Using the bark of the willow tree, you can get “natural aspirin” – the usual reference to salicin. Salicin isn’t aspirin, but salicin is similar in chemical structure to aspirin (which is synthetic) and has many of the same advantages. Willow bark also has other advantageous compounds that act in concert with salicin, making it very effective competition for aspirin.
Anyway, white willow bark doesn’t bring pain relief as quickly as aspirin, but it lasts longer. In addition, it irritates the stomach lining less than aspirin, so if you have a sensitive stomach this might be an alternative you want to start regularly using today. Historically, willow bark has been used for fever, lower back pain, osteoarthritis, headache, and inflammation.
The Willow Tree
There are many different plants in the willow family, but not all of them have enough salicin to do the job. According to the University of Maryland, the commercially available bark in the U.S. typically has a combination of white, purple, and crack willows. However, the eHow article specifically only references white willow bark and wholehealthmd.com also notes that white willow bark is primarily used. So, given the choice, stick with the white willow.
The bark of the white / european willow (salix alba), per Wikipedia, has also been used for tanning and charcoal from the wood used to be important in the manufacturer of gunpowder. It’ll grow almost anywhere in the United States.
Gardenguides.com has an excellent step-by-step process for the planting of white willow.
Preparing Willow Bark
You can grind willow bark down with a coffee-grinder or similar, as you’d expect. However, you need to get just the bark itself, excluding the woody interiors included in the extraction methods below, to do this. You want to harvest the bark when it’s new growth (during the spring) as possible, as that’s when the salicin concentration is strongest.
- Cut only smaller branches, to help preserve the tree.
- Snip off side branches, then using a paring knife to peel the bark in strips – you want to include the green inner bark.
Here’s an excerpt from ryandrum.com’s excellent wildcrafting article:
Willow bark is harvested April-July when the bark slips easily off the inner wood. This occurs because the bark must first grow to accommodate the impending centrifugal diameter growth of the tree, or it would burst, which in fact does occur to trees sometimes. Young willow sprouts 2-8 years old with only a very thin layer of corky outer bark and nice green photosynthetic cells close to the surface, 3/4-3″ in diameter are cut with a hand saw from a coppiced stump, pollarded trunk or fallen tree, trimmed of smallwood and quickly stripped with the aid of a smail stripping knife. The stripped bark is quickly and lightly stuffed into clean dry 80# mesh feed bags. DO NOT STRIP BARK FROM WOOD STiLL ATTACHED TO THE TREE; CUT OFF ALL WOOD TO BE STRIPPED BEFORE STRIPPING.
Harvest is best on a cool gray cloudy day to reduce drying of bark to wood or in bags while transporting to cutting and drying area. Willow bark peeled strips are best kept in widths of 1 inch or less as wider strips tend to curl into cylinders. The inner surfaces of curled strips may mold before totally drying. The strips are hand cut with scissors into 2-4″ pieces, dried loosely on racks at 60-70oF and stored in airtight opaque containers when dry. There is some evidence that higher drying temperatures degrade some active constituents in willow bark.
Tomscaroliniantrees.blogspot.com also has a great article on this approach:
- Get the fresh twigs – offshoots – that are still flexible and green.
- Use a vegetable peeler to strip off the bark.
- Chop it up finely, but not to powder level.
eHow has an article on making a salicin extract that includes whole small branches. That article notes that you should store it in a dark bottle and it’ll last a week in the fridge:
- Gather the fresh branches right off the tree.
- Wash the branches thoroughly.
- Cut them into small sections.
- Crush the stems to expose the inner bark.
- For every cup of bark chunks, use half of a cup of water – boil the water without the chunks.
- Take the boiling water off the heat and add the bark chunks.
- Cover and let sit for a couple of hours.
- Strain to just get the liquid.
If you’re feeling celebratory – or want to be feeling celebratory when the time comes to dull some pain – the eHow article also notes you can preserve the salicin without refrigeration and for up to a year by adding vodka:
- After step 4 from the previous list, tightly pack the willow chunks in a canning jar and just cover them with vodka.
- Store in the dark for three weeks.
- Strain to just get the liquid, again storing it in a dark bottle but this time out of the fridge.
I have dosage information in the next section regarding ground bark but it doesn’t really matter, because you can’t tell the strength of it and it takes a while (20 minutes plus) to start working. So sip slowly, either the extracts above or the powder-tea preparation below, and listen to your body. Just take the edge off. Here’s a ground willow bark recipe on grouprecipes.com if you want get fancy taking the edge off.
Interestingly, essortment.com also notes that willow leaves and inner bark are bad-tasting emergency food.
The Uses of Willow Bark
There’s been scientific studies showing willow bark to be effective for lower back pain and osteoarthritis. I’m not aware of scientific studies sufficient to establish willow bark use for the following, but there’s anecdotal evidence that willow bark also helps:
- Inflammation (so used by the ancient Egyptians)
- Back & Neck Pain
- Menstrual Pain
Here’s the dosage information for willow tree bark:
- The University of Maryland article says boil 1-2 teaspoons of dried bark in 8 ounces of water, let it simmer for 15 minutes, and then let it steep for a half hour. Drink three to four cups of the result daily.
- That’s in agreement with essortment.com, which says 2 teaspoons of dried bark per cup of water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 10 minutes. Again three cups per day.
- The same general ratios are also recommended in tomscaroliniantrees.blogspot.com’s article on willow bark tea.
- Wholehealthmd.com, on the other hand, says you’d have to drink several quarts of such a preparation to get a therapeutic dose, though, so don’t eat a full dinner first.
- Don’t be hasty though; remember it takes longer than aspirin to work and you certainly don’t want to overdo raw bark tea. Overdose symptoms include nausea and ringing in the ears. WebMD notes that Beethoven died from kidney damage related to a salicin overdoes – it’s no joke.
- The University of Maryland article says that children under the age of 16 should not be given willow bark because of the danger of Reye’s syndrome.
- The same article says that people who are allergic to aspirin should not take willow tree bark and that it could be a bad idea for those with diabetes, stomach ulcers, or asthma. eHow notes that salicin can be absorbed through the skin, so allergic people shouldn’t even handle willow tree bark.
- The altmedicine.about.com article further notes that willow bark should not be used by people with peptic ulcer disease, kidney disease, hyperuricemia, or gout.
- Willow tree bark is also not a go for pregnant women.
- WebMD notes that willow bark may slow blood clotting and should be stopped at least two weeks prior to scheduled surgery.
- Salicin has similar drug interactions as aspirin – check out the University of Maryland article and of course WebMD for a list of things you shouldn’t take along with willow bark. Altmedicine.about.comalso notes you should not take willow bark with ginkgo, vitamin E, or garlic.
- Like aspirin, salicin is poisonous to cats. You can help your dog out with white willow bark, though, per theherbgardener.blogspot.com.
- Mountainroseherbs.com notes that willow tree bark will lessen sexual desire but not performance.
References & Further Reading
- Willow bark – University of Maryland
- How to Make Aspirin – eHow
- Willow Bark Removal – eHow
- white willow bark – wholehealthmd.com
- White Willow Bark – What Should I Know About It? – altmedicine.about.com
- Natural Pain Relief From White Willow Bark – theherbgardener.blogspot.com
- White Willow Bark organic – mountainroseherbs.com
- Willow Bark – WebMD
- The Willow Plant – essortment.com
- Tom’s Trees: Willow Bark Tea – tomscaroliniantrees.blogspot.com
- Salix alba – wikipedia
- How to Grow White Willow – gardenguides.com