Herb Spotlight: Traditional Uses of Willow Bark

Liz and her friend the willow shrub

In the Boreal forest, the powerful willow shrub or (sometimes) tree is often around us, whether we notice it or not. It is diverse, flexible, resilient, and an essential part of the ecosystem. Willow is a home to insects, birds, and critters; it’s an anchor in areas of soil erosion and a resource for weavers and harvesters of all species.

Spiritually, willow can support folks who have experienced suffering to move through residual feelings of resentment, bitterness, and a sense of injustice, helping the person to let go and move on. In The Boreal Herbal, Beverly Gray quotes Steve Johnson, founder of the Alaskan Flower Essence Project, who says willow is for someone who has, “Resistance to taking responsibility for one's own actions or for the life one has created; unaware of how thoughts create reality.” Willow can help us become more like the plant itself: resilient and adaptable with increased consciousness.

Willow's flexibility makes it useful for building, as you can see in this bench Sarah made with willow and alder

Willow (Salix spp.) is a powerful, diverse herbal ally physically as well. With over 100 different species, each with unique adaptations, willow is prolific across many regions and habitats. In the North Slope and other harsh climates, you will find small shrubs, barely a couple inches off the ground, growing along rivers, in the tundra and in alpine territory, while in southern areas of Alaska some species can grow up to 40 feet tall. I learned from an elder while harvesting along the Meade River that if you find yourself out and thirsty, all you need is to chew the leaves of a willow. You will immediately start salivating and voila, your thirst is quenched, if only temporarily. This is especially effective (and more pleasant) with young, tender leaves. (Of course, this does not take the place of carrying the water you need while exploring.)

Spring buds of the Arctic Willow- spotted in alpine territory near Healy, Alaska this May

Willow’s claim-to-fame is that its bark has a concentration of salicin, which is a chemical that was isolated to produce the original aspirin. However, now aspirin is not made from harvested willow but synthesized in a lab. Because of salicin and other chemical compounds, such as tannins and flavonoids, willow is an effective anti-inflammatory, pain reliever, fever reducer, and much more. If you chew on a piece of bark, you will taste the bitterness of the salicin- the more bitter, the more potent! The bark can be removed with a sharp knife and then processed as a poultice or decoction as well as infused into oil or alcohol to be used topically or taken internally. Willow is utilized as support for many ailments, including menstrual cramps, headaches, arthritis, UTIs, sprains and strains, wounds, and abrasions. It can be harvested year round but is most potent when harvested in the spring as the buds are swelling, before it fully leafs out. You may still be able to find some in this state!

But why befriend willow when you can just buy aspirin easy-peasy? Although it will take your body slightly longer to process the plant itself as opposed to aspirin, the negative side-effects, such as stomach bleeding (sounds fun!) and nausea, are significantly reduced or eliminated. There is a synergistic effect when using the whole plant with its myriad of chemical compounds that mellows out the harshness of any one chemical.* More importantly, however, is having a connection to the Earth and knowing that you can support your wellness with the gifts of the land. Willow is tried and true; it has been used by indigenous peoples and wilderness survivalists for centuries, and we are beyond grateful to have this plant ally in abundance in the Boreal forest.

*Please note that too much of anything, including willow, can be harmful to your body. You should always follow the recommended dosages for herbal supplements.

Disclaimer: The statements in this blog post have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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