The worshipped willow tree

In June 2011, I was at a fantasy convention, sitting behind my very own dealer’s table with a pile of Remedy paperbacks. And boy, was I stoked about it! One attendee stopped to leaf through a book. He asked me about the ideas I used in the making of my fantasy world. And I told him the first bit of trivia that came to my mind: aemets’ relationship with willow trees.

The aemet race is born with plantcasting magic in their bodies, as natural and necessary as their blood. So they worship the plant goddess Verdana, and Verdana’s flagship symbol is thought to be the willow tree. Trees in general are the most sacred of Verdana’s plants. And the willow tree’s slender, arching branches even look somewhat like aemets’ antennae.

So while making a heartfelt prayer to Verdana, folk will sometimes hold a fresh willow leaf between their palms. (This leaf should be picked by someone who can use plantcasting to heal the picked spot on the tree. Hurting the tree is frowned upon.) Once used to infuse a prayer, the willow leaf can be tucked into the aemet’s underclothes for a while as a sort of luck charm. And when the willow leaves dry out and aren’t needed anymore, they’re brought to the town’s Middling circle to be composted back into the soil — plant scraps are never carelessly thrown away, especially not these ones.

What was my inspiration to make willow trees sacred? The fact that willows contain salicylic acid, a major component of aspirin. Powdered willow bark has been known since ancient times as a painkiller and fever reducer. More recently, it’s been found to inhibit blood clotting, making it a part of heart and stroke management. Salicylic acid might not be a miracle drug but it’s certainly very useful.

Unlike humans, aemets don’t head for the willow bark at the first sign of a headache. But when their kin are facing dire illness — especially a feverish illness such as gripthia — they will harvest willow bark and make a medicinal paste as a sort of plea to the gods.

Clean lengths of rag spiralled away; the crescent blade glinted, purple light on steel. Rose thanked fortune again that she had remembered where Father stored this – the thought of using an ordinary paring knife was too much to bear. She laid fingertips on the willow trunk. The godsknife waited cool in her hand.
“Willow.” Her voice cracked, dry as glue. “Please forgive your sister, as she takes what others need.”

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 15

And that sacred bark will indeed ease a sick aemet’s pain. I figured it would be a kind of dramatic irony: if someone is reading Remedy and they happen to know where aspirin comes from, they’ll see the extra meaning in the aemets’ precious willows.

The convention attendee I told this to? He said he loved that kind of worldbuilding detail in fantasy stories, and he bought a copy of Remedy just because of my willow tree trivia. And if another author ever tells me a tidbit like that, heck, I’ll buy a paperback, too.

[March 12th 2014 edit: Comments are turned off for this entry, due to an absolute hive of spambots. Apologies to any actual humans who might have wanted to comment!]