Wonderful Willow … (part 2)

Wonderful Willow … (part 2)

May I ever be in as good spirits as a willow! How tenacious of life! How withy! How soon it gets over its hurts! They never despair.’ Henry David Thoreau (1856)

Warmer weather had everyone in good spirits last week, as we broke ground for our feature garden in this years Garden Show Ireland. First we marked the outline of the entire garden- I remember a maths teacher saying “one day you will be surprised where trigonometry shows up when your an adult”- finally it happened! Anyways, we got the site marked out and wow- it looked big, but somehow right (we hope).

Our next objective was to construct the two willow tunnels which form part of our design. Its great to be using willow in our design, not only does it have a fascinating cultural history, but its sort of everywhere. So much so it is often overlooked in the landscape, frequenting the green periphery, growing in unkempt lands, on verges, the back of beyond, blending in quietly as if it had nothing to say. Yet there is indeed a lot to be said not only of the virtuous practicality of willow, but also its graciousness. Warren-Wren (in his aptly titled book: Willows) described willow as horticulture’s Cinderella, if we may consider Garden Show Ireland as the equivalent of a horticultural ball, then perhaps we get to play fairy godmother.


Left: Michael pointing the ends of the willow rods to make it easier getting them in the ground. It really was hard work. Right: The fun bit, Rohanna begins the weaving in.

Permanent living willow structures have recently become more common in public gardens and are increasingly popular in schools, and its easy to see why. Throughout our time constructing the willow archways at Antrim we were approached by many enthusiastic folk, curious about what we were doing. Willow is a great subject for creating living structures partly due to its strength and pliability, but perhaps most importantly due to its ability to regenerate from tiny twigs to lengthy limbs. As such, wonderfully architectural and sculptural structures can be made relatively quickly.


The tunnels near completion.

To celebrate the Year of Food and Drink, we have a theme of holistic nourishment throughout our garden; nourishment for the individual, for the ecosystem and for the spirit. Willow is a near perfect plant for us to use in our design, while not a food, it has long been associated with healing. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, knew of the virtues of willow bark in easing headaches and fever as far back as 400 BC. Meanwhile hieroglyphics and paintings from around 1500 BC indicate that Egyptians grew Salix around fruit trees, perhaps they understood the dual purpose of willow as a shelter and early fodder for bees, which incidentally, are so crucial to pollination and subsequent fruit set.


One of my favourite willows: Salix daphnoides ‘Aglaia’. Colourful stems,large catkins and vigorous- often planted around orchards but also a potentially good cultivar to consider for living willow sculptures.

Asides from providing an important early food source for bees and a cure for hangovers, willow might also have something to offer the spirit. Ancient Celts believed willow was so magical that it promoted psychic abilities, clarity of mind and inspiration. For this reason musicians, poets, priests and priestesses would meditate in willow groves. Orpheus, of Greek legend was said to have received the gifts of music and poetry after visiting Persephone’s sacred grove of willow trees in the Underworld. Not only did willow inspire Orpheus, but the lyre on which he composed his melodies was purportedly made from solid willow. Musical associations extend from ancient Greece to Celtic Ireland where willow was the chosen wood for making harps.

While the idea that willow stimulates the mind might seem far-fetched, there is a lot of interesting research detailing how when grazed or otherwise damaged, willow releases air-borne volatile oils, which can induce a defensive response in plants growing nearby. Perhaps humans can absorb and be inspired by these volatile oils also, who knows? Personally the scent of willow on the breeze to me is evocative of childhood riverside adventures. All that is mentioned here really only skims the surface of the abilities and potential uses of willow in horticulture, and already the conclusion, for me, is simple grow willow!

Read Part 1 Nourishment of a Garden

Read Part 3 The Making of a Meadow

Read Part 4 Beginning to Build

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