Sandy’s Garden ... Willow and Asprin

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In 1932, the American songwriter Ann Ronell published what is probably her most famous song, ‘Willow, weep for me’.

Well, her name appears as the composer: but there was a great deal of speculation on the New York songwriting scene at the time that her then boyfriend … she was either 24 or 26 … may actually have been the composer, for the melody displays many of the characteristics of his work. He was George Gershwin. Whatever the truth of the matter, both the tune and the lyrics are played on the jazz scene to this day; and it is a truly beautiful song which has been recorded by many great singers. Here are two of the verses:

“Whisper to the wind and say that love has sinned, / Left my heart a-breaking, and making a moan. / Murmur to the night to hide its starry light, / So none will see me sighing and crying all alone. // Weeping willow tree, / Weep in sympathy; / Bend your branches down along the ground and cover me. / When the shadows fall, hear me willow, and weep for me.”

Although the willow family includes a number of species, the weeping willow referred to in these words is probably the best known. Salix babylonica … to give it its botanical name … was thought by the great Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (the Father of Taxonomy) to be native to Babylon in south-west Asia: but he made a rare mistake here, for it is actually native to the Far East and was supposedly first brought to England by a merchant trader, Mr. Vernon of Aleppo, in 1730. However, it seems likely that the weeping willow, which was introduced into France near the end of the seventeenth century, was known in England by much the same time. And in 1763 the Reverend Edward Stone of Chipping-Norton in Oxfordshire, wrote to George Parker, the second Earl of Macclesfield, “Among the many useful discoveries which this age has made, there are very few which better deserve the attention of the public than what I am going to lay before your Lordship.”

He was describing the results of the first clinical trial recorded in medical history; and his report on the beneficial results of willow bark in the treatment of sufferers from malaria was a confirmation of what had actually been believed for more than two thousand years! The Greek physician Hippocrates of Cos, after whom the Hippocratic Oath taken by all doctors to this day is named, believed that illness had a physical and rational explanation and was not caused by evil spirits or by having incurred the wrath of the gods. He believed in the natural healing process of rest, a good diet, fresh air and cleanliness: but he also advocated … around 400 BC … the use of what we nowadays would call herbal medicine and recommended that his patients chewed willow bark to reduce fever and inflammation. He got that right in one, for sure; and the virtue of willow bark to treat the pain of headaches and inflammatory conditions was known throughout Europe and the Far East, although the reason was not understood until the second half of the eighteenth century.

We know that willow bark contains salicylic acid, a chemical which was used as a result of Reverend Stone’s trials to develop acetylsalicylic acid; and acetylsalicylic acid was used, in turn, at the end of the nineteenth century, to develop aspirin. And, although aspirin … the ‘a’ is from acetyl, ‘spir’ from the spirea plant (a more prolific provider of salicylic acid than willow), and ‘in’ is a common suffix for medications … is of little use in treating heartache such as is described in the song, aspirin is the most widely used drug in the entire world. Headache, toothache, cold and ‘flu symptoms, muscular aches and pains, aspirin is used to treat them all by causing the body to produce fewer chemicals called prostaglandins which cause pain. And yes, I’d rather swallow an aspirin than chew willow bark!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society