Going back centuries, poets, songwriters, and troubadours have used weeping trees as a metaphor for death, sorrow, and unhappiness.
By Bill Lawyer
Going back centuries, poets, songwriters, and troubadours have used weeping trees as a metaphor for death, sorrow, and unhappiness. Weeping trees are often found in cemeteries, providing a sense of bittersweet beauty and gracefulness (as well as shade) for people visiting departed loved ones.
A search on the “Lyrics” website shows there are literally hundreds of songs in English with the terms “weeping willow” or “weeping tree” in them.
Johnny Cash and the Grateful Dead sing that they “taught the weeping willow how to cry, cry, cry.” The Stanley Brothers sing that they want to be “buried underneath the weeping willow tree.” When Nora Jones goes walking after midnight she sees “a weeping willow, crying on his pillow.” Etta James cries: “Willow, weep for me.”
For most people, willows are most widely known as weeping trees, but according to botanists and horticulturalists, there are over 500 types of weeping tree cultivars, both evergreens and deciduous.
Here in Rye the most common ones seem to be (as un-scientifically determined by walking and biking around the various neighborhoods) cherries and spruces. But there are also weeping cedars, pines, pears, birches, hollies, lindens, maples, and beeches.
Take a walk or bike ride along Forest Avenue and its side streets and you’ll see many weeping trees — spruces, cedars, Japanese maples, willows, and cherries. Some varieties are only partially weeping. Weeping trees are those with branches and twigs that bend down instead of out or up. This would seem to go against the basic principles of botany we were taught in school – that leaves or needles grow up toward the sun, not down. Often the branches have soft, lightweight wood that bends down with their own weight and that of the foliage.
The fact is that for most of the weeping trees you see in Rye, weeping does not come naturally. One of the most common techniques is to graft a weeping shrub variety of a plant onto the short trunk of a non-weeping variety.
Horticulturalist Tim Borland of the Morton Arboretum cautions people buying grafted weepers to “carefully examine the graft union, making sure there is no cracking or irregular growth at the graft.” He adds: “The most effective grafts for weeping trees tend to be those made relatively high because this helps keep the weeping portions of the plant off the ground and allows a better upright form to develop.”
In some cases, horticulturalists have developed weeping tree cultivars through selecting those seedlings with the desired “weepiness” trait. Or, they can train a tree to weep through the use of ropes and stakes, using what is in fact a sort of modified version of bonsai technique.
Needless to say, because of all the hard work and husbandry that goes into developing weeping trees, they tend to be much more expensive than regular trees.
Given their cost and association with sadness, why are weepers so popular? For their grace and delicacy. Weeping trees offer the beauty of normally tall species on a much smaller, more accessible scale. And certain species of weeping cherries produce fruit.
One or two weeping trees on a front lawn would provide a charming alternative to a group of large, common shrubs.
Ironically, the weeping willow trees that are at the heart of all the emotional notions of sadness, death, and rebirth, are getting a lot of bad PR these days.
Regular weeping willows get up to 70 feet tall. Their branches are relatively weak and snap easily, and they need wet conditions. So unless you have a large, wet property you’d be better off planting one of the dwarf weeping willows, such as Salix purpurea pendula, which is commonly known as the Weeping Purple Osier.
Then you can sit out in your yard, enjoy your weeping tree, and join Neil Diamond in singing “song sung blue, weeping like a willow….”