On the bands of the river, I am cloaked in a thicket of willow. Its protective branches reach out over the water, providing shade and shelter to birds, mammals and fish. Deer have grazed on the delicate spring growth. The sound of bees and other insects feasting on willow pollen and nectar hums over the trickling sound of water. I remember that not long ago these banks were ravaged by flood, and marvel that willow has transformed muddy chaos into vigorous growth and order.
Name: Salix species. Salix is derived from the Celtic “sal” for near, and “lis” for water. It could also be derived from the Latin “salio” meaning spring out, in reference to rapid growth.
Identifying willow: Willows have a worldwide presence, with over 300 species growing in a diversity of habitats on every continent except Australia. You can find over 35 species in the Pacific Northwest, often growing along the edges of rivers, ponds, wetlands or beaches. Most willows are bushy with many stems, and a few grow as larger, multi-trunked trees. They are easy to miss until very early spring when new growth paints bright green, yellow and reddish hues on the monotonous winter landscape.
Willows have confounded me for decades because they are notoriously difficult to identify. There can be significant variations within a single species, and different species can hybridize to create new varieties. The good news is that all willows can be used for medicine, so identifying the exact species is not of great importance. See notes below on how to choose the best willow to harvest. Here are a few distinguishing willow characteristics:
- Winter and early spring shoots are often straight yet flexible, and buds are arranged opposite on the stem. They hug the stem verses jutting out, making the stem appear very straight. Each bud is covered in a single protective cap or scale that falls off soon after the bud opens.
- Willow flowers are arranged in catkin-like clusters called aments, which often appear before or at the same time as the leaves. Aments point up verses the drooping aments of poplar, hazelnut and alder.
- Male and female flowers grow on separate plants. The tiny female flowers are usually enshrouded in downy cotton, hence the familiar pussy willow. The pollen of the male flowers often has a bright yellow hue that attracts insect pollinators. The pollen is also carried on the wind. Once the female flowers are pollinated, they swell into seeds and take flight as their downy tuft is pulled by the wind. Seeds root in open, wet soil and thrive in the wake of disturbances including floods, slides and fires.
- Leaves are simple shaped with smooth or finely toothed edges.
Hooker’s [Piper’s] Willow. Salix hookeriana (aka: S. piperi). Shrub or small, multi-trunked tree. Twigs are stout, grey and hairy. Upper sides of leaves are hairy (sometimes nearly smooth) and egg-shaped. The undersides of the leaves are covered with white to rust colored hairs. The unopened flowers are silvery pussy willows and come out before the leaves. Found in moist, swampy areas from the coast to mid-elevation.
Pacific Willow. Salix lasiandra. Tree with a single trunk. Twigs are glossy and the new growth is distinctly yellow, while older branches are brownish grey. Leaves are lance shaped and pointed at the tip, with two or more glands where the petiole (leaf stem) attaches to the leaf. Young leaves are hairy and then become smooth with a whitish bloom beneath. Pacific willow is very common in wet areas from the coast to mid-elevation. It is the tallest of our willows and can grow to 50 feet.
Scouler’s Willow. Salix scouleriana. Shrub, or small to medium multi-trunked tree. Twigs are densely velvety, while larger branches are dark brown and hairless. Leaves are round and widest at the tip, tapering to a narrow base. Older leaves are dark green and hairless above, but hairy and rust or silver-colored below. Scouler’s willow grows up to 40 feet and usually has multiple stems. Unlike other Northwest willows, it will grow at a distance from water.
Sitka Willow. Salix sitchensis. Shrub or small, multi-trunked tree. Branches are dark brown to grey and twigs are densely velvety and brittle at the base. The leaves are wider at the tip, smooth and bright green above, and hairy to woolly underneath. The aments are long and slender.
Willow is important to watery ecosystems because it stabilizes stream banks and provides shade that helps to keep the water cool and clear so salmon and other species can thrive. I still smile as I remember watching a moose and her baby enthusiastically graze on willow shoots in Alaskan wetlands. Deer and elk also rely on willow as a food source, and beavers use it for building material. Willow flowers produce vast amounts of pollen and nectar that bees and other insects rely on.
Harvesting and Preparation
While all willows are medicinal, the medicine strength can vary depending on species and where the plants grow. I am careful to harvest willow in an uncontaminated area and give the bark a taste and smell test. I want it to smell a bit like wintergreen and taste wickedly bitter like an aspirin tablet with a tart vitamin C after kick. This is the good stuff. Many herbalists have their favorite variety of willow, and once they find a stand, they go back to it to harvest year after year. It is useful to develop a relationship with a specific stand and watch how it changes over the years due to your foraging and changes in the environment.
Willow bark and the small branches are the most potent part of the plant and can be harvested in spring or fall. I prefer harvesting in February and March when the twigs are growing fast and the buds are swelling. If you are harvesting from a large willow tree, cut the newer branches then peel the bark and large twigs with a knife. Small twigs can be easily cut with garden scissors or clippers.
To make willow oil, cut the bark and stems into small pieces and place them in a double boiler. Cover completely with extra virgin olive oil or another oil of your choice and heat very gently for several days, turning the oil on and off so that it does not boil. Strain with a piece of muslin cloth, then place the oil in a glass jar. It will last about a year in a cool dark place.
To make willow tincture, place fresh cut bark and twigs in a glass jar and cover with vodka or brandy. Cover with a lid and let sit for at least 2 weeks. Shake the jar every few days and make sure the herb is under the liquid. Strain and bottle in a glass jar. If you are using dried willow, bark I recommend measuring the weight of the herb. For every ounce of dried willow, use 5 ounces of vodka or brandy (by volume). Place in a jar and let sit 2 weeks as above. The dosage is 30-60 drops. Tincture will last 7-9 years.
To dry willow bark and stem, place it in baskets, paper bags or a food dehydrator on a very low setting. Store in a cool dark place. The tea is very bitter, even for brave souls with flexible palates. It is best mixed with other herbs or taken quickly as a tincture or capsules. Up to an ounce of herb can be boiled in about a quart of water and taken throughout the day. You can also powder willow bark and twigs in a coffee grinder and fill “oo” capsules. Take 4-10 capsules per day.
Willow leaves can also be harvested for medicine in spring through summer and dried in baskets or paper bags. For tea, use 1 heaping tablespoon per cup of hot water and steep 15 minutes. Drink 3-6 cups a day. For a pain-relieving bath, try several large handfuls of dried willow leaf in a pot of boiled water. Steep 15 minutes and strain into a bath.
Willow is a richly storied plant that has been valued as an anti-inflammatory, pain reliever, fever reducer and bitter tonic for thousands of years. Its use was documented in 4,000-year-old tablets from ancient Sumeria and it was perhaps the most important of 700 medicines mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus from Egypt in 1534. In China, Europe and the Americas, it maintained mythic status for countless generations.
In 1827, a French chemist named Leroux extracted the principle active substance from willow and named it “Salicin” after the genus. Salicin is thought to be converted into the more bioactive salicylic acid in the body. In 1860, salicylic acid was synthetically synthesized and became cheap and easy to create without the need for willow. Unfortunately, salicylic acid is caustic to the stomach lining and can cause various side effects including bleeding and ulceration. In 1890 a young chemist named Hofman, who worked for the Bayer Company in Germany, found an acetyl ester of salicylic acid. They marketed this as Aspirin, a drug that has risen to become the most utilized medicine in the world.
The medicinal value of willow has seemingly withered away in the wake of cheap and accessible synthetic drugs like Aspirin. Yet I believe it still holds a rightful place in our medicine cabinets. Willow bark contains fiber that slows salacin absorption along with tannins that tone irritated membranes and reduce bleeding. Willow is also bitter, cooling and diuretic. It can help to relieve heat and swelling associated with injury, arthritis, high blood volume and other conditions. Like Aspirin, willow helps to prevent blood coagulation and assists in keeping the waterways of blood flowing smoothly throughout the body.
Willow contains the plant compounds populin and methyl salicilate. Populin is found in cottonwood and contributes to its anti-inflammatory and fever reducing medicine. Methyl salicilates have a minty or wintergreen smell and can be found in higher concentrations in some willows. I notice this with some Alaska willows and seek them out for topical medicine because it is so cooling and pain relieving.
Willow can help ease headaches, arthritis, muscular pain, cramps, swelling, flu like symptoms, fever, and urethra and bladder irritability. It does not work on every occasion, but it is definitely worth a try. Sometimes it does magic.
Willow is an excellent first aid remedy and it is almost always available when you are in the wilderness. It is effective for treating stings, painful swellings, cuts, burns and other injuries. Willow contains vitamin C, which helps to heal tissue. Tannins in willow act as an astringent to swelling. It also acts as an antimicrobial and a pain reliever. You can make a poultice by mashing up the bark or leaves, or you can make a strong tea and place it over an injury. The tincture can be used as a liniment too, as long as there is not an open wound. This story from herbalist Corinne Boyer illustrates how powerful willow can be for first aid:
Willow is a plant that I would never want to be without. I keep the dried bark in my first aid kit, with me at all times. I have had a few specific situations that made me believe in the powers of this tree. One summer, I got a mild, yet painful concussion after slamming the bone above my right eye into the corner of a door at full force. After the initial day of staying in bed with an ice pack and arnica salve, I awoke the next morning with a screaming headache. The pain was so bad I couldn’t stand up. All I could think to do was make a willow decoction. After it boiled for about 5 minutes, it was too hot to drink, so I used a clean bandana and took the wet woody warm bark and laid it on my head, and went back to bed. The pain was gone, no joke, GONE in five minutes. I thought it was too dramatic to be true, but the exact same thing happened the following two mornings in a row, each time willow taking the pain away in no time flat.
Since then, I have used willow for many kinds of pain, and I find that it is best for acute sharp pain that is somewhat closer to the skin, including severe burns and painful wounds. I have chewed up the dried bark (ghastly) to make a poultice for a severe burn in which my skin actually stuck to a woodstove, and it quickly saved me from the pain. After an hour, I removed the poultice and the pain came back. I renewed it and the next morning, there was no blister, redness swelling, or pain. A few days later the skin did sloth off, but with no pain or scarring.
When I was 16 years old, an elder taught me a song meaning “Great Spirit, let me be like the willow and bend to the will of the wind.” That song has been great medicine for me in my adult life. Like willow, I hope to have strong growth and direction while maintaining flexibility. Willow does not break in the winds of adversity or change, it adapts.
Willow is the quintessential remedy for someone who is hot, inflamed, agitated, and stuck. It cools, eases rigidity, transforms harmful anger into discernment, and clears the way. I have seen it help people who are bitter, rigid and resentful find flexibility and grace.
For eons, willow has also been associated with magic, feminine mysteries and the moon. Holy wells in Europe are often marked by a willow tree. I recently heard a story about how a trained woman used a “willow wand” to find water for digging a well on a large farm. Because of willow’s connection to water, it is associated with immortality in China. It is also associated with grief and death, perhaps because it soothes people who are in pain and having a hard time with letting go.
All willows are edible, but some are not palatable. The leaves are high in vitamin C – 7 to 10 times higher than oranges! The inner bark was traditionally eaten by many Native People, although it is so labor intensive that I do not know of anyone doing it today. Willow bark is high in calcium, magnesium, zinc and other trace elements.
In Saanich Ethnobotany, Nancy Turner shares that Hooker’s willow inner bark was traditionally peeled in May and June, pulled apart and twisted to make rope for fishing lines, nets and trump lines. Many types of willow are fashioned into baskets. Willow poles were used as fishing weirs because they root where they are planted.
Willow water for strengthening new plants
Willow contains a natural rooting hormone that stimulates root growth called indolebuyric acid. This compound is highest in the growing tips. If a willow branch breaks off a plant and travels downstream it will easily root in a muddy bank. You can benefit from this by making a willow tea and using it to water cuttings or new plants. Place new shoots in a jar and cover them with hot water, then steep for 24 hours. Some gardeners make willow water by placing new shoots in cold water and letting it sit for several weeks. New plants will benefit from just one or two waterings with this tea. I have also placed a willow sprig in a jar with a cutting when I am trying to get it to root.
There is another benefit to watering new plants with willow tea. According to recent research, salicylic acid is involved in a plant’s systemic acquired resistance. When a part of a plant is attacked by disease or insects, it increases salicylic acid and thereby raises its natural defenses throughout the plant. Plants can even convert salicylic acid into a volatile compound that can warn other nearby plants. When you use willow water on tender new cuttings, you may be helping them defend themselves.
Caution: Willow should not be used when someone is on anticoagulants. While willow is better tolerated than Aspirin regarding stomachaches and ulcers, it should not be used for those who have a salicylic acid allergy.
- Arno, S. and Hammerly, R. Northwest Trees. The Mountaineers Books, 2007.
- Boyer, C. The Gathering Basket. http://www.opalsapothecary.com/herbal-newsletter.html
- Gray, B. The Boreal Herbal. Aroma Borealis Press. 2011.
- Pedersen, M. Nutritional Herbology. Wendell W. Whitman Company. 2008
- McIntyre, Anne. The Complete Floral Healer.
- Moore, M. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Museum of New Mexico Press. 2003
- Nagel, Glen. Song of the Willow Presentation. AHG Annual Conference, Bend, OR. November 7-10, 2013
- Netishen, J. The Spirit of Plants Apprenticeship. September 2009.
- Turner, N. and Hebda, R. Saanich Ethnobotany. Victoria, Royal B.C. Museum Publishing. 2012.
- USDA AgResearch Magazine. Helping Plants to Defend Themselves. December 2003. http://agresearchmag.ars.usda.gov/2003/dec/plant/
- Visalli, Dana. The Wind and the Willows: Why the Genus Salix is Worth a Second Look. Douglasia 30:1. 2006.