The second in a series of blogs celebrating the flora and fauna of our local river.
By Jenny Figueiredo
These beautiful and fascinating trees with their dreamy, drooping branches and elongated leaves are instantly recognisable. Native to Northern China but found all round the world including along the River Thames, these trees have unique physical characteristics and practical applications, as well as a well-established place in culture and spirituality throughout the world.
The scientific name Salix babylonica is rather a misnomer. Salix does indeed mean “willow,” but Babylonica was added by Carl Linnaeus – who created the classification and naming system for living things – as he thought weeping willows were what was found by the rivers of Babylon in the Bible. It turns out those were probably poplars, but Babylonica has stuck.
Weeping Willow is a medium- to large-sized deciduous tree, growing up to 20–25 metres (66–82 feet) in height. tall. This rapidly growing tree has a short lifespan of between 40 and 75 years. Willows are among the first trees to grow leaves in the spring and among the last to lose their leaves in the autumn. In the spring, weeping willows produce lovely silver-tinged green ‘catkins’ that contain flowers. They are ‘dioecious’, which means their flowers are either male or female, and appear only on a male or female tree respectively.
They like standing water and will clear up troublesome spots in a landscape prone to pools, puddles, and floods – very handy around Osney!
Young deer rub their new antlers on the bark to relieve their itchiness, thanks to the aspirin-like substance it contains. Weeping willows get their common name from the way that rain looks like tears when it drips off the curved branches. Shakespeare uses the willow’s mournful symbolism in Hamlet, when doomed Ophelia falls into the river when the willow branch on which she is sitting breaks. Willows appear in popular culture too, with Harry Potter fans familiar with the ‘Whomping Willow’ – the aggressive tree that lives in Hogwarts grounds and guards the entrance to a tunnel that leads to the Shrieking Shack, where Professor Lupin goes when he turns into a werewolf.
Willows are not only an inspiration for art – they are actually used to make it! Sketching charcoal is often made from processed willow bark and trees. Their flexibility also makes them excellent for basketry and for making coracles, which are small, circular boats that have been in the UK for thousands of years.
This mosaic has been commissioned in celebration of our centuries old relationship with the river. Local artist Josie Webber has created designs featuring native species nominated by local residents, and incorporating pottery fragments found in West Oxford. The marker stones will form part of a human sundial to be installed on the site. This project has been made possible thanks to the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund.