#48 – “Willow”

Willows grow down by the riverside, twig-fingers trailing in the slivery water. They drift like fog-clouds across the marshes, Fae whispering in their branches. Bowed, they weep among gravestones in the cemetery. Where willows grow, ghosts are always to be found.


“My emotion, so far as I could understand it, seemed to attach itself more particularly to the willow bushes, to these acres and acres of willows, crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting, listening. And, apart quite from the elements, the willows connected themselves subtly with my malaise, attacking the mind insidiously somehow by reason of their vast numbers, and contriving in some way or other to represent to the imagination a new and mighty power, a power, moreover, not altogether friendly to us.” 

– from The Willows, by Algernon Blackwood 

There are over 400 species of willows – also known as sallows and osiers – ranging from mighty trees to low-growing, creeping shrubs. Willows grow in the tropics, in the arctic, and almost everywhere in-between. 

Perhaps the most familiar species is the Weeping Willow – a tree native to Northern China but which, thanks to millennia of trade between East and West, is now found across the world. With its long, slender branches, drooping with cascades of small, green leaves, the Weeping Willow appears to “hang its head” in grief. 

The Weeping Willow’s scientific name, salix babylonica, was given in 1736 by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. The name is a reference not to the origin of the tree, but Psalm 137 in The Book of Psalms

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept/when we remembered Zion./There on the willow trees/we hung up our harps.”

(Yes, I read it to the tune of the Boney M song too) It should be noted, however, that there were no Weeping Willows in Babylon, and that the trees mentioned in the Psalm are believed more likely to have been poplars. 

The Qingming Festival (more commonly known as Chinese Memorial Day or Ancestor’s Day in English) is a traditional Chinese festival observed by the Han Chinese people of Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Malasia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and by the Chitty people of Malaysia.[1] During the festival (which takes place on the 15th day following the Spring Equinox) families visit graves of their ancestors where they pray and leave offerings. Willow branches are traditionally used to sweep the gravesites and tombs, but willow is also fixed above doors and gates during Qingming in the belief that it will prevent other spirits wandering abroad from entering where they are not wanted. It’s interesting to note that in English folklore fixing willow leaves or branches above a doorway was believed to act as a protection against witches. [2]

Speaking in 2018, Hesheng Zhang – a teacher from Western China, who now teaches in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, USA – contributed a piece of oral Chinese folklore (passed down to him from his parents) to the Dartmouth Folklore Archive project:

“Scholartree often makes Chinese people imagine ghosts. Do you know Yin and Yang? We think scholartrees represent Yin and willow trees represent Yin as well. We think death is Yin, so we do not plant scholartrees around the house or else a ghost may come.”

Because these trees were traditionally used as grave-markers, their association with the dead, with death, and with Yin, has become deeply ingrained over thousands of years. Willows become a kind of magnet for Yin, and for ghosts themselves. [3]


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qingming_Festival

[2] https://www.icysedgwick.com/willow-folklore/

[3] https://journeys.dartmouth.edu/folklorearchive/2018/11/11/scholar-tree-willow-tree/

Folk Magic & Healing, by Fez Inkwright  https://liminal11.com/product/folk-magic-healing/