Our culture reveres youth and all things new. But as I grow older, I see the wisdom, grace, and time-tried beauty of age. With this new-found appreciation for my elders, I question what kind of grandparent will I be? How will I fit in 20 years from now?
To ponder such questions, I walk in the woods amongst the old: oaks, willows, sycamores, alders, and walnuts. Trees have stood the test of time and served our community for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years. I remember a 10-year-old child once said to me: “The trees must know much more than humans. They see so much more because they move very, very slowly.” What would the trees say if we took the time to listen them?
One tree that stands out during my ponderous journey is the grand old Willow. Willows belong to the Salicaceae family and the genus Salix which is found throughout the world with more than 400 species. California hosts at least thirty native species. Agoura Hills lies at the range of red (S. laevigata), black (S. gooddingii), arroyo (S. lasiolepis), narrow leaf (S. exigua), and shining willow (S. lucida) which all grow in riparian habitats or freshwater environments.
Although they readily hybridize, willows can be easily identified from other trees. Their leaves are simple, deciduous and grow alternately on the branch. Most leaves tend to be thin lance shaped and longer than wide. Leaves reach a length between one to five inches. The flowers are small, inconspicuous and grow in catkins- a unisexual flower inflorescence arranged in a thin drooping cluster. Some species of willow will show flowers before their leaves emerge in spring. Most notable about the flowers are the downy seeds that float through the air or create a soft carpet of “snow” under the trees. Willow seeds bear a long tuft of hair ideal for wind dispersal.
These trees often have many stemmed trunks with deeply grooved brown bark. During spring willows sprout numerous thin branches called wands. This characteristic makes willows ideal for quick growth when heavily pruned through a practice known as coppicing.
Beyond growing quickly and bringing green to your yard, willow has many practical uses. The wands have long been used to make baskets, furniture, shelters, and boats known as coracles. Coracles are short rounded boats covered with animal hide and are still used in some parts of England. Willow wood also makes sturdy boxes and woodchips have been used for fuel, helping to reduce the use of fossil fuels. In addition willows are important fodder for wildlife and offer excellent habitat for songbirds.
Willow has also been used medicinally over the world. Salicin, a component of willow bark, contains salicylic acid from which aspirin is derived. Salicin is an effective anti-inflammatory and pain reliever. Although bitter tasting, the bark can be chewed on to reduce fever and inflammation or to relieve a toothache. Chinese medicine uses willow bark to ease lower back pain and osteoarthritis. A tea made from the bark is excellent for treating headaches and is thought to be less likely to cause gastrointestinal problems than ibuprofen.
Other components of the bark have been found to contain antioxidants, antiseptics, and immune boosting properties. Externally it was used as a poultice for rashes and cuts. The shoots and young leaves are high in vitamin C and have shown to be 7-10 times more concentrated than oranges. As with any medicine it is important and essential to research side effects and proper dosages.
Willow is also an important tree for land restoration. Freshly cut wands are driven into the ground as stakes which then quickly sprout new roots, take hold of the land, and prevent erosion.
As I slow down listen to the trees, I see that willows have an important lesson to teach. Amidst the gnarled trunks rutted with deep grooves, young fresh life grows. New shoots reach toward the sun and bright green leaves create energy while old sturdy wood provide a base for the young to grow. Willows remind us that diversity is necessary for a healthy community, needing both the young and the old.