Natural Remedies: The Versatile Willow Tree

The Natural Remedies column shows you how to use the versatile the willow tree: creating soothing tea, a natural aspirin substitute for pain and emergency food in the wilderness.
By Christopher Nyerges
October/November 1996
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The Willow: A plant that has a dozen uses . . . on an off day.
ILLUSTRATION: DARREN THOMPSON


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Natural Remedies for Health

Every now and then during one of my walks, someone will tell me that they have a headache. I peel off two slivers of bark from a willow tree, that ubiquitous plant of the streams, and hand it to them.

"Take two pieces of bark and call me in the morning," I'll tell them. Most people laugh when I say this, but considering that inner bark of willow contains salicin and is the original aspirin, I think my prescription is right on the money. When steeped in water, the bark makes willow tea which is good for headaches, fevers, and even hay fever. Because of its strong antiseptic properties, the tea can also be used as a good mouthwash, or applied externally on wounds. A willow wash is said to work wonders on rheumatism sufferers. The bark of the younger shoots is strongest, and it is fairly easy to harvest.

Willow plants are unpredictably diverse in appearance. Some are small and bushy, while others grow into towering trees. Their leaves are nearly all thin and lance-shaped, and the plant is always found along streams. I have seen them at sea level and higher than 8,000 feet.

Willow plants are also a source of food—in a manner of speaking. For example, the inner bark of willows has often been described as an emergency food, which is another way of saying that you'd probably never eat willow bark unless you were literally starving. As a practical matter, it is difficult to scrape out the inner part of the bark, and you generally end up eating all of it. Cooking renders it a bit more palatable. If dried and ground into flour and then cooked, it is even more palatable, though still well within the realm of "emergency food." I have sampled this bark while backpacking with my brother and a friend. We rarely brought much food with us, preferring to catch fish and collect wild plants. We jokingly called our willow bark "wild spaghetti," which is a major disservice to the reputation of spaghetti.

Euell Gibbons describes two species of arctic willows (Salix alexensis and S. pulchra ) whose tender young leaves can be eaten as a salad, or mixed into a salad. The flavor is said to be improved by cooking them first. Though I have never tried these species, I have nibbled on the wild willows of southern California and would not include them in salads. They are a bit bitter, but are improved by steaming or boiling.

Long straight willow stems are also among the most useful plants in basket weaving. Willow is one of the most traditional materials used in baskets because it is light, easily worked, and it becomes flexible when soaked in water for about five minutes. Always scrape off the bark before using willow in your basketry projects.

I have seen willow chairs and tables at craft fairs, and there are craftsmen all over the U.S. who commonly use willow in these "backwoods" furnishings. They are very attractive. Though the Plains Indians used no chairs in their tepees, they did make a chair of sorts, using pencil-thick willow twigs and lashing them horizontally onto two thicker vertical willow rods to create a backrest.

Because of willow's flexibility and common availability I typically use it whenever I make a sweat lodge frame, which is typically dome-shaped. Once the perimeter of the sweat lodge is drawn in the dirt, I dig holes into which I secure the willow poles. Then I bend them down and lash them together at the top to create the desired dome shape. The sweat lodge is covered with tarps, and very hot rocks are brought inside. Once everyone enters the lodge, it is closed up so that it is dark inside, and water is slowly poured onto the rocks, creating a high-temperature sauna or steam bath. This was and still is a tradition among Native American peoples from North America through South America. Lastly, many's the time I have simply sat on the porch and passed the end of the day smoking my willow pipe.


Black Willow is a safe, natural source of aspirin-like chemicals, which helps to explain its reputation in the treatment of rheumatism and arthritis where there is much associated pain and inflammation. It may be used as part of a wider treatment for connective tissue inflammation anywhere in the body, but it is especially useful in rheumatoid arthritis. It may also be used for fevers such as influenza.

PREPARATION/DOSAGE  

DECOCTIONPour a cup of water onto one to two teaspoonfuls of the bark, bring to a boil, and simmer for 10 minutes. This should be drunk three times a day.

PART USED
Bark

COLLECTION
The bark is collected in the spring when new growth starts.

CONSTITUENTS
Salicin, tannin

ACTIONS
Anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, analgesic, antiseptic, astringent, vulnerary

COMBINATIONS
It may be used with black cohosh, celery seed, guaiacum, and bogbean in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

From The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman (Element Books, 1996).


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