Watercolour, Pollard Willow in the Dutch flood plain of the River Rhine.
Pollard Willow in the Dutch flood plain of the River Rhine. Watercolour on Waterford paper.

Where I live, between wide-flowing rivers. Where I wander, deeply immersed in the meandering space of flood-plains, where the sky has no end, where poplars and willows wave in the fog, like wispy plumage. I love the pollard willows.

Willows bring feelings of nostalgia, a past of rugged nature and humanity utilizing their landscape. They carry the traditions of my Dutch roots. They are the icons for a landscape dominated by water and they have a fascinating vitality of their own. The willow has an aesthetic beauty that inspired Dutch artists through the centuries, see the works of Paulus Potter, Ruisdael, Rembrandt, van Gogh and even Piet Mondrian. The Dutch, however, are highly practical people and willows reflect that by there versatility in their use.

Aesthetically it is a characterful tree. Strong branches flowing in the wind. They sway their silver and jade leaves, playing in the light. Their rough bark accentuates the contorted and knotted nature of the trunk. Sometimes the wind wins, breaking the dead wood, but the willow will grow to be whole again. Now, in January, the young branches of the pollard willow start to colour again, a prelude to spring. As a symbol in the arts, they are persistent and powerful and the voice of water. The willow play’s a part in the Celtic creation myth. They also have a darker side, in Greek mythology they are associated with the underworld. And in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it is linked to the sorrow around the death of Ophelia. The willow is life and death in one.

Practically, in the Netherlands pollard willows and osier fields (in Dutch “grienden”, plantations with pollard willows) were planted and cultivated for centuries.  They have their own ecological niche. Willows grow for example where for most agricultural crops it is too wet.

Willow branches are straight, pliable and flexible and the wood is able to absorb shock without splintering. The Dutch traditionally make their clogs from willow wood. From the twigs, the farmers made baskets, fish pots, furniture, bean stakes, broom and shovel handles and fences. But the twigs are still in use on an industrial scale. Harvested every 3 to 4 years. Although hidden from view it is still keeping the Dutch safe. The Dutch have used a lot of engineering and water management techniques to prevent flooding and reclaimed land from the sea. One of the techniques is to bundle the twigs into compressed sausages of brushwood, called Weips. These Weips are weaved into fascine mattresses. These mattresses hold rock, earth or silt together and prevent it from washing away. Holding the dykes firm and the water in the right channel.

I keep a pollard willow in my garden. It provides me with wicker for my fence and I love the orange of its shoots. However, it is too young to have these characterful bends and twist of the older trees. So, to draw and paint I wander about in the silence of the floodplains.


1 Comment

  1. Alex Cochrane on 24th March 2019 at 19:19

    Fascinating – I never knew the willow tree was so important to the Dutch landscape and traditions.

Leave a Reply