Below is a guest post I wrote for the First Ways blog in 2011.
Ever since reading one of the “Clan of the Cave Bear” books by Jean Auel I had been entranced by the idea of using willow as medicine. I remember clearly one of the characters peeling willow bark and making a decoction for his injured brother to help ease the pain and swelling. Since then I have been itching to get out there to make a tincture or decoction, but I was nervous, thinking the skill was perhaps beyond my level. I just wasn’t sure how to go about peeling bark off a plant without hurting or killing it.
Then, a few weeks ago, I learned that an easy way to collect willow is to simply clip off willow twigs and then peel the bark off of the trimmings. Duh! It solves the problem of possibly killing the plant and it is a simple way to harvest in a caretaking manner.
Last week I took a trip to the coast and found quite literally a sea of willow bushes just inland of some of Oregon’s great sand dunes. Turns out these willows were most likely Hooker’s Willow, Salix hookeriana, a coastal willow. Willow loves to grow with her feet wet, so look for her on stream banks, near lakes and rivers, and marshy areas. There are many species of Salix and some may be small shrubs while others can be larger trees. The leaves are alternate, generally oval and elongated with smooth margins, however there is variation between species.
I decided to prune twigs that appeared overcrowded and unlikely to thrive. Some sources say to gather the twigs before the catkins even begin to come out as this has the most medicine, but many of the leaves were already unfurling and the catkins were starting to flower, so I picked twigs that were in an earlier stage of growth. However, you can harvest year round since the plants contain the medicine in it at all times. Early spring is when the plant medicines are most concentrated and so is the best time of year to harvest.
I peeled the inner and outer bark from the stick using my fingers, right down to the heart wood. It was slightly time consuming but also very meditative. The bark, buds, and new leaves all found their way into my pint jar. Then I added 80 proof brandy and screwed on the top. I will be letting this sit for up to 6 weeks before I strain out the material.
My goal for this tincture is to use it primarily for pain caused by headaches. I have not yet found my perfect headache plant and am excited to see how willow will do.
Willow has been used for thousands of years around the world for its amazing pain relieving, anti-inflammatory, and fever reducing effects. The magic comes from salicylic acid, a natural plant growth hormone that can be used for rooting new cuttings. In 1900 Aspirin was patented and sold as a Bayer product. In order to make aspirin, scientists combined acetyl chloride and salicylic acid. The salicylic acid was actually not derived from any willow species but rather from a plant called Spiraea ulmaria or meadowsweet (another plant I would love to work with) which is where the “spir” in aspirin comes from.