Christian celebration of Easter.

Primrose and Mistletoe are associated with Saille in connection to Druidic practice. The Primrose was used in the initiation of the Bard; a draught of Vervain and Primrose imbibed in order to confer inspiration. Oil of Primrose was also used to cleanse and purify prior to ritual. Willow is also the more common host for Mistletoe, with this plant found growing on Willow and Poplar (a cousin) more often than on the traditional Oak.

The Celtic word Saille itself became the word sally, meaning a sudden outburst of action, expression or emotion. This word may also suggest an excursion or a jaunt as well as a retort but it can be used to describe a more violent action by troops. It is also derived from the Old French word, saille, meaning to rush out suddenly. These words all reflect the spirit of potential symbolized by the Willow.

Brigid has Her Fire festival, Imbolc, or Brigantia, during the Willow month.

Even the Seneca of North America seem to have had a lengthy relationship with this Tree, calling Her ‘The Whispering One’.

Saille has further connection to the Death Goddesses for the Celts. Morgan le Fay, Cailleach and the Morrighan are symbolized by Willow. These Goddesses represent the darker and misunderstood components of the psyche that require our greater understanding and recognition. The fearful aspects of the Death Goddesses challenge wisdom and strength, helping to overcome weaknesses brought about by fear. The transformational and magickal aspects of the darker aspect of the triplicity - Maiden, Mother, Crone - provide intuitive wisdom and insight into nature and its workings.

Funerary flints, shaped as Willow leaves, have been found in graves from the Old Stone Age, demonstrating clearly that Willow has been a part of our lives for a very, very long time. This Tree has been associated with death, grief and cemeteries, the leaves themselves symbolizing unrequited love or the loss of a lover. The leaf has also been worn as a charm to protect against jealousy.

The uses of osier are numerous. Willow has long been the predominant Tree used in basketry, with many varieties being cultivated for the color of the branches allowing for variety in the baskets themselves. In fact, this Tree symbolizes handicrafters in general, due in part to its extensive use in many ½nes pieces of furniture and baskets.

Many a wattle-and-daub wall contains Willow so it is functional as well as beautiful. The wood has been used for cabinets, all types of furniture, barrels and prized for cricket bats. (I knew I could fit in an allusion to baseball if I tried hard enough!) Due to Her straight limbs, osier is favoured for fence posts.

The popularity of wicker furniture has once again increased and is found in the home as well as in its traditional capacity as outdoor furniture. Outdoors it resists water and weather damage as well, due to its watery origins.

Among its many other uses are ornamental boxes, brooms, charcoal, doors, fodder and fuel. Willow wood in the home is said to guard against evil and grown outside will offer protection.

The Seneca, a North American indigenous tribe, has a loving bond with all Trees, calling them The Standing People. They consider the Willow to be a source of gentle humility, charm and grace adding elegance as She touches Her fronds to the Mother Earth, sweeping away fear to nurture peace.

The long-standing uses of Willow in treatment are extensive and myriad. When scraped, the inner bark - which peels away easily - contains salicylic acid, the active ingredient of aspirin. These scrapings were traditionally used to alleviate pain, lower fevers and as an astringent tonic. Throughout the Isles, Willow was used to relieve rheumatic conditions and gout since these conditions were widespread and common. Its powers were also used as a diuretic, a gargle for sore throats and gums, an external wash for sores, skin problems, wounds and burns.

White Willow was commonly used. Purple Willow has the same general properties as White and may even be more effective in lowering fevers. Black Willow has these same properties and can also be used as a sexual sedative. The Black Willow has also been used to treat gonorrhoea, to relieve ovarian pain and to curb those old nagging nocturnal emissions. Goat, or Sallow, Willow eases indigestion, whooping cough and catarrh and is used as an antiseptic for disinfecting bandages.

All varieties of this Tree can be utilized as an eyewash, to clear skin and a decoction of leaves and bark, simmered, can be used to treat dandruff. All can also be utilized to prevent recurring fevers and as a digestive tonic, especially for dyspepsia.

If you are interested in using Willow in your herbal practice, the bark is collected in the Spring. Soak one to three teaspoons in one cup of cold water for two to five hours; then simmer lightly for twenty minutes. For indigestion and as a tonic, take one cup per day, taken by the teaspoon. For skin eruptions and similar complaints, such as bleeding gums and sore throats, use a stronger solution. A poultice for gangrene and ulcers is made by simmering the powered bark in cream. You can also use many mediums such as olive oil, almond oil and other natural bases in order to utilize this as an astringent salve.

Willow can additionally be useful in cases of hysteria and nervousness and as a Quinine substitute (although this is used only when Quinine is unavailable). Willow can be used to loosen tightness in the chest produced by pneumonia, whooping cough and other respiratory infections.

In the Bach Flower Remedies, Willow Flower Essence is used as a remedy for bitterness and resentment; people who are stuck in a position of blaming others (or circumstances) for their problems, who have an experience of being a victim or being treated unfairly by life, would benefit from this essence (there are many books available on Bach Flower Remedies).

Magickal uses are extensive. The Besom, the Witches Broom, is traditionally made from three Trees. The stave is made from Ash, for protection; Birch twigs are used for the broom itself to expel evil spirits. The Besom is bound with Willow to honour Hecate.

Willow branches are said to be the best for divining Water, channelling Earth energy and to find lost objects.

Saille should be used whenever you wish to strengthen your dreaming Gifts and to boost your ability to intuit your dreams and confer lucidity when in the Dreamtime. Willow can confer seer-ship, often through night visions, scrying ability (especially when using water for viewing) and to restore balance to an individual’s female/male energies. Shavings of the wood, pieces of bark and whole leaves can be placed in a Dream Pillow or placed in a small bag, either under your pillow or under the bed itself. This same package can be used to assuage feelings of powerlessness, an unreasoned fear of death and panic attacks, and to assist you in nurturing yourself emotionally. It is suggested that Willow be used in the same way when experiencing grief and to aid in this healing process.

Willow has been used in the Sacred Pipes and the tobacco blends of many Native Americans because it is thought that it is most effective in carrying messages to the Great Spirit. Willow is also planted by Sacred Wells so that She can help to pull Earth energies into the Water and hold them there for magickal draughts.

The leaves, bark and wood add energy to any healing magick. Willow bark, when used in conjunction with sandalwood and during the Waning Moon, can be most effective in contacting the spirits of ancestors and loved ones.

Although prayer cloths can be tied to any Tree, when asking for a nurturing love or a release of grief, Willow will serve this purpose best. By the same token, for a wish to be granted, ask permission of Willow, explaining your desired goal. Select a pliable shoot or branch and tie it into a loose knot while expressing your wish, leaving the branchlet on the Tree! When the wish is fulfilled, return and untie the knot, remembering to thank your Friend and leaving a Gift of gratitude.

A circlet can be woven of Willow to wear during any of the spring celebrations and Lunar rituals. Fresh flowers, or silk if you prefer, can be inserted in this crown, ribbons be woven throughout the circlet.

Wands made from osier are very effective. First you must, as always, ask the Tree for permission to cut! Often it is best to visit after a recent storm to see if there are any fresh falls about. Even when picking up falls, ask permission and leave a Gift. When cutting, tie the branch as close to the body of the Tree as possible, massaging the life-force in the branch back into the trunk. Tighten the tourniquet and then cut. Use wax or tar to cauterize the cut.

Peel the bark off of the branch; when fresh this is very easy. Save the bark for future use in magick or healing or for decorating the wand. Carve, cut or draw desired symbols while the wood is still fresh and moist. You can attach stones or crystals to the tip or along the shaft and it is suggested you use natural materials, such as leather, cotton, silk, linen or jewellery-quality silver or gold wire. To prevent drying or cracking thoroughly oil the wand during its curing period; use natural oils - cottonseed, linseed or virgin olive oil. Dedicate to your use according to your purposes or desires. Roll and store the wand in a natural fiber cloth - silk, cotton, linen - when not in use.

In divination, when Saille comes up in a throw (or if you dream of Willow), it reveals your feminine side which, when combined equally with male energy, gives balance to life. There may be an indication to pay attention to your feminine nature, showing a spiritual imbalance or conflict. This may be the beginning of a period of unfolding and growth of psychic or clairvoyant powers and includes the gift of cunning which is, in actuality, the skilful use of mental powers. There is an indication toward intuition, imagination and, occasionally, self-deception. Usually the appearance of Willow means the awakening of dormant abilities and heralds a time of enchantment. New currents are flowing under the surface; you need the flexibility to adapt to the coming changes. Remember that the loss of intuition can create rigidity.

When She comes to you there may be unforeseen dangers to yourself or loved ones, coming in the form of lessons from a yet-unknown person, probably a woman. The lesson might be difficult or unpleasant but will be of great benefit and is typical of the Crone aspects of Saille.

It may be time to seek out the hidden forces in your life and the challenge is the tendency to ignore the unconscious, the anima, forces and feelings that may remain hidden. You may be asked to use your intuition, your hunches, instead of logic in order to get a clear view of events.

Yes, Willow seems to be a favoured Tree. Her appearance, Her graceful elegance has always beckoned to us. She gives Her wood for our uses, contributes medicine for our healing, sends us the Gifts of intuition and knowledge and assists in the inner workings of magick.

It is true that a sense of friendship, love and joy can be experienced when standing beneath the canopy of Saille. She speaks to us of a graceful love with Her branches that sweep away our tears of grief. The entire structure of this Tree is symbolic of a wellspring. The branches and leaves rise up like a fountain, pulling up energy from deep within the Earth, bubbling up and over the sides. A casual and effortless peace spreads out from the limbs, confers calm, with the canopy providing a feeling of safety and cover, a wall of protection. The sweeping fronds return the energy to the Earth, replenishing it.

It might serve us best to go to Her for serenity and comfort, for the gentle nurturance of solitude. Imagine spending the day up in the branches of a Willow, listening to the gentle and whispering voice of Saille saying, Rest, dear one.