The white willow tree was one of Assur and Babylon’s most widely used plant remedies. From the time of Dioscorides, in the 1st century A.D., the supporters of the theory of signs have believed that, since willow can endure the “bad air” of the moist, marshy soils where it grows, it was likely to heal malaria (from the Italian: mala aria, which means “bad air”), and rheumatic aches, which inhabitants of such places frequently suffer. Indeed, willow was successfully used as a febrifuge against malaria and other fevers, to the point that it was called “European quinine.”
By the mid-19th century, Felix Hoffman, a chemist for the German Bayer laboratory, experimented with white willow bark extracts. After several chemical processes, he obtained a derivative substance whose analgesic and antipyretic properties were much more potent than the original substance (willow bark).
Hoffman gave this substance—acetylsalicylic acid—to his father, who suffered from continuous rheumatic attacks. The success was so great that Bayer laboratories decided to sell the derivative from willow bark with the name aspirin. That humble substance, aspirin, is still the most commonly used medicine in the history of humankind. At present, some 40,000 tons of aspirin are consumed worldwide each year.
This time, the old saying “Nature always puts the remedy close to the disease” was confirmed. The location of the white willow tree in moist, cold soils was the sign, the clue, which led scientists to discover its antithermic and analgesic properties.
White Willow Tree Scientific Facts
- Scientific Name: Salix alba L.
- Other Names: Willow.
- French: Saule, saul blanc.
- Spanish: Sauce blanco.
- Environment: Common in damp forests, stream banks, and marshes all over Europe. It has been naturalized to America.
- Description: Tree or shrub of the Salicaceae family, growing from 4 to 20 m high, with a slim trunk, greyish bark, and flexible branches. It has toothed lanceolate, narrow leaves.
- Parts of the plant used medicinally: The bark, the leaves, and the flowers.
White Willow Tree Healing Properties
The BARK, and in lesser amounts, the leaves and flowers of the white willow tree, contain tannin, which gives them astringent and stimulating properties, and as mineral salts and coloring substances. However, their most crucial active component is a glycoside: salicin, which the flowers also have.
The salicin can turn into glucose and saligenin using an enzyme called glycosidase. After an oxidization process, the latter substance becomes salicylic aldehyde and salicylic acid. From salicylic acid, acetylsalicylic acid or aspirin is easily obtained.
Because of its salicin content, the white willow tree has febrifuge, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antirheumatic, mildly antispasmodic, and sedative properties, which makes the tree useful in the following cases:
Various aches – Due to its antispasmodic and soothing properties, it is highly effective in alleviating any aches, especially those of rheumatic origin, and genital pain in women caused by dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation) or uterine spasms.
Fever – As a febrifuge, it can be used in all kinds of febrile afflictions. It has the advantage of invigorating the digestive system (increases appetite, fights pyrosis and gastric hyperactivity, and stops diarrhea) because of its bark content of tannin.
Nervous excitation – Due to its sedative properties, especially those of the FLOWERS, it is used for nervousness, anxiety, and insomnia. It has been used as an antiaphrodisiac for centuries, following the thought that if it decreases fever, it will also decrease an excessive love appetite.
Reduces the infection of the skin and the mucosa – Externally applied, the willow tree is used to wash wounds and sores of the skin, and as vaginal irrigations, it can be used to treat leukorrhea.
Contrary to what you might think, the discovery of acetylsalicylic acid has not ended the use of the white willow tree. Though the synthetic derivative has a quicker and more powerful febrifuge and analgesic effect than the natural product, the willow tree has the advantage that it is not as irritating on the stomach as aspirin, which quickly causes acute gastritis, hemorrhages, and gastro-duodenal ulcers.
White willow reduces fevers and alleviates pain. It is a natural alternative to aspirin because it contains salicin. It is called the “pain herb” and is suitable for treating conditions such as menstrual pain, inflammation, backache, joint pains, nerve pain, allergies, and headache. The plant is also used for arthritic pain, rheumatism, gout, neuralgia, and fevers. White willow is especially beneficial for treating bladder, urethra, and kidney irritabilities and performs as an analgesic to those specific tissues.
In external applications, it can be applied to toothaches and injuries. Employ white willow tea as an effective eyewash. It can stop nose bleeds by sniffing them up your nose. This bark is a potent antiseptic and an excellent poultice and fomentation for skin diseases, eczema, ulcerations, and infected wounds. It can also be used as a gargle for tonsil and throat infections. It is also an excellent remedy for surface bleeding.
WARNING: Avoid white willow during pregnancy, and it should not be used by individuals allergic to aspirin.
How to use White Willow
- Decoction with 30 grams of bark and leaves per liter of water, and boil for 15 to 20 minutes. Steep for another 15 to 20 minutes. Drink three or four cups daily, sweetened with honey if desired.
- Powder – It can be obtained by grinding the bark with an electric mill. Administer after dissolving it in water with honey before each meal. The recommended dose is 3 to 5 (a teaspoonful) per intake.
- White willow tea with a spoonful of dry flowers per cup of water. Drink from two to four cups daily, especially before going to bed. This tea has strong sedative properties.
- Compresses soaked in a decoction more concentrated than that used internally 70 to 100 grams per liter of water.
- Skin washings with the decoction mentioned above.
- Vaginal irrigations with the liquid of the decoction, as mentioned above, once well strained.
Other Willow Trees
The botanical genus Salix comprises about 200 species in addition to the white willow tree. The most commonly known are the following:
- The weeping willow tree (Salix babylonica L.) is used as an ornamental tree.
- The wicker willow (Salix fragilis L.) is also called the black wicker.
- The red willow tree (Salix purpurea L.) has medicinal applications similar to the white willow tree.
The phytotherapeutic properties and usage of the different willow species are usually similar, though some are only used for wickerwork or as ornamental plants in parks and gardens.
A decoction of willow tree bark is an excellent antirheumatic substance because of its content in salicin, a chemical precursor of aspirin. It can be taken orally and applied as compresses on the affected joints to enhance its effects.
Infusion: Steep for five to fifteen minutes and take one cup daily. Decoction (bark): Simmer for five to fifteen minutes and take one cup during the day. Tincture: Take fifteen to sixty drops as required. Fluid Extract: Take ¼ to one teaspoon as needed. Powder: Take six to ten #0 capsules (30 to 50 grains) as required.
- George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. “Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants.” George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. Ed. Francesc X. Gelabert. vols. 2 San Fernando de Henares: Editorial Safeliz, 2000. 676, 677. Print. [white willow tree]
- Vance Ferrell Harold M. Cherne, M.D. The Natural Remedies Encyclopedia [Book]. – Altamont, TN: Harvestime Books, 2010. – Vol. Seventh Edition: 7: pp. 185.