Fiona Stafford discusses the willow, a strong, highly versatile and fast growing tree, potentially a saviour of the planet as a source for biofuels.
Fiona Stafford explores the symbolism, importance and topicality of five different trees, and charts our ambiguous relationship with trees, across a series of essays.
In this edition, she explores the Willow.
A wood of the wetlands, willows seem almost as fluid as the rivers they fringe. They are trees of mobility, change, displacement. Shakespeare gave their sad music to his tragic heroines, with Ophelia sinking into the brook by the willow and Desdemona singing her willow song on the last night of her life. For many, the willow conjures up dreams of childhood, coloured by Kenneth Grahame's famous book Wind in the Willows and later children's writers. In Harry Potter, the Whomping Willow is a tree with attitude that lives on the Hogwarts grounds; we share J K Rowling's thinking of its modernity. But the willow also has traditional associations with dreams and divination, and wands made from willow are linked to the moon. Their power has also been harnessed very differently by sportsmen wielding cricket bats or by doctors prescribing pain relief derived from the willow's salicylic acid, which gave the world aspirin. The quick-growing, ever-generous willow has always offered pliable twigs for basket-weaving, wicker-work, cradle-making, thatching or fencing, and once cut, the branches will turn into new trees. The willow is the ultimate entrepreneur embracing change.
Willows now have the potential to be green heroes, a saviour of the wood biofuels movement - as they are so fast growing, they can be harvested very frequently, and so are a tree of choice for wood fuels. There are willow-fuelled power stations being planned.