The beauty and intrigue of the willow

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114668192024912.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘A venerable weeping willow overlooks the lagoon in Martin Park and offers the passerby a place to rest, meditate, relax or fish.’);

“The park bench was deserted

As I sat down to read,

Beneath the long, straggly branches

Of an old willow tree.”

—From “Love and Happiness,” by Cheryl Costello-Forshey

There is an ancient weeping willow tree by the lagoon in Martin Park that has endured the forces of nature for many years. Limbs have been broken off by wind and ice and a portion of the main trunk shows severe rot. But the venerable old tree still stands guard over the lagoon, and offers a pleasant site to rest, meditate, read or fish.

As I sat on the bench beneath the willow the other day, I suddenly realized how apropos the line from Costello-Forshey’s poem was.

There are about 350 different species of willows worldwide, all members of the family Salicaceae, genus Salix; scientific names given to this group of plants by the Swedish naturalist Linneaeus almost 500 years ago. About 25 species of willows are found in cooler, moist zones of North America. Willows reach a height of only a few inches, though spreading profusely along the ground.

The weeping willow is a favorite of many people and is frequently planted as an ornamental. These willows, along with the others, readily take root from planted cuttings or even from twigs that have fallen to the ground. This popular willow, however, is a hybrid species resulting from a cross between the Chinese Peking Willow and the European White Willow.

According to legend, the poet Alexander Pope is responsible for all of the weeping willows in England. Pope is supposed to have taken a twig from a parcel tied in weeping willow twigs that was sent to England from Spain and planted it. It is conceivable, but not probable, that all of England’s weeping willows are descendents of this planting.

It has been known for centuries that the bark of willows has certain medicinal properties. The bark’s therapeutic value was mentioned in ancient writings from Assyria, Sumeria and Egypt as a cure for fever, and aches and pains in general. The noted Greek physician Hippocrates noted its value as a medicine in the 5th century BC. Native Americans certainly knew of the bark’s curative properties, and every medicine man certainly had some in his bag of cures for almost any ailment. This information was undoubtedly passed on to early European settlers.

The ingredient in the bark that alleviates aches and fevers is called salicin. This compound was first isolated in a crystalline form in 1828 by the French pharmacist Henri Leroux and the Italian chemist Raffaele Piria. Salicin is very acidic in nature and, when dissolved in water, is called salicylic acid (pH of about 2.5). This acid proved effective in relieving pain but frequently caused digestive upset.

In 1897, Felix Hoffmann, a German chemist, created a synthetically-altered version of salicin that caused less stomach distress than salicylic acid. The new compound was called Acetylsalicylic Acid. Hoffman was employed by the giant German pharmaceutical firm Bayer AG, whose marketing people quickly named the new product ASPIRIN! Additional research with aspirin resulted in the development of an important class of drugs we know as anti-steroidal anti-inflammatory.

The willow has an untold number of other uses, including, basket weaving, charcoal, biofiltration, bats used in the sport of cricket, furniture, hedges, fish traps, hedges, paper, rope and string, soil erosion control, and windbreaks, to mention a few.

If one has a moist environment on his/her property, it would be a good idea to plant a weeping willow. Aside from the aesthetic beauty of the tree, chewing the bark would alleviate a headache when the pharmacy is closed, and aspirin is not available.

From the May 3-9, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!