Do you want to know how to use willow bark? Willow bark is a fantastic herb for natural pain relief! Backaches, muscular soreness, headaches, arthritis…these are just some of the complaints willow can help you with. But, as with any herb, you need to know how to work with it safely and effectively.
Join me in this episode to find out how to use willow bark when inflammatory and musculoskeletal pain is bringing you (or a loved one) down.
I’m sharing a recipe for willow bark tea so you can easily have your own willow bark medicine right at your fingertips. (Don’t miss downloading your free, printable recipe card with all the details!) I’ll also show you a great way to apply this powerful tea topically… it’s wonderful for cooling and soothing itchy rashes like poison ivy, poison oak, and eczema!
After listening in, you’ll know:
► Why willow is safer than aspirin
► How to choose the willow you make medicine with
► Who should avoid taking willow bark
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Why turn to willow bark for natural pain relief?
When it comes to medicine, willow may win the popularity contest. Everywhere willow grows, it has played an important role in medicine and tool-making. With hundreds of Salix species growing in moist soils around the northern temperate hemisphere, willow generously offers medicine and food to countless beings, from bees and beetles to humans.
Willow bark has been used for thousands of years by people all around the world, including the Chinese, Europeans, and many indigenous peoples of North America.
Willow is a popular plant for natural pain relief! I’m curious, do you have experience with willow bark? I’d love to hear about it in the comments at the bottom of this page. Your comments mean a lot to me! I love cultivating a community of kind-hearted plant-loving folks! Plus, it’s always interesting and insightful to hear the experiences of plant lovers out there. Your suggestion may also help others!
Okay, let’s dive in..
Willow bark naturally relieves pain and modulates inflammation. It is commonly used for backaches, muscular soreness, headaches, and arthritis.
Sometimes called “the aspirin plant,” willow was the first plant from which salicylic acid was isolated in 1828.
How aspirin came to be is an interesting story… and really shows us the absolute brilliance that is found in plants.
So, here’s the story…scientists had decided that salicylic acid was the most important constituent of willow, but when they isolated it, they found that salicylic acid had serious adverse effects and could readily cause gastric distress, like stomach bleeding!
Decades later, researchers in Germany combined salicylic acid with acetyl chloride, creating a new substance with fewer negative effects on people’s stomach health.
Aspirin was patented in 1900 and it continues to be one of the most popular over-the-counter drugs.
Some people might think of willow bark as a weaker form of aspirin! But, in many ways willow is safer than aspirin, and it’s most likely conveniently growing somewhere near you.
It’s ironic that when isolating salicylic acid from willow, scientists were overriding the inherent wisdom of the plant. In its whole form, willow doesn’t cause gastric bleeding or distress because of the other constituents in the plant. In other words, willow tree bark is a complex medicine and it’s too simplistic to regard willow and aspirin as the same medicine. In addition to being safer than aspirin, willow has other beneficial effects.
So do willow bark and aspirin work the same?
Well, here’s the thing: the level of salicylic acid in willow tree bark is actually quite low, so researchers surmise that its pain-relieving effects are due to the synergy of many constituents, such as flavonoids and polyphenols.
One study reviewing the differences in action between willow and aspirin stated, “The multi-component active principle of willow bark provides a broader mechanism of action than aspirin and is devoid of serious adverse events. In contrast to synthetic aspirin, willow bark does not damage the gastrointestinal mucosa.”1
Another study showed that willow bark “induced antioxidant enzymes and prevented oxidative stress”.2
In one double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial, a willow bark extract was found to be more effective than placebo at relieving osteoarthritis.3
Willow bark works for natural pain relief. And, as you can see, it has different modes of action and benefits from aspirin. One of the ways that willow bark works so well is that it modulates inflammation. Which is a big deal! Especially in regards to chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is THE leading cause of most chronic diseases, including heart disease, arthritis, back pain, skin conditions like eczema and acne, type 2 diabetes and so many more.
One of my passions is helping people figure out how to best work with herbs and lifestyle changes to powerfully reduce chronic inflammation so that they can finally address the root cause of their chronic illness.
I have a free training all about this called: How to Use Herbs to Transform Your Health to get More Energy & Vitality – Without Expensive Supplements or a Restrictive Elimination Diet.
You might be wondering, which willow is best? Can you use your local willows for natural pain relief? It’s important to know that not all willows are the same.
Years ago I was on a plant walk with herbalist Darcey Williamson, who demonstrated how she chooses which willows to harvest for making medicine. She reached up to pull a long supple willow branch down and began to slightly gnaw on the bark. She said the more bitter the plant, the better it would be for medicine. I love this hands on and organoleptic method!
Speaking of bitter, willow bark has been used as a bitter tonic to stimulate digestion, as well as a vermifuge to rid the body of parasitic worms.
In addition to the bitter flavor, willow bark is notably astringent and can be used to tighten and tone lax tissues like spongy gums, mouth sores, or boggy intestines causing excessive diarrhea.
Willow bark was historically used in serious infections like malaria and typhoid fever. It was considered specific for intermittent fevers, meaning fevers that come and go. Willow’s astringency was also frequently favored for addressing excessive diarrhea, as in dysentery.
Herbalist 7Song recommends willow as an anti-inflammatory. He uses it frequently to increase comfort during a cold or influenza. And it has many benefits for these symptoms. As an astringent herb with antiseptic properties the decoction of the bark makes a good gargle for sore throats - I’ll show you how to make this in just a moment.
There is some question whether willow bark is the best choice to address fever. While fevers were feared in the past, there is now a growing appreciation for this important immune system function. Using aspirin or other drugs to artificially lower a person’s fever is no longer the standard recommended treatment. So does willow bark act in the same way? Does taking willow bark interrupt the important immune system processes directed by fever? At this point I’m not sure and I tend to use other herbs with diaphoretic actions to support the fever process. Some of my favorites are elderflower and yarrow, both of which I have solo episodes for.
In 2021 some preliminary in vitro research showed that willow may have some anti-inflammatory benefits for COVID19. The researchers concluded: “…our in vitro data suggest that Salix extracts might present an additional anti-inflammatory treatment option in the context of SARS-CoV-2 peptides challenge.”4
Topically, willow works especially well as a wash for wounds because of its ability to pull tissues together, reduce pain, and prevent infection.
I just came across this study published in 2023 and found it fascinating! Researchers were looking into the possibility of using willow bark fibers to make wound dressings.
In their research they found that the preparations containing at least 50% of willow bark fiber bundles significantly inhibited biofilm formation by Staphylococcus aureus strains. The researchers concluded: “Overall, this study paves the way to the use of bark-derived fiber bundles as a natural-based material for active (antibacterial and antibiofilm) wound dressings, upgrading this underappreciated bark residue from an energy source into high-value pharmaceutical use.”5 It will be interesting to see what comes of that research.
Another study found that willow used topically may be of benefit for people with chronic acne. Researchers tested the difference in using a facial cleanser with willow and hops to a placebo wash in 21 volunteers. The volunteers were given the two facial cleansers and were instructed to twice daily wash one side of their forehead with one of the cleansers and the other side of the forehead with the other cleanser. The results were that the botanical face cleanser significantly reduced the sebum level.6
A preliminary clinical study involving a willow, licorice, and gentian cream preparation showed that it was just as beneficial as a 1% hydrocortisone treatment for addressing inflammation in people dealing with atopic dermatitis.7
Here’s a really interesting application for willow bark topically: dark circles under the eyes. These dark circles can be caused by blood stasis due to poor vascular integrity in the area. In one clinical study, 29 patients applied a willow extract cream for 8 weeks and the researchers reported significant improvement. They wrote, ““Therefore, [willow] bark extract can be used as an active ingredient for improving dark circles”.8
Willow trees grow in most northern latitudes and especially love growing in wet places like besides rivers or lakes.
There are about 400 different species in the Salix genus and they easily cross pollinate. With a basic understanding of botany you can easily recognize a willow tree, but knowing exactly which species can be a little tricky.
The trees themselves vary greatly in appearance, ranging from spindly shrubs to large towering trees.
For medicinal purposes, white willow (Salix alba) and black willow (S. nigra) are often used.
Willow leaves are often elongated and serrated, but can be oval as well.
Most willows are deciduous and lose their leaves each fall.
Willows are dioecious plants, meaning that male and female flowers are carried on separate trees. They can be distinguished by the different flowers or catkins.
Here’s a great way to identify willow in the early spring. Willows have the distinguishing feature of having a single bud scale. A bud scale is a modified leaf that protects the bud on the growing ends of the twigs.
Before I show you how to make a willow bark tea, I want to share some safety considerations to give you an idea of who might not benefit from willow.
Most willows are medicinally interchangeable, but depending on the
species, they have varying degrees of potency. This means that the
necessary dosage might change significantly from tree to tree. As I
shared earlier, the taste of the bark can be one way to determine the
potency of a specific tree.
The King’s American Dispensary says the following...
There are numerous species of Salix, many of which, undoubtedly, possess analogous medicinal virtues. The best rule to follow is to select those whose barks possess great bitterness, combined with astringency. The Weeping willow, or Babylonian willow (Salix babylonica) is cultivated as an ornamental tree.
Willow bark is usually gathered in the spring and fall. The bark is best harvested from properly pruned branches. I like to gather the bark from the smoother smaller branches.
The bark can then be dried for later use as a decoction, tincture, powdered for capsules or used as a fomentation.
If you’d like to learn more about how to make potent herbal medicines from the plants that grow around you, whether they be in your garden, wild meadows or even your local apothecary, then check out our course, Rooted Medicine Circle. In this live ten-month course we create herbal medicines throughout the seasons together. At the end of it, you have an entire apothecary filled with potent herbal medicines that you made!
The following willow bark tea recipe can be drank as a tea for inflammatory pain and gut conditions and gargled to relieve sore gums and throat. I will warn you this is bitter, but that’s also what makes it great medicine.
If drinking bitter teas isn’t your thing, then this preparation can also be used externally. You can add it to bathwater or use it as a wash to soothe itchy skin conditions like eczema and poison ivy or oak rashes.
To make this you’ll need…
1. Place the willow and the water in a saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.
2. Strain out the herbs and use the liquid as desired. If not using right away, let cool and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.
Dosages vary depending on the person and the type of willow being used. It’s always a good idea to start low and slowly work up until the desired effects are achieved.
To make a fomentation or topical preparation: Let the liquid cool until it is comfortable enough to touch but still warm. Soak a cloth in the liquid, wring it out, and apply it to the affected area of the body. If heat feels good, apply a hot water bottle over the cloth. Or, if desired, cool the liquid before applying the cloth. Keep the cloth on for 20 minutes or as desired.
This willow bark tea recipe is in our book, Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Craft Your Own Herbal Medicine, which I co-authored with Emily Han. This book is perfect for you if you want to learn more about the plants growing near you. Included with each herbal chapter is safety information, sustainable harvest instructions and lots of fun and easy recipes like this one.
Don’t miss out on your free printable recipe card for this willow bark tea recipe above this transcript!
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Okay, you’ve lasted to the very end of the show which means you get a gold star and this herbal tidbit…
Willow is one of our most generous plants, offering us pain relief, digestive and skin support, baskets, and even a bit of shade to rest under.
mentioned, willow grows abundantly throughout the Earth and many beings
rely on willow for food, medicine, and shelter. Here’s a few examples
given on the Illinois Wildflowers site.
Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Healand co-author of the bestselling book Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Craft Your Own Herbal Medicine. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and has taught thousands of students through her online courses. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.