A plant of pragmatism. Long seen as a symbol of sorrow due to its drooping branches, the willow also tells a story of resilience, healing and strength. One of the few trees that can be bent without breaking, willow trees are known for their association with crafts and weaving, but they also have a long history of healing. The medicinal properties of willow bark, which contain a chemical used in aspirin, have been used for centuries.

The story

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willow make-up

In wet soil, the willow is ludicrously easy to grow; cut a stem, pop it in wet ground and … er ... that’s it. By a riverbank, the willow’s mass of tangled roots prevent erosion and provide shelter for wildlife.


In English, ‘willowy’ can be used to describe anything particularly slender and flexible. Since prehistoric times, thin willow stems, or ‘osiers’, have been woven into baskets and boat frames, fences and fish traps. Osier-beds once stretched along the banks of European waterways to supply the trade. Wicker takes its name from the Swedish word for willow, and strong, light, wickerwork is used for traditional hampers and even for the baskets carrying passengers under hot-air balloons.

A recent trend for organic artworks – sculptures and even furniture woven from the stems and branches of living willows – can feel quite magical, which is just right for a plant that has had long association with superstition.

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the weeping willow

One willow variety, the ‘weeping’ willow – got its name from a mistranslation of Psalm 137: ‘By the rivers of Babylon, There, we sat down and wept, When we remembered Zion, Upon the willows in the midst, We hung our harps.’ The tree in question was probably the Euphrates poplar, not a willow but the association between drooping willows and sorrow stuck. Throughout Europe in the middle-ages, mourners wore a wreath or hat from willow and eventually the gloomy connotations also came to include a lover's rejection.

willow and sadness

Superstition has created a link between willow and sadness, but it has a connection with pain that is based on good chemistry. Ancient Egyptians were already using willow to treat fever and headaches and in about 400 BC, Hippocrates prescribed willow bark for rheumatism. We now know that willow bark contains the plant hormone salicylic acid.

In the mid-19th century, salicylic acid was finally isolated and turned into what is now a ubiquitous treatment for fevers and frets, consumed in about 100 billion pills a year. That drug is aspirin.

Listen — Salix Babylonica Fizz Margereson

Explore more

Want to delve deeper into the world of trees and plants?

Check out author Jon Drori's beautifully illustrated works, Around the World in 80 Trees and Around the World in 80 Plants - intertwining botany with history, culture and folklore. Both are available from all booksellers or via Jon’s website. Jon has very kindly offered a 25% discount with the voucher code 80JONDRORI.

Listen to Salix Babylonica, original music by Fizz Margereson, alongside spoken text by Jon Drori created in response to the Willow, Iconic Plant and commissioned especially for PoliNations. Narration by Jade Samuels. To listen to the music by itself. click the link further up the page. 

Illustrations by Lucille Clerc.

Listen — Iconic Plant Willow Voiceover with Music Composition

All Iconic Plants


A journeying plant. Although a common sight in British orchards and gardens today, the apple actually originated in Kazakhstan! Like so many goods before it, the plant journeyed to the UK via the Silk Road. The apple’s prevalence is even more surprising when you consider its inability to self-pollinate; since the seed of an apple won’t replicate its parent, the only way to replicate an apple is to graft a new one.

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A plant of identity and protest. Historically, ‘pansy’ has been used as a derogatory term for gay men - one of several horticulturally derived slurs. Over time, the name has been reclaimed as a celebration of diversity and sexuality: throughout the 20th century numerous freethinking movements have used the term, including the drag ball scene of 1920s - 1930s New York, in which performers were referred to as ‘pansy performers’ because of their colourful clothing.

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A plant of resistance and tenacity. The ultimate survivor, Amaranth was first used by Aztecs in rituals involving food created from the plant. Subsequently outlawed by the Spanish conquerors the plant became a symbol of resistance against the invaders. It survived their repression and continues to be grown across the world today.

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A plant of wellbeing. Throughout history, lavender has been used to soothe, calm and alleviate stress. Highly fashionable in the Victorian era and into the 20th century, the scent can evoke strong memories among the older generations in particular. The plant itself, and the oil derived from it, has multiple uses across perfume, cooking and herbal medicine. Its healing qualities are known to have been used as far back as Ancient Egypt!

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An ancient plant. Ferns are one of the most ancient plants found across the globe and believe it or not played a vital part in the globalisation of the world as we know it! As a central ingredient in coal, which fuelled the industrial revolution, the humble fern had a key role to play in getting us to where we are today.

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A plant of empire. While a quintessentially English drink nowadays, and well known for being grown in India, tea has its roots in the history of empire. Originally found and imported solely from China, the East India Company moved to prevent a Chinese monopoly on the product by smuggling the plant, and the secrets of its cultivation, out of China and into India. Soon, tea became established as a profitable export for landowners.

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A plant of the economy. Originating in central Asia and Turkey, it was the introduction of the Tulip to Holland in the 17th century which subsequently caused the world’s first asset bubble. During this period of so-called ‘Tulip mania’, the plants became a luxury item: the price of bulbs soared until they peaked and subsequently came crashing down, leading to serious financial repercussions.

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A plant of poetry. Throughout history the rose has featured in literature and mythology from across the world, and has come to represent many things: love, war, purity and friendship among others. In a happy reflection of cultures coming together, it’s only in hybridising with the Chinese rose, that the English Rose came to flower for as long as it does now.

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