Botanical and Common Names
- Family Bignoneaceae: Salix species; Family Salicaceae: Chilopsis species
- Salix alba, S. bonplandiana, S. goodingii, S. taxifolia (White willow, European Willow, Weeping Willow, Salicin Willow, With Withy, Black Willow, Catkins Willow, Pussywillow, American Willow; Spanish: Sáuz, Sáuce, Jarita, Taray, Ahuejote; Nahuatl: Quetzalahuexoltl)
- S. lasiandra (Red Willow, Pacific willow)
- S. nigra (American willow; Spanish: Negrito)
- S. humilis (Prairie Willow, Dwarf Willow, Dwarf Prairie Willow, Low Willow, Cone Willow, Bush Willow)
- Chilopsis linearis (Desert Willow, Spanish: Mimbre, Jano, Flor de Mimbres)
There are no cautions listed despite the herb having a high salicin content. The side effects are not the same as those encountered with its synthetic counterpart (aspirin). However, it should still be used cautiously, especially during pregnancy and breast-feeding.
It should not be used in conjunction with any blood-thinning medications.
The tree is generally indigenous to central and southern Europe and has been found for thousands of years in various parts of the world, including Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. The Willow is generally a deciduous tree, growing to about eighty feet and producing green tapering leaves and catkins (long flower clusters) in the spring. The Desert Willow is native to the arid regions of northern Mexico and southeastern US. It is a willowy bush with heavily aromatic clusters of pink or purple trumpet-shaped flowers that give way to long, slender seedpods. The Red Willow is a tall tree that can grow to fifty feet, mainly along streams in western North America.
Chinese medical texts dating from 500 BCE recommended its use for these conditions, as did the ancient Greeks and Romans. Europeans seem to have discovered its properties almost by accident during the mid-1700s.
Worldwide, there are hundreds of willow species; and many are sources of botanical medicines, especially the white willow, which has a long history of use for fevers and “hot” conditions. The Cree, Chippewa, Huron, Mohawk, and other tribes used white willow bark in much the same way as the modern day aspirin when treating fevers, headaches, arthritis, and other painful inflammations. The Mesquakies used the willow to treat diarrhea and the leaves to stop hemorrhaging. This tribe was also recorded as being able to distinguish an upland from a lowland variety of willow. The Menominis used the galls to make medicines for spasmodic colic, dysentery, and diarrhea. The Blackfeet made a tea from the crushed fresh root to treat internal hemorrhages, throat constrictions, swollen neck glands, bloodshot or irritated eyes, and for symptoms of “waist trouble”. The Cheyenne fashioned a strip of willow bark around a cut to stop bleeding. Many tribes, including the Chicanos in New Mexico, chewed the twigs to clean the teeth to harden the gums in cases of pyorrhoea.
Native American tribes used the plant not only for medicine but also for making dye, furniture, mats, baskets, drums, stirrups, tipi pegs and pins, fox and fish traps, hunting lodge poles, and meat-drying racks.
It was one of the first herbs to be scientifically investigated. A 19th century French chemist, Leroux, extracted the active component and called it “salicine”. By 1852, this substance was reproduced synthetically; and by 1899, a German drug company, named Bayer, marketed the first aspirin tablet as an arthritis remedy. It contained a less irritating, although unpleasant-tasting, variant named acetylsalicylic acid. This was the first of the modern generation of plant-derived drugs.
Dioscorides, the 1st century Greek physician, suggested taking “willow leaves, mashed with a little pepper and drunk with wine” to relieve lower back pain.
A British minister and physician named Edmund Stone was looking for an inexpensive substitute for South American cinchona bark, the source of quinine, to treat malaria. Cinchona was very bitter tasting and since it looked similar to the local white willow bark and tasted much the same when brewed as a tea, Stone gave it to his patients; and 19th century scientists began to experiment with the willow.
For centuries, the Aztecs had been using the royal-plume-water-willow to treat fevers.
Native Americans utilized almost every part of the Red Willow to make everything from baskets to bows, tools and toys. The inner bark was used in tonics; and the Okanagan-Colville Indians drank a tea made with the inner bark, combined with that of the wild cherry, as a general illness remedy. The Bella Coola used it to treat diarrhea, while the Kashaya Pomo treated colds and sore throats with a leaf decoction.
Salicin was officially listed in the US Pharmacopoeia from 1882 to 1926 and the National Formulary from 1936 to 1955.
- bitter digestive tonic
- Phenolic glycosides (up to 11% – salicylic acid)
- flavonoids (including quercetin and isorhamnetin)
Salicin is a glycoside that the body metabolizes into salicylic acid, which is chemically similar to that of aspirin’s acetylsalicylic acid. Unlike aspirin, however, salicin does not interfere with platelet function, so it is not likely to help prevent a heart attack or stroke. Nor does it pose any of aspirin’s such risks as gastrointestinal bleeding.
In modern herbalism, only the bark is used; but in times past, the leaves were a popular remedy and used much like the bark is today. Willow leaf tea was taken for fevers or colicky pains, fever, or used as a treatment for dandruff.
The bark is used for many inflammatory conditions, including arthritis and rheumatism, fevers, neuralgia, headaches, general pain, mild digestive stimulant, gastroenteritis, and diarrhea. The powdered form is mixed with honey and taken to treat fevers and headaches. A fluid extract from the bark is stronger than a tincture and used for rheumatic conditions, headaches, and neuralgia.
Tinctures from the bark are used to treat fever or can be combined with boneset, elder, and gentian to treat feverish conditions. When combined with soothing herbs like marshmallow root or plantain, it is used to treat gastric inflammations and infections.
Infusions from the leaves are taken after meals for digestive problems, and bark decoctions are used for feverish chills and headaches, or as part of an arthritic treatment. It can also be used to treat yeast infections, coughs, skin infections, cuts, and scratches.
In Sonora, it is used to treat a weak heart. In other parts of Mexico and the southwestern US, an infusion is used topically as a wash or compress; or the dried herb is powdered and sprinkled on cuts and scratches.
Because the potency of salicin in white willow is much less than that of aspirin, it may not be an effective agent for rheumatoid arthritis or other inflammatory conditions that require high doses of aspirin or NSAIDS to control. In addition, as with all herbs, the potency will vary from one batch of bark to another and from one species to another.
Willow bark is sometimes included in weight-loss formulas, claiming that it works synergistically with caffeine and ephedrine to speed metabolism and to burn calories. However, these effects have never been proven and is likely just added to take the “pain” out of the weight-loss process!