The weeping willow is my favourite hourglass of spring. Bulbs are brighter, cherries more cheerful, but the quiet colour change, from the buff yellow of the winter curtains of a willow to a faint tinge of green as little catkins emerge with the first pale leaves, is something that grabs me in March every year. I go to see the willows that surge up from below the bridge over the Serpentine. You can lean over the parapet and touch their branches. There is energy and repose in the long curves of the branches and the green torrent of subsidiary shoots.
I used to be brutal in pruning one I planted beside the wellhead in the courtyard at Saling Hall. It spread in twenty years or so to fill half the yard with its tresses. One of our granddaughter’s favourite (perhaps only) memories of Grandpa’s old house was of standing on the wellhead, grasping a strand of willow and launching off to swing out and back through the greenery.
Whether it’s true or not, I love the legend of the arrival of this uniquely elegant tree in England. The tree is originally Chinese, but a connection in Turkey sent a parcel of figs to Alexander Pope at his villa in Twickenham. Pope’s gardening instinct made him look with interest at the yellow withies tying the bundle. It was easy to see that they were willow, so the poet put some cuttings in water. When they rooted he had the first weeping willow in the country.
The soft willow dome and the strict vertical of the Lombardy poplar, today the yin and yang of our landscape trees, appeared here in the same generation in the mid 1700s: the willow at Twickenham, the poplar in Essex, at St Osyth’s Priory near Maldon. How that period of discovery changed our landscape. Have any exotic imports contributed so much to scenes that now seem quintessentially English?