How to Make Willow Bark Medicine

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. willow-flowers

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.

peeling-barkI 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.


8 comments on “How to Make Willow Bark Medicine

    • Not particularly mainly because of the type of pressure headaches I have been getting. Ironically the only herbs that have touched those headaches are a combo of Pulsatilla and Skullcap. This is a combination Howie Brownstein had given me. Other than that I still have not had much of a chance to use willow in the other common ways. 🙂

  1. jeanne Armstrong says:

    I like your conversational, personal writing style in this piece. I’m glad you included concern for the mother plant in harvesting.

  2. wayne says:

    YO YO, Darcy Williamson has a “willow bite” test that she rates the quality of the willow for its potency level ranging from 0-10 zero being the weakest. She picks the new early branches and taste test the bark for the level of potency. I guess the mo bitter the mo better.

  3. Joanne Davis says:

    I did enjoy reading your post and learned something new as well. I just want to know what happen to what you did. Did it goes well?

    • Thank you! Not as well as I had hoped. The type of headaches I got just wasn’t being relieved with the willow tincture. According to my herbal teacher Howie Brounstien cottonwood buds are supposedly even more affective than our native willows. I have played around too much with the cottonwood as a pain reliever however my friend who had a toothache was using it topically and it seemed to help the pain.

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