Spring has a habit of creeping up on you, the hazy blush of green around the branches gradually increasing and taking form, until one day you are surrounded by young vibrant leaves full of new life and promise. It’s a gradual process, yet as we approach the Equinox; when the hours of daylight and darkness are nearly equal; we officially mark the first day of Spring. Used to calculate the date of Easter (the Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox); it has always signified growth, birth and fertility and was linked to the goddess and femininity.
Amongst all the fresh growth the silky flowers of the Willow and the vibrant colour of Gorse are two of nature’s signals that Spring has arrived and for our ancestors, time to start looking forward to the return of fresh seasonal food.
Water loving Willows are happy in damp ground and along the sides of rivers where their watery growing habits have linked them to the moon. Symbolising intuition, emotions and dreams, Willows are also linked to the rhythms of life and aspects of femininity. Willows want to live, they can grow rapidly (several feet in one season); re-root themselves when a healthy branch is pushed into or covered by soil and develop new roots by lowering their branches into water. Making sure they cover all bases they can also be pollinated by either the wind or by bees, so it’s hardly surprising that in China, Willow also represents vitality, immortality, renewal and growth.
There are a range of native Willows that cross pollinate and hybridise (perhaps another aspect of their fertility) yet retain certain characteristics and uses. Sometimes referred to as Sallows, Goat Willow (Great Sallow) and Grey Willow (Common Sallow) frequently cross pollinate. More commonly known as ‘Pussy Willow’, their beautiful silky grey male flowers resemble a cat’s paws, before opening out into bright yellow catkins
Both species are sometimes called ‘pussy willow’ after the silky grey male flowers which resemble cat’s paws
We like their silky feel so much, you can often find them in Spring bouquets, but traditionally it was believed to be unlucky to take Pussy Willow indoors until Palm Sunday. Small crosses made from Pussy Willow were often carried through the streets or taken into churches and homes as part of the Palm Sunday services, and this practice has given rise to another local name – Palm.
Willow wood has many practical uses; its pliable nature makes it ideal for weaving and basketry; but make sure you get the right one! Osier Willows, also known as Basket Willow, and Crack Willow have been traditionally used to make everything from lobster pots and bee hives, to coracle and wattle frames for house building. It’s an ancient tradition and fragments of willow weaving have been found in Bronze Age sites such as Flag Fen suggest we’ve been using it since 1000 BC. Perhaps the people who lived in Wooston Castle during the Iron Age, or worked at Fingle Mill, used Willows to make their baskets. We’ll never really know
Whilst it may look dreamy along the river banks, Willow is a tough tree and has an incredible ability to withstand shocks without splintering and Cricket bat Willow – a hybrid of Crack Willow and White Willow – is still used to make cricket bats and stumps. The versatile bark can also be used to make a reddish-brown dye that has been used to tan leather, provides a valuable source of winter fodder for livestock and has provided us with a wide range of traditional medicinal uses.
White Willow which is one of the larger native willows, growing to 25m and often having an irregular, leaning crown
Crack willow is hard to tell apart from the white willow. It is named after the sound made when its branches and twigs fall
Historically people chewed young twigs as a way of relieving pain and in 1897, Bayer started to research whether it worked. Over the next two years experiments showed that the bark of White Willow contains salicin, which when the body turns it into salicylic acid acts as a pain reliever. In 1899, Bayer started to produce acetylasylic acid, a synthetic alternative that is still sold as aspirin. Mixtures of the bark and leaves can also be used as a cure for rheumatism and fever; to eliminate toxins from the body, remove dandruff, sooth sore gums and mouth inflammations, as well as being a restorative footbath.
The dreamy, emotional symbolism of Willow, however, has a double edge and Willow has also been a symbol for the grief of unrequited love. Whilst Steeleye Span and Status Quo have made ‘All around my hat’ popular again, it is based on an older song that talks about the custom of ‘wearing the green Willow’ as a symbol of lost love. Shakespeare’s Desdemona sings the ‘Willow Song’ in Act 4, Scene 3 of Othello, and in Hamlet Act 4 Scene 7, Ophelia drowns beside a Willow that ‘grows aslant the brook’, both saddened by lost love.
Tennyson says that ‘in the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love’ (Locksley Hall 1835) and one of the heathland plants that still symbolises kissing, constancy and love is Gorse.
‘When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season’; or if you’re on Dartmoor, ‘Furze is only out of bloom, when kissing’s out of tune’ and fortunately for us Gorse flowers prolifically, which is why it was traditionally associated with love and fertility. Like other thorny plants such as Blackthorn and Hawthorn, Gorse was protected by the fairies; marked the ‘borderland’ between this world and theirs and carried the dual aspect of luck and misfortune. So, whilst a sprig of Gorse in wedding flowers symbolised fertility, it had to be picked by the bride, because it was unlucky to give or receive it. A member of the pea family, there are two types of Gorse in the South West: Common Gorse, which flowers from late January until July and Western Gorse, which flowers from July to November. So, with a bit of loving seasonal give and take between the pair, there are always some Gorse in flower
Gorse at Fingle, taken in the first week of January
With a high oil content, Gorse burns at high temperatures and was linked to the Celtic Sun God Lugh; it was used to start the Beltane fires in May and over the centuries has been used to warm houses, light bakers’ ovens and heat kilns. Farmers have taken advantage of Gorse’s dense thorny growing habit as a natural barrier to protect livestock and have used fire to manage its fast-growing habit. In the same way as managing bracken, setting fire to the old growth encourages new shoots that the sheep and cows can eat and produces a natural soil fertiliser. The potassium rich ashes produced by the fires, can also be used to make soap when mixed with either a vegetable oil or clay.
The edible vibrant yellow flowers, which symbolise light and sunshine, have a pungent scent that reminds you of coconuts and almonds and have been used to flavour whisky, make herbal teas and wine, as well as to produce a vivid yellowy-orange dye that was used to colour cloth and paint eggs at Easter. Mixed with honey the flowers were used as a mouthwash; placed on the floor they repelled flies, and as an infusion they were believed to cure jaundice and scarlet fever. Burning gorse around livestock was believed to encourage fertility and kill off parasites, and as a final insurance policy, spreading seeds amongst animal bedding was used as a flea-repellent.
Known regionally as Furst from the Old English and Whin from the Scandinavian, Gorse takes its name from the Anglo Saxon – gorsts – from the same root as to waste or lay waste and possibly links to the way it grows so abundantly on exposed ‘harsh’ landscapes or ‘wastelands’. Yet this prickly plant with its sunshine flowers provides abundant food and shelter for wildlife. Its long flowering season makes it a wonderful source of pollen for insects. Its dense growing habit provides valuable shelter for birds including the Yellowhammer, Stonechat and Linnet, as well as moths, spiders and reptiles including the common lizard and adder. Rabbits and Badgers take advantage of gorse as safe areas for their burrows and setts, and all the way up the food chain to the Buzzards, Gorse is brimming with life and new possibilities.
Now that Spring has ‘officially’ started we can all enjoy the signs of new growth and life that are emerging around us: from the Pussy Willow catkins along the rivers; through the daffodils, primroses and woodland flowers along the lanes and amongst the trees; to the vibrant gorse on the heathlands there’s something different to see every day.
By Jane Halliday. Photos: Woodland Trust Media Library.
You can find further information about the uses and folklore associated with Willow and Gorse in the following publications and websites.
G Kindred: The Sacred Tree 2003 ISBN: 978-0-9532227-5-9
For more information on Fingle please visit https://finglewoods.org.uk