Garden Notes: White Willow has a very distinguished history

Once there was a willow tree on Penn State’s University Park campus that was an off-shoot of a willow tree that grew in Alexander Pope’s garden.

It was a Salix babylonica “Pendula,” and it was brought to State College by Evan Pugh, the first president of Farmers High School, the school that eventually became Penn State.

At the time, it was the custom to plant a tree to symbolize the birth of a new institution and the founders’ wish for its growth and prosperity.

It became a rite for freshmen to bow to Old Willow as they walked by. Eventually, the Penn State willow and its offshoots died, and with it, the custom.

In his book, “Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs,” Michael Dirr states very few Salix babylonica sold today are “the real thing.” He writes that it can be distinguished from other cultivars or varieties by the color of the stems in winter: “The Salix babylonica stems are reddish brown in winter, never yellow like those of Salix alba.”

Salix alba or White Willow, grows along stream banks here in Blair County. The interlacing roots protect the banks, and with the steady supply of water, the roots grow much larger than the trunk.

You can distinguish White Willow from other willows by its long tapered, gray-green leaves. The underside of each leaf is covered with long silvery hairs. When the wind blows, the leaves shimmer, and the tree appears white.

It’s a fast-growing tree, and according to Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy A. Block, in their book “Trees of Pennsylvania,” there is a White Willow tree in Schuylkill County that measures 6 feet, 4 inches in diameter and is 78 feet high, with a spread of 79 feet.

As far back as 90 A.D., the Greeks and Romans used White Willow bark as a treatment for any kind of pain. In the late 1890s, chemists who were looking for a cure for rheumatic fever and arthritis, happened on a substance they called “salicin,” the salicylic acid they found in willow bark.

Today, a mixture we call an aspirin tablet is the world’s most frequently used drug, with Americans consuming nearly 16,000 tons of aspirin each year. Its routine use can help prevent strokes and control angina.

So people of a certain age take 81 milligrams daily, whether they’re in pain or not.

Early healers and physicians knew that White Willow charcoal had healing powers. Unhampered by today’s Food and Drug Admini­stration, they used the charcoal to cure all manner of ailments.

“Receipts” called for the charcoal to be blended with ginger and sugar water and the dose repeated until the desired results were achieved, or the patient was dead. It was administered to patients for everything from internal bleeding to removing warts and “unnecessary flesh.”

One report I read declared, “White Willow is also useful for women, as the herb helps in lowering night swearing.”

I’m pretty sure that was a typo.

Contact Teresa Futrick at