Of the genus Salix, the willow family is comprised of around 400 species. Willows vary between tall and majestic trees to low-lying creeping shrubs. Found all over the world, most willows feature a flurry of elongated leaves and fuzzy catkins as flowers. Also called osiers and sallows, common varieties include white willow (S. alba – the species from which herbal willow bark is most commonly harvested), black willow (S. nigra), purple willow (S. purpurea), crack willow (S. fragilis), and the ever-graceful weeping willow (S. babylonica).
An object of human fascination for centuries, willows have been associated with sadness, the moon, water, magic, poetry, music, renewal, and healing. They also appear in an abundance of legends, myths, and folklore from many cultures around the globe.
Fast growing and hardy, willows will certainly add a touch of elegance to any landscape. Beyond their ethereal charms, willow plants also have many practical uses.
Medicinal Properties of Willow Bark
Plants have played a vital role in the development of modern medicines, and the willow is no exception. As far back as 3000 BC, ancient Egyptians – who were arguably the first civilization to document the healing power of plants – used willow bark to treat a number of ailments.
Willow bark contains an organic compound called salicin. For this reason it has been chewed throughout history to alleviate pain, fever, and inflammation. This chemical is so potent that it was eventually isolated to create salicylic acid, an important development that led to the invention of aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Acting in conjunction with flavonoids – powerful antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables – salicin in willow bark has some incredible therapeutic uses.
Often dubbed “nature’s aspirin”, willow bark has long been used as an effective treatment for recurrent headaches. It won’t work as quickly as over-the-counter medications. However, its headache alleviating effects may last longer, and it is much gentler on the stomach than aspirin or ibuprofen.
2. Lower Back Pain
When compared with the use of rofecoxib, an NSAID that has since been withdrawn from the market due to its health risks, willow bark extract proved to be just as effective in a 2001 study on patients with chronic lower back pain. After four weeks of treatment, patient taking a daily dose of 240 mg of salicin reported that pain symptoms improved by 35%.
Causing stiffness and pain in joints, osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It occurs when cartilage in the joints deteriorates over time. In testing willow bark extract as an analgesic for osteoarthritis sufferers, researchers found that 240 mg of salicin per day offered moderate pain relief as compared with placebo.
4. Heart Disease
Willow bark is chemically similar to aspirin. For this reason, it can be used as a blood thinner and as a preventative for heart attacks and strokes.
You might have noticed that salicylic acid is a key ingredient in many acne-fighting cleansers and creams. We have the willow plant to thank for that. Because salicin is naturally antimicrobial, willow bark is capable of eradicating bacteria associated with acne, reducing skin lesions and breakouts.
6. Aging Skin
Willow bark extract also contains natural beta hydroxy acids, an exfoliant that reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and other signs of aging skin. Applied topically, a 2010 study found that salicin significantly improved wrinkles, skin roughness, pore size, and radiance. These improvements occured in just one week when patients used salicin twice daily. After four weeks, patients observed major improvements for skin pigmentation, firmness, and jaw-line contour. Another study found that salicin influences expression of “youth gene clusters” which have the effect of promoting youthful, glowing skin.
Other Medicinal Uses of Willow Bark
Although more research is required to verify these uses, willow bark may be effective for other medical conditions, as well. Some of these include:
7. Fever, Colds and Flu
Willow bark possesses powerful anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. For this reason, people have used willow bark since the early days of medicine to fight bacterial and viral infections.
8. Menstrual Cramps
Willow bark is thought to be effective for relieving painful menstrual cramps. However, because it thins the blood, willow bark may also cause periods to become heavier than normal. As with any herbal supplement, use caution when taking willow bark. And as always, consult with a licensed physician before beginning regular use of this herb.
9. Cancer Treatment and Chemopreventative
While willow’s anti-cancer effects are still being studied, preliminary trials have demonstrated that willow bark has an antileukemic effect on acute myeloid leukemia. Willow bark also induced cell death in colon and lung cancers. Furthermore, it was able to kill 75% to 80% of abnormal cells in three types of cancer.
Uses for Willow Bark Around the Home
Wonders never cease when it comes to the healing powers of plants, but their functionality doesn’t end there. Willows are not only handsome trees, they have several practical uses around the home.
10. Natural Rooting Hormone
Willow bark contains indolebutyric acid, a plant hormone that stimulates root growth. The next time you wish to propagate cuttings, plunk them in some “willow water” for faster rooting.
Only use young branches from any Salix species that are less than one year old. Remove all the leaves and cut twigs into one-inch lengths. Place branches in a glass of tap water and let it soak for several days. For faster turnaround, use boiling water and allow it to rest overnight. Once the concoction is ready, remove the willow branches from the container. When stored in the fridge, willow water will last for about two months.
To use, place plant cuttings in a partially-filled glass of willow water until you see roots emerge from the stems. Replenish willow water as needed. Alternatively, willow water can be used to stimulate root growth after you’ve planted your cuttings in soil. Simply use the willow water to moisten the growing medium.
11. Willow Wood
Since willow branches are flexible and durable, willow wood makes for an excellent construction material. You can use it to make wicker baskets and other home furnishings.
For the garden, willow branches are great for creating wickets that will act as plant supports. You can also use the branches as protection against foot traffic. To do this, simply bend a length of willow into a half-circle and stick the ends into the ground. You can also make rustic wattle fencing and trellises using willow wood.
12. Environmental Benefits of Willow Trees
Although planting any kind of tree in your yard is an earth-friendly practice, willows offer a few extra benefits. The root system of a willow tree is very expansive, spreading far beyond the tree’s canopy – up to 100 feet from the base of the trunk. For this reason, willows are excellent for anchoring soil in place and preventing erosion. Furthermore, when planted near a body of water, willows act as a natural barrier against chemicals entering streams.
Just remember, willow roots have been known to damage buried structures. For this reason, it is ill-advised to plant willow near pavement, buildings, or underground pipes.
13. Willow As Biofuel
As a renewable resource, willow offers an ideal supply of energy since it is fast-growing, sustainable, and environmentally-friendly. While the Willow Biomass Project is currently underway, using willow as feedstock for large-scale energy needs; in the home willow can be burned along with wood pellets for a carbon-neutral source of biofuel.
How to Make Willow Bark Tea
In spring, harvest willow bark from the live tree by peeling off the bark from young branches. Break the bark into smaller chips.
Make willow tea by boiling two teaspoons of willow bark for every eight ounces of water. Allow it to simmer on the stove for 10 minutes then remove from heat. Let it steep for another 30 minutes. Strain out the bark from the liquid using a natural coffee filter or fine mesh strainer.
As you might imagine, willow bark tea tastes just like tree bark. So feel free to add some honey or cinnamon to the mixture to make it more palatable.
When using willow bark tea for pain relief, you’ll need to drink 3 to 4 cups to achieve the therapeutic effect.
Where to Get Willow Bark
Unless you already have a willow tree growing in your yard, you might be curious how to get your hands on this amazing plant! There are a few ways you can acquire and use willow bark to suit your needs:
Willows are easily propagated from cuttings. So if you know someone who has a willow tree on their property, ask permission to take a few live branches. These cuttings may then be planted directly in the soil. Willows are easy to care for and growing your own will ensure you have a steady supply of willow bark.
Purchase Cut Willow Bark
If you don’t have room for a live tree, that’s okay. You can purchase pre-cut organic willow bark in a bag, like this one.
White Willow Extract
Another way to obtain the therapeutic benefits of willow bark is to take a dietary supplement. Most willow supplements guarantee 15% salicin content in each capsule.