When choosing plants, trees, and shrubs to write about it's easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and the sheer awesomeness. For this series on survival plants, I'm choosing to stack functions. I'm trying to write about familiar or semi-familiar plants that help us meet our needs of warmth, fire, shelter, food, water, and medicine. And I'm especially focusing on easy to identify plants that do more than one of those things. Heck, I'm even trying to focus on Northern Hemisphere plants that were useful to our ancestors. Willow is a great example of this.
There are A LOT of varieties of willow in the world. The Weeping Willow is probably the most recognized, but if you find a shrub near water that has long lance-shaped leaves and really flexible branches, it's a really good chance it's a willow. Willows can be made into a lot of things. There branches can be turned into baskets. The trunk or main body of medium-size willows can be made into bows, including one of my favorites the quickie bow (a functioning bow that can be made in about an hour or less). Even if the main trunk is cut down, it's highly likely that the stump of the willow will sprout several new trunks-and so this shrub is ideal for coppicing.
You can harvest and use willow branches for fire kits, especially bow-drill fire. The bark can be stripped and made into decent cordage. You can also make a really interesting style of shelter by harvesting several willow poles, bending them and inter-weaving them and placing the ends in the earth. This forms a dome structure that is very sturdy. In fact, this is how most sweat lodges are made. Finally, the leaves and bark contain salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. Chewing the bark or making a tea or tincture from it is an effective form of pain relief and fever reduction.
I have had the experience a couple of times of being in sweat lodge made from freshly cut willows. I'll probably write about that more down the road, but it was really unbeli