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When the Willows Won't Grow

Willows have a reputation for easy growth. There is something in the bark that lets a willow branch take root, wherever it is cast, to make a new tree. Willows seem to encourage such happy accidents, losing their smaller branches in the slightest windstorm of spring.

Willows, of all trees, stand for rampant growth, irregular growth. One limb's project of spinning up towards the sun turns into next year's trunk as the old tree tumbles down into the middle of a bog, not to die, but to be reborn as a thicket, filling its fen with a rich mulch of narrow leaves and switches.

Willows even lend their powers of irregular growth to other species of plants. Gardeners who want cuttings made from the soft wood of other trees and bushes will often soak their cuttings in what they call willow tea, which is made by mashing the newest green shoots from a willow tree and leaving them to steep overnight in a bucket of water. Whatever enables the willow to set root is absorbed into the cuttings of the other species, provoking the severed stem to grow roots for itself, becoming its own plant.

What happens when the willows won't grow?

When I lived in Memphis, the front yard next door to my duplex had a great young weeping willow in it. There on Houston Street, its long branches swung with the wind from summer through to November. It seemed tough, surviving the attempt of one neighbor to make it orderly by pruning it like a hedge. A few years later, a sapsucker came along and drilled ten holes in its trunk. The next spring, it just didn't grow any leaves. We kept on waiting, but by July we knew it was dead.

At college, there was an old weeping willow outside my favorite dorm. It was a great place for students to study, pretending to be deep souls as they watched the people passing, hoping for notice. The school administration ordered its lower branches cut back for the sake of security. It would be dangerous, they said, to allow a tree to create a hidden place. People could get hurt. A couple years after I left, they cut the tree down to make space for a new dormitory to attract new students.

I got three switches of pussy willow in the Valentine's Day bouquet of daffodils I gave to my wife this year. The whole bouquet was set in a vase of water, and I expected the willow branches to set root, but they did not. They grew a darker shade of brown, and their catkins crumpled into ash-like piles.

What am I to make of a stick of willow that will not grow? The fault could be that of the florist, I suppose. It may be that they cut old willow branches in the fall, willows that have not had the time to develop enough meristem to grow on their own. Perhaps the willows were cut long ago, but kept dormant in a freezer. I don't know if I can trust kind of florist would give me old, tired wood for a Valentine's Day bouquet.

It may also be that the daffodils retarded the willows' growth. I've read in the Encyclopedia of White Magic that daffodils contain a chemical that inhibits the growth of other plants. So, narcissus, the self-centered showy flower of spring, are the anti-willow. The single bouquet is a mix of opposing forces, the willow giving its growth to others, and the daffodil taking this gift while poisoning its companion.

Either way, there's something wrong when a symbol of growth is given in a form that fails to honor its nature. This offering of willow stems was like the sprigs that of holy mistletoe that are now sold for the modern-day Yule, packaged in plastic so that they cannot rot, or breathe. They are dead leaves, preserved in the semblance of green for people to kiss under, and I am ashamed of myself for having bought them.

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