Medicinal Herbs: Willow, Violet, and Elderberry

This seasonal herbal medicine guide highlights the uses of willow, violet, and elderberry species.

  • violets
    Children who can't stand the taste of cough syrup may prefer taking violet for coughs—and may like helping to look for violets to use for "flower medicine."

  • violets

The following suggestions provide enough basic information for you to use the herbs listed here in various ways. Do not feel limited by them—the nature of herbal medicine is experimentation. Within the firm margins of safety, let yourself be guided by the plants and by your own instinct. Remember that medicinal herbs are potent and that their use requires you to be respectful of your body and of the plants. Above all, know that wellness is one of your natural birthrights, and that healing comes from within. The plants are simply herbs, ready to guide you toward internal balance.


Last year I took willow for the first time. A fierce and unusual headache struck one day, and there was no aspirin in the house. I did, however, have a jar full of willow bark given to me by a friend. I simmered a small handful of the strips in boiling water for a few minutes. The tea tasted bitter, but I drank it anyway, a few swallows at a time. Half an hour later, singing through my household chores, I remembered my headache. The willow seemed to have worked wonders; I think it even improved my mood. Since then, I reach for willow whenever pain strikes.

Another time, black flies discovered me in the garden in the first sun after a string of wet and cloudy days. Remembering that willow is anti-inflammatory (and good for pain, too), I rubbed some freshly made tincture on the itchy, burning place. It stung for a moment and then stopped. Later, I realized I had forgotten about the bite, and when I checked it, there was no redness or swelling, and the itching was gone.

Description: A number of willow species occur in New England, and all can be used for the same purposes. Salix nigra is the traditional species for herbal use, but generally all the willows have similar compounds.

Willows may be found as shrubs or small trees, rarely exceeding 80 feet in height. The plant may have a single, central trunk that branches off; most often, it will have several trunks that sprout from the base. Willows are found mostly in moist areas and are common along waterways. Most of the willows have a distinct odor that can be noticed upon crushing the leaves or bark.

Willow leaves in general are long and lance-shaped, with a pointed tip and catkins that erupt from a scale along the branch. Seeds of the various species are generally attached to silky hairs that aid in dispersing them on the wind.

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