Herbs for Health


| December/January 2001

The willow is a symbol of the changeable human spirit and of immortality. In the Shaker tradition, numerous song references are made to the willow. “I will not be like a stubborn oak, but I will be like the willow tree. . .,” one song begins. Another song starts, “Yielding and simple may I be like a pliant willow tree.” These and many other references to the willow remind us of a capacity for change.

So many willows

Botanically, the genus Salix, to which the willows belong, is itself a symbol of change. The genus contains more than 400 species, primarily native to the Northern Hemisphere, with some species growing south to the equator as well. In China alone, there are more than 250 willow species. They hybridize readily, and for the botanist, the genus represents a taxonomic nightmare. There are more than fifty species of willows in the eastern United States, and California has more than thirty species. The willow family (Salicaceae) is represented by two genera, Salix and the poplars (Populus). Salix is the classical name for the willow tree.

Of the eighty or more species of willows occurring in North America, most are low-growing shrubs. About a third of the species are trees. In addition to the native species, several European and Asian species are cultivated in American horticulture. A number of these, including European white willow (Salix alba), have been naturalized in this country. The European white willow and the American black willow (S. nigra) are both more or less typical of the genus, in terms of botanical characteristics and medicinal use. Most herb books mention the main source of willow bark as S. alba. Black willow is one of the most common willow species in North America, and was probably the most widely used species among Native American groups.

Traditional use

The black willow is one of the loftiest representatives of the genus in North America, growing to a height of thirty to forty feet. Sometimes it may become a massive tree more than 100 feet tall. It was commonly used as a material as well as a medicine. Willow switches were often used as horse whips, and were used when a combination of toughness and elasticity were required, such as in the manufacture of rustic chairs and baskets. The tough, stringy bark was used for making cords and mats, fishing nets, harnesses, and more. Its high tannin content made it suitable for tanning and dyeing. Willow switches were commonly used by Native Americans as a building material for the frames of temporary shelters, sweat lodges, and furniture. Women and children wove sunshades from the leafy stems for long journeys.

Native Americans used numerous willow species. S. nigra root bark was used by the Houma as a blood thinner. The Chippewa used the root for diarrhea, and in combination with other herbs to treat indigestion. The Creek used the root tea as an anti-inflammatory for rheumatism and to reduce fevers. The Penobscot used willow bark as a cold remedy, and smoked the leaves to relieve asthma. The Ojibwa used one willow species to treat colds. Many tribes used the leaves as a poultice for wounds and sores. The Kiowa rubbed the leaves on their bodies to treat rheumatic pains, and chewed the leaves to relieve toothaches. The Chickasaw used the roots of one willow species to treat headaches. The Montagnais made a poultice of the leaves that was applied to the forehead to relieve headaches. In short, Native Americans from Florida to California to Alaska used willow bark as modern Americans use aspirin. In American folk traditions, the bark was used as a blood thinner (like aspirin), and to treat fevers.

Toward modern medicine

Willow bark’s modern history began in the mid-eighteenth century. Reverend Edward Stone wrote a short note published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in London, in which he reported on the successful use of white willow bark to treat intermittent fevers (malaria). From this one report, willow bark became a popular substitute for Peruvian bark or cinchona (source of quinine) among European and American physicians of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. In his American Dispensatory (1813), James Thatcher tells the story. “In 1763, Mr. Stone, an English clergyman, presented a paper to the Royal Society, on the beneficial effects of the Salix alba, or white willow, in intermittent fevers; and Dr. Cullen, on this authority, and from the sensible qualities it possesses, recommends it, in his Materia medica, as a substitute for the cinchona. Mr. Stone gathered the bark in the summer, when it was full of sap; dried it by gentle heat, and gave a drachm of it powdered every four hours, betwixt the fits. In a few obstinate cases he mixed it with one-fifth part of the cinchona. Some judicious physicians here, says Dr. Cutler, made trial of the bark of white willow, and recommend it as a valuable substitute for the Peruvian bark. They have used principally the bark of the root.”

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