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.

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    The Willow: A plant that has a dozen uses . . . on an off day.

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The Natural Remedies column shares information on how to create your own household remedies. 

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.

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