3 APRIL 1942, Page 8



MANY people must have blessed the willows this February. For when chrysanthemums and carnations were selling in the market for eighteenpence a bloom, sprays of the not less beautiful and far longer-living pussy-willow could be had for a much more modest price. Not, of course, that it was a debutante in the flower-shops. The capital cities of Europe and America have long greeted it in their darker months. In happier days peasant women and boys used to sell it in the Nevsky at Petro- grad; and the New Yorker not long since printed some verses of protest inspired by a florist's display of pussy-willow in flower before its season. Not, again, that every purchaser, taking home the lovely bunches, knew them for willow blossom. I met the other day an unobservant clergyman who had never noticed pussy-willow before Palm Sunday—and then, I suspect, imagined it to have come from a date-palm. But the bunches that I carry each winter to friends in London—in December and January Continental Purple Salix daphnoides, and in February a fine local breed of sallow—have never been welcomed quite so grate- fully as in this winter's famine of flowers. Strange that it should have taken a world-war to set in its true place of honour the poet's "lonely bush of nebulous gold."

I doubt whether, fifteen years ago, I was myself any wiser than the clergyman, or knew that there was any willow to be found in England except pollard crack willows, the delight of artists and the natural home of the death-watch beetle. No doubt the crack willow had its bygone uses. Evelyn must have had it in mind when he recited the many homely uses—from pails and clogs to gun-stocks and harrows—to which willow-timber was put in his day. Tradition says that the rotten mould from the heart of an old pollard is good, when mixed with soil, for the cultivation of anemones. Willows by the stream-side protect the breeding midges ; and midge larvae, so anglers declare, give a pretty tinge of pink to the white flesh of their trout. The bark of the white willow was commended in the eighteenth century as a remedy for the ague ; and the later use of its product, salicin, as a cure for rheumatism led on to the development for medicinal purposes of salicylate of sodium. It may well be that, but for pioneer work among the old willows, there would have been no aspirins in the world today. •

But fifteen years ago Mr. Henry Hutchinson, then the willow expert at the Long Ashton Research Station, brought to my house some little faggots of willow wands. Only then I got to know that there are some 300 species of willows in the world, about 20 of them native to Britain, with many perplexing hybrid camp- followers. They range from the towering trees, on whose behalf a writer in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1785 made an impas- sioned plea that they should be used as masts for the " firr ships then fitting in the dockyards, to creeping willows a few inches high and to dwarf willows such as the late Sir Arthur Hill once described to me as catching his stirrups as he rode through the so-called forests of Iceland. Only then did I fully appreciate as pretty a relic as ever I saw—a pussy-willow flower embedded in a lump of Norfolk amber. Only then I began to learn about

the more modern uses of the light, unsplintering wood of the English willow. They have ranged from the cradles of Queen Victoria's nursery to the bearskins of the Guards regiments ; froin the polishing of the edges of plate-glass to the making of artificial limbs and of the balls that speed across American polo-grounds

But undaunted by the size of the great willow family—Rdll ignorant of its ancient pedigree and its versatile employments— the children and I, under Mr. Hutehinson's stern guidance, al

his wands into nine-inch lengths. These we planted in a nurser we had dug for them, leaving 18 inches between the sets and

two feet between the rows. And that was how I became a willow- grower ; and that was the beginning of a modest willow collection, which includes today basket and coloured osiers, cricket-bat and pussy-bearing willows, and the weeping-willow trees.

There were a few slender sets in that first nursery of Salix alba caerulea, the famous feminine willow, from which all the good bats in the world are made. The actual twigs we planted that February morning fifteen years ago are now fine tall trees of 50 feet or more. We were proud when two of the best bat-willow

merchants in the country inspected them a few years since and

could find no fault with their looks or their culture. The biggest of them reached two summers ago the girth of 48 inches which the fellers require. These bat-willows are beautiful in their pyramidal shape, in the pattern of their uplifted branches and the sea-blue colour of their leaves. I shall have my sharp regrets, even

though it be a signal of peace and the return of cricket, when the

. day for their felling and cleaving arrives. But this willow has for years been the money-maker of its family. I have read of a man who paid for the public school education of his sons by the price he got for his clefts. It provides the modern justification for an old saying that the willow will buy a horse before the oak will pay for a saddle.

Our osier sets, too, grew and flourished. There is a fine flavour in the tough, homely, now vanishing names that have been used

to distinguish the forms of the basket-osiers and the qualities of

their rods—Black Maul, Spaniards, Mealy Top, Dicky Meadows, Lukes, Threepennys, and Greats. They are fortunate in that

Thomas Okey, the son of a basketmaker, himself an apprentice,

journeyman and employer in the trade and also Professor of Italian at Cambridge, produced in his finely illustrated Introduc- tion to the Art of Basket-Making a model for all books written in practical praise of a skilled craft. The book indeed is more than that : you may trace in it the exposition of an aesthetic

and the outline of a philosophy of life. My fields have had no

more honoured visitor than Thomas Okey shortly before his death. By that time we had made a few crude baskets with our own inexpert fingers. We had filled an order from a waterworks in the Channel Islands for thousands of golden osier sets, to be grown for fishermen weaving their own crab and lobster pots.

We had sold a few bolts for the tying of" hundreds" of asparagus.

But then we had turned rather to the growing of osiers whose new stems on their southern side would give us, after the fall of the leaf, colour through the winter. For the osiers yield a fine

variety of colours—blacks and greens, browns and bronzes, yellows and reds. There is no more beautiful sight than a wintry sun

lighting up a holt of the golden vizerlina or the scarlet cardinelis. That shining glory I enjoy from October to February cad season.

I have left the weeping willows to the last—not from contemin but from devotion. In China, I have read, the willow is the symbol of immortality. In English literature it is the badge of

melancholy. Shakespeare made Dido, Ophelia, Desdemona and her mother's maid, Barbara, all choose the willow as an emblem of distress ; and the tradition runs on through the Bab Ballads and Gilbert and Sullivan. To me at any rate the sight of a weePing willow recalls the waters of Babylon and the trees on which tie

Jews hung their harps when they wept for remembrance or Zicg3- No botanist's plea that the psalm must refer to the Euplialic poplar will ever now destroy that association. Yet thrre is nothing mournful—unless-it be the length of its Latin namrabout lb!! pride of all the weeping willows, Salix vitellina pendsda woods' auras. It has no commercial uses: its beauty is its only shield. But its falling branches of pale gold hang about it through the

winter like a veil. It springs to leaf first among all my trees ; and the moment when its garment Changes to misty green is as lovely as any in our year. It appears to be less thirsty than most of its tribe. I have noticed it growing on a dry bank in Somerset and in a seemingly waterless place by the great Cistercian abbey of Alcobaca in Portugal. The uncoloured weeping descendants of the trees in St. Helena, from whose branches depended the ropes that lowered Napoleon's body to its first grave, are less striking to the eye, though graceful enough in their habit. I have a scion of that famous breed. By the kindness of a friend I was able to set beside it this Christmas another tree of historic lineage-- the grandchild of a cypress grown from a branch that fell from Wellington's funeral-car as it passed through the London streets. The tyrant's willow hangs its head. My little cypress stands bolt upright, fearless and unyielding. May the omen avail us all this spring.