Photograph by Adriana Duduleanu / EyeEm / Getty Images

Salix Babylonica

Words by Willow Defebaugh

When I think of willows, I think of fluidity. Other arbors grow steadfastly skyward, but willows turn back and bow toward the earth that birthed them.

“How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can’t. The willow tree is you.”

John Steinbeck

Hello, readers! I’m delighted to be back from my month-long break from writing this newsletter. After some space, I’m more certain than ever of the importance of seeking the shelter of silence from time to time. Society is constantly shouting at us—especially on social media—and it can become challenging to hear ourselves. I spent much of August among my roots in Washington, one of the states I call home. While I knew it would be a time for reconnecting with self, I didn’t imagine that happening quite so literally. But everywhere I went, I saw them: willow trees.


The genus for the willow family is Salix, the Celtic origins of which mean “near water.” That’s the first thing to know about willows: they grow by it (hence why a number of species thrive in Washington). There are hundreds of varieties of willows, and the majority of them live in wet, temperate parts of the Northern Hemisphere. I often wonder if that’s how Salix babylonica, the weeping willow, earned its name—not from its tear-like trellises, but its affinity for water. They know a sacred secret: plant your roots near what nourishes you and you will always be fed.


In return, willows nourish their surrounding ecosystems: a reminder of the importance of reciprocity. Those that grow by the banks of rivers form root barriers that protect the surrounding soil from overflowing, as well as filter debris from runoff water. They attract insects that serve as food for fish, in addition to keeping the water cool by shading it with their curtain-like canopies, which are also perfect nesting grounds for small mammals and birds. And the pollen they produce is a key early form of nourishment for honey bees in the early spring.


When I think of willows, I think of fluidity: not only because of their natural habitats, but the way they sway. While some trees creak in the wind, willows seem to dance with it. Other arbors grow steadfastly skyward, but willows like the Salix babylonica turn back and bow toward the earth that birthed them. And when the breeze blows, their branches ripple and wave, a reminder that there is subtle strength in that which is supple. As Bruce Lee famously said: “The stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.”


Willows nourish humans, too. Thanks to their pliable yet sturdy wood, a number of species have and continue to be used for basket-weaving by Indigenous peoples. Because of their genetic diversity, short breeding periods, and rapid growth rates, they are also being cultivated as a biomass or biofuel. And for centuries, these trees have been used as a source of healing; Salicin, the source of salicylic acid that is used in pain relievers such as aspirin, comes from willows. What higher calling could there be than to have our branches become vessels, our sap medicine?


Willows carry a number of mystical and spiritual connotations as well. In Ancient Greece, they were associated with Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, while the poet Orpheus carried willow branches on his famed journey to the underworld. The Greeks also believed that planting a willow and watching it grow would help the soul pass on, just as the Celts thought that a willow planted over a grave would grow with the essence of the loved one lost. These macabre beliefs may be rooted in the fact that willows grow fast and do not live long—unlike many trees, it’s possible to watch them flourish and wither within one’s lifetime.


I’m surprised I had never noticed all the willows in Washington before. Then again, this was my first time returning home with them as my namesake—one that I’m continuously striving to live up to. It was as if each tree I passed whispered words of remembrance as to what we’re all capable of. Willows remind us of our ability to stay rooted and flexible no matter which way the wind blows; to provide energy and embody reciprocity; to carry healing and nourishment for others and the Earth all the while we grow on it, however brief and beautiful that may be.

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