Tree of the month: Golden Weeping Willow

Tree of the month: Golden Weeping Willow

This month we take a look at the Golden Weeping Willow tree – in all of its ‘weeping’ and ‘whomping’ glory! With such a rich history of symbolic reverence across the globe, would you grow such a legendary figure in your garden?

I sat beneath a willow tree,

Where water falls and calls;

While fancies upon fancies solaced me,

Some true, and some were false.

– In the Willow Shade, Christina Rossetti

The Golden Weeping Willow is one of the most instantly recognisable trees around. The drama of its presence in any landscape has always ignited the imagination. Willow trees, also known as sallows or osiers, form the genus Salix, comprising around 400 species of deciduous trees and shrubs. They are found primarily growing in moist soils and like cold and temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. They feature an abundance of watery bark sap, which has a high salicylic acid content. With soft, and usually pliant, tough wood and slender branches, the trees grow large, fibrous, and often stoloniferous roots. The roots are remarkable for their toughness, size, and tenacity to live, and readily sprout from aerial parts of the plant. 

mountain river landscape

Firm favourite

Traditionally seen beside rivers, the popular Golden Weeping Willow (S. × sepulcralis var. chrysocoma) has golden yellow, new branches that ‘weep’ to the ground whilst the narrow, yellowish-green foliage forms a curtain of gold and green at eye level. Able to grow 15m tall and wide, with a wide-spreading dome forming its majestic shape, its young yellow-green, lanceolate leaves mature to a glossy green. Catkins containing both male and female flowers, or occasionally all male or all female in separate catkins, appear with the leaves in April. Even the golden young bark looks splendid when bare during the winter months. 

In the willow shade

To sit beneath your own Golden Weeping Willow tree may take you a while if you’re thinking of planting one from a pot. Nevertheless, if you’re willing to wait, this tree is surely worth it!  A pot-grown golden weeping willow can be planted at any time of the year. Start by removing weeds and grass within a metre of your desired planting spot. Dig a square hole as deep as your root mass and approximately 2 times as wide. To help the tree establish more effectively, sprinkle root grow in the hole.

Remove the pot, gently loosen the roots and place in the planting hole. Mix 50% of the original soil with 50% compost, fill in the hole and firm around gently. Avoid banking the soil up around the collar of the tree. If you’re planting in spring or summer, water well for the first few months. Increase watering if there are extended periods of hot or dry weather. If planting in autumn, you may only need to water a little; irrigation kits make it easier.

Once planted, keep the area free of competing weeds and grass for the first couple of growing seasons. Rabbits like willow, so if your garden is prone to rabbits, we recommend using a rabbit guard.

Allow a young Golden Weeping Willow tree to grow unpruned for the first year. This will give it the time it needs to develop a natural shape. From then on you can prune damaged or diseased branches at any time of the year. To encourage a clear stem, prune the lower branches in winter.

History became legend, legend became myth

Throughout the ages, willow trees have played a central role in culture, religion, and medicine. Their many uses and benefits seemed to have been lost to folklore only to be rediscovered in the 19th century. The active extract of willow bark, called salicin, was isolated to its crystalline form in 1828 and, after years of experimentation, its Spiraea plant-derived cousin was used by Felix Hoffmann in 1897 to create a synthetically altered version – a drug we now know as Aspirin. Modern-day research has confirmed what herbalists and ‘witches’ discovered long ago: willow bark has potent antiseptic and antioxidant benefits to help relieve back and period pain, headaches, and fragile bones (i.e. osteoporosis). 

Weeping willow on the shore of a pond.

Originating in China, the willow symbolises vitality and rebirth. On the day of the Tomb Sweeping, or Qingming Festival, some people carry willow branches. The legend states that on the festival the ruler of the underworld allows the spirits of the dead to return to earth. Since their presence may not always be welcome, willow branches keep them away. Other traditions, as in Japan, associate the tree with visiting ghosts who may appear where a willow grows. 

In Western tradition, English folklore warns of the willow being capable of uprooting itself and stalking travellers, while the common Central European figure of speech – “hollow willow” – alludes to a person one can confide secrets in. It’s no wonder Harry Potter nearly died under the branches of the aptly named, Whomping Willow. J.K. Rowling’s magical tree was loyally guarding a secret tunnel, after all…