Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Nature's Aspirin

The willow tree is one of those trees that people either love or they hate.  Some people find them graceful and lovely.  In the Orient they have been found painted on thousand year old porcelain.  In many old European paintings we see country scenes and often there by the creek is the graceful willow.  Yet other people don't like how even a moderate wind can blow down many branches that they have to clean up.  They see it as a dirty tree.

That grace or dirtiness is not the willow's way of trying to get on our good or bad side.  It is the willow's way of surviving.  By having the outer branches be fragile, it lets them be broken off in a wind instead of bringing the whole tree down.  Also, because the tree can breed asexually, if these branches bend down a touch the earth for any length of time they will take root and make a young clone of the parent tree, assuring if the parent tree does fall the young tree will be there to take its place.

We can actually use willow to help us root our own plants.  Have some rosemary you want to share?  Make a strong willow tea, make a clean snip of new growth rosemary, and soak the cut end of the rosemary in the willow tea.  Let it set for an hour, then pop the rosemary into some good compost and it should grow into a whole new plant.  I have also heard of people drying and powdering willow bark, dipping cut herbs into that powered and then putting it into good compost.  I've never tried the powder but I have done it as a tea and it work quite well as long as you have the new growth part of the plant you are trying to root.

What willow, especially white willow, is used most for is the salicine that it contains, mostly in the inner bark.  When we digest this salicine, it turns into salicylic acid inside our bodies.  Salicylic acid is what the now synthetic aspirin comes from.  Willow can be harvest all year long for a quick pain reliever.  The tips of willow can be snapped off and boiled in water to make a strong, healing tea.  If they can snap off easily they can be used for pain relief at the time.  As the branch gets older, it becomes tougher, making it harder to snap off the ends.  Once this happens the inner bark can be gathered in the spring but it shouldn't be used as a year round medicine.  Only on the new growth should the twigs be used for a quick pain reliever.

The part of the willow that contains the strongest medicine is the inner bark that is gathered just as the sap is beginning to rise in the spring.  How I can tell when it is time is when I drive past the creek house of my cousin and see that yellow glow on the tops of the big willows.

The glow gets brighter the closer the buds on the tree gets to budding out (bursting into leaves).  Once the tree buds out the bark can still be harvested, but it should be done quickly because by the time the leaves are at full length, the medicine isn't as strong in the bark.  I try to harvest right at the moment the buds start bursting.  I say I try, but because I live in a busy world I don't always succeed. lol  As you can see from the picture above, the tops of this big willow is just starting to get that yellow look (actually in real life it is much more yellow-my cheap camera can't capture just how yellow it is).

Willow bark can be used in so many different ways. It can be used on its own in a strong decoction for pain relief and to take down minor swelling.  It can be used in both an oil and a liniment (soak the bark in alcohol) as a topical pain relief.  It can be mixed with other herbs such as the skunk cabbage from yesterday for tension headaches or mints for stomach aches. It has been used as a gentle blood thinner for people with heart problems.  The cooled tea can be used as a wash for sunburns.  Women have taken willow tea for years for menstrual pain and some studies show it may work better than most over the counter pain relievers for this.  In sprained ankles not only does it help with pain management but it can reduce the swelling as well.  For fever it works best if combined with yarrow or mint to help bring down the fever but singlarly it can reduce the aches and pains that come from one.

Because the willow contains more than just salicine some research seems to point out that in many cases, willow bark works better than the isolated aspirin that we buy in pill form.  On a study done on patients with osteoarthritis showed that willow actually worked better than aspirin for pain management.  Other studies show that some people (not all) who have aspirin allergies are not affected by taking willow bark.  It is believed this is because other ingredients in the bark acts as a buffer for the salicine.

A few warnings come with using this plant; If you are allergic to aspirin, this is the natural version of the same thing.  You probably should take care if you want to try willow bark.  Also, if you are going to have or have had surgery you should probably tell your doctor you have been using willow bark as it is a blood thinner.  Because of a child's undeveloped immune system, Rey's syndrome can come from taking any wild medicinal that contains salicine.  It is best not given to a child under the age of 15.

Many plants contain salicine; your birches, poplars, cottonwoods, wintergreen, and meadowsweet.  It was meadowsweet that scientists used to learn about salicine and how to isolate it in the lab.  When you hear that salicine is aspirin-like, it's actually the other way around, aspirin is salicine-like, because salicine came first.   Out of all these plants, the three that are most used for pain relief are wintergreen, meadowsweet, and willow.

Pain management is an important step in any healing process.  A tense body simply does not heal as well as  a body that is relaxed and has the ability to rest and sleep.  Study after study after study shows that pain management allows the body to heal itself in a shorter period of time, with less permanent damage than a body that has no pain management.  The ancient and natural way of doing this has been with plants, and willow bark tea is one of the oldest cures of mankind.  As willows grow all over the world, people from many different continents have been using this pain relief plant for centuries.  Now science is beginning to show that in some cases, the people of old had better pain management tools that we do now.  Pop a pill or spend some time in nature gathering our own medicine?  The choice is simple for me.

This is my attempt to create of post for Wildcrafting Wednesday from the Wood Wife Journal. To see other very wise people's posts follow this link.


  1. Back in "the 'burbs" we had willows. But now that we're in the country, I've only seen one or two around town or "wild" ones near creek banks. Unfortunately we don't have any on our property, although I'd like to eventually plant one as I love the way they look and would love to use the tree for it's natural medicine.

  2. I love these gentle trees...they have female medicine to me.

    Great Post Rea! :)

  3. Thank you for this really informative post. I had no idea you could use it to help root other plants? Wow!

  4. This is the best writing I read for a very long time. I do appreciate how many secrets you have shared, not many people would have been so generous. On my blog Iam trying to show natural replacements for items which require money. Would you mind if I reposted this post on my blog? (giving you all credit of course), peace

  5. Just checking in with ya! Haven't seen you around the blogosphere and hoping you're just busy with the homestead!