Spring willows are leafing out


By James McGuire

Contributing columnist

Spring began last week at the moment of the vernal equinox’s passing.

Right on cue, March got into a welcoming mood and served up blue skies filled with a wealth of bright sun. The only downsides keeping it from being a picture-perfect day were the cold temperatures—barely making it into the mid-40s—and lots of gusting wind.

However, while I’d have preferred a little more balmy and a bit less breezy, a warm windbreaker easily cured both shortcomings. I’ve witnessed more than one spring kick-off amid snow flurries! I’m grateful fickle ol’ March decided to play nice this time around.

In response to spring’s debut, willows along the banks of the island across the river from the cottage have suddenly started leafing out. Early in the morning, soon after the sun manages to clamber above the hill to the east, those willow patches seem to switch on, glowing like neon in a soft electric green.

Every spring, they remind me of another willow—a single tree—from long ago.

Near the house where I grew up, a truly enormous weeping willow with multiple trunks stood on the bank of a tiny brook. It practically dominated the view from the kitchen window.

Every March, when the huge tree began to leaf out, our family took great delight in watching it quickly transform into a glorious spray of greenish-gold.

It was an almost magical performance. My father always referred to this annual event as “spring’s glorious fountain!”

About now, that graceful old weeping willow would have been a breathtaking sight. Unfortunately, a few years back, township engineers, installing new storm drainage tiles, sawed, chopped, and bulldozed it to the ground, though it wasn’t within a hundred feet of where they were working.

An ignominious and unnecessary fate for such a magnificent tree.

Nowadays, I watch both the willows along the river, and those lining the banks of a little stream that flows across an abandoned farm bottom not far from my house, and where I regularly head for a handy walkabout.

Day after day those marker willows appear as dull and colorless as the brown winter weed stems in the adjacent fields. But then, just like the willows across from the cottage, or the big weeping willow of my youth, they suddenly change magically, and virtually overnight.

One morning I’ll top the hill and a serpentine line of pale yellow catches my eye. Is it only a trick of the light? Hmmm. Hope stirs—and I start to feel better about where we’re at, season-wise.

Then, only a day later, I’ll see an unmistakable glowing golden ribbon. Willow gold, life gold—spring gold! Hallelujah!

Amazingly, this annual color transformation almost exactly coincides with the passing equinox—a simultaneous agreement with the calendar and almanac.

What counts is that for me, the greening delivers proof positive that spring has sprung!

Quickening willows are the very essence of spring. Like all plants, they respond to natural rhythms we still only partially comprehend.

Suffused with colors ranging from bright saffron to incandescent vermilion, the withes of various species of willows proclaim their rising sap, their returning life—a message born in the earth and released by the season.

Willows, indeed, possess a genuine vitality. You can snap off a willow twig, stick it in the mud, and practically count on it taking root. That’s what makes fast-growing willows such excellent stream stabilizers. They’ll quickly secure fragile banks from flood erosion and sediment loss. A handful of willow cuttings jabbed into a midstream sandbar will soon convert it into an island. Given a moist footing, a row of willow fence posts will promptly turn into a row of willow trees—as more than one farmer has belatedly learned through inadvertent experimentation.

A handful of dried willow twigs makes a hot, nearly smokeless fire, making it the fuel of choice for trespassers or anyone trying to keep their presence secret.

A willow fire is great for grilling trout, but way too hot and fast-burning if you want to bake a potato. Because of its pure carbon content, willow charcoal has been used by powdermills since the Revolutionary days.

The medicinal use of willow dates back 2000 years. Various concoctions made from the bark, roots, leaves, and sap were used to treat everything from rheumatism to cataracts to dandruff. Most of these old remedies depended on the plant’s content of salicylic acid—the active ingredient in today’s aspirin.

There isn’t much call for willow lumber anymore, though in earlier times it was used to make boxes and shipping crates. Willow can be turned into nice bowls and shaped into excellent cooking utensils. The wood is light and strong and doesn’t split or warp easily. And either split or in the round, willow is the basketmaker’s staple material.

An old woven willow creel hangs on my writing room wall. It belonged to my father, who gave it to me when I started chasing trout.

A venerable fishkeeper, it’s as sturdy today as ever. Countless brookies, browns, and rainbows have lain within this willow-walled hereafter—stretched gently upon a fragrant bed of damp mint ferns, kept cool and protected while awaiting their ultimate frypan service.

Poets and painters have always loved willows, immortalizing them in their art. I’ve read the exiled Napoleon used to sit under a favorite willow—no doubt pondering the vagaries of fame and fate, politics and war—and was eventually buried under this same willow.

Unless some misguided township engineer has come along and chainsawed it into oblivion.

Reach the writer at [email protected]

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