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November 9, 2023

Plant of the Month: Willow

Plant of the Month: Willow

Willow – Flexibility

In late winter, willow sprouts paint bright green, yellow, and reddish hues on the winter landscape. Buds swell and silvery pussy willows remind us that spring is nearly here. 

Willow thrives in constantly moving and changing landscapes like rivers, beaches, and wetlands. It is both flexible and strong. Branches bend but do not break when under stress like flooding or high winds. Willow reminds us that we too can be flexible during difficult times when we are resisting change or are feeling willful. We can open ourselves to new perspectives and experiences without getting stuck in our emotions, rational thoughts, or judgments. Like willow, we can find balance. 


Identifying Willow: Willow trees (Salix species) are bushy with many stems, and a few are larger, multi-trunked trees. Spring shoots tend to be straight and flexible. Buds hug the stem and grow alternate to each other. Willow leaves are simple shaped with smooth or finely toothed edges. Flowers have an upright catkin shape. Female flowers may look like pussy willow buds and mature into fuzzy seeds that are carried on the wind. Willow shoots contain a rooting hormone, allowing them to readily take root in wet soil. 

Willows are important in water ecosystems because they stabilize stream banks and provide shade, keeping the water cool and clear for salmon and other species to thrive. Deer, elk, and moose enthusiastically graze on willow as a food source, and beavers use it for building material. Willow flowers produce pollen and nectar that bees and other insects eat. 


Four common varieties in the Pacific Northwest include:

Hooker’s Willow. Salix hookeriana. Shrub or small, multi-trunked tree. Twigs are stout, grey, and hairy. Leaves are hairy and egg-shaped. Unopened flowers are pussy willows and come out before the leaves. Found in moist, swampy areas from the coast to mid-elevation

Pacific Willow. Salix lasiandra. Tree with a single trunk. Twigs are glossy and the new growth is distinctly yellow, while older branches are brownish grey. Leaves are lance shaped and pointed at the tip, with two or more glands where the petiole (leaf stem) attaches to the leaf. Young leaves are hairy and then become smooth with a whitish bloom beneath. Pacific willow is very common in wet areas from the coast to mid-elevation. It is the tallest of our willows and can grow to 50 feet.

Scouler’s Willow. Salix scouleriana. Shrub, or small to medium multi-trunked tree. Twigs are densely velvety, while larger branches are dark brown and hairless. Leaves are round and widest at the tip, tapering to a narrow base. Older leaves are dark green and hairless above, but hairy and rust or silver-colored below. Scouler’s willow grows up to 40 feet and usually has multiple stems. Unlike other Northwest willows, it will grow at a distance from water.

Sitka Willow. Salix sitchensis. Shrub or small, multi-trunked tree. Branches are dark brown to grey and twigs are densely velvety and brittle at the base. Laves are wider at the tip, smooth and bright green above, and hairy to woolly underneath. The catkins are long and slender. 


Food: All willows are edible, but some are not palatable. The leaves are high in vitamin C—seven to 10 times higher than oranges! The inner bark is high in calcium, magnesium, zinc, and other trace elements. It was traditionally eaten by many Native Peoples, but the processing is very labor intensive and few people continue the practice today. 

Medicine: Willow is good medicine when we are feeling stuck. It has been valued as an anti-inflammatory, pain reliever, fever reducer, and bitter tonic for thousands of years. Its use was documented in 4,000-year-old tablets from ancient Sumeria, and was perhaps the most important of 700 medicines mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus from Egypt in 1534 BCE. It has maintained mythic status in China, Europe, and the Americas for countless generations. 

In the early 1800s chemists extracted willow’s most active substance, Salicin, for use in medicine. By the mid 1800s, a synthetic method of creating salicylic acid was found, making pain-relievers and fever-reducers cheap and easy to produce. In the 1890s, the Bayer Company released the drug Aspirin, which has become the most utilized medicine in the world. 

Willow contains plant compounds including populin and methyl salicylates. Populin is also found in cottonwood and contributes to both trees’ anti-inflammatory and fever reducing medicine. Methyl salicylates have a minty or wintergreen smell, and can be found in varying concentrations in different willows. Willow can help ease headaches, arthritis, muscular pain, cramps, swelling, flu-like symptoms, fever, and irritability of the urethra and bladder. Like Aspirin, willow helps to prevent blood coagulation and assists in keeping blood flowing smoothly throughout the body.

Willow is a useful first aid remedy that is often available in neighborhoods, parks, and wilderness areas. It contains vitamin C, which helps to heal tissue, and tannins, which have astringent properties that reduce swelling and bleeding. It also acts as an antimicrobial and a pain reliever. Try willow for treating stings, painful swellings, cuts, burns, and other injuries. You can make a poultice or strong tea from the bark or leaves and apply it topically. 

While all willows are medicinal, the medicine’s strength can vary depending on species and where the plants grow. The most medicinal willows smell like wintergreen and taste bitter like an aspirin tablet with a tart vitamin C aftertaste. Willow bark and the small branches are the most potent part of the plant, and spring or fall are the best time to harvest. If you harvest from a large willow tree, cut newer branches and peel the bark with a knife. Small twigs can be easily cut into pieces with garden scissors or clippers. Pick willow leaves off branches and dry in baskets or paper bags. 


Willow is prepared in several ways including: 

  • Willow Oil: Cut the bark and stems into small pieces and place them in a double boiler. Cover completely with extra virgin olive oil or another oil of your choice and heat very gently for several days, turning the oil on and off so that it does not boil. Strain with a piece of muslin cloth, then pour the oil in a glass jar. Your oil will last about a year in a cool dark place.
  • Willow Tincture: Place fresh cut bark and twigs in a glass jar and cover with vodka or brandy. Cover with a lid and let sit for at least two weeks. Shake the jar every few days; making sure the herb is under the liquid. Strain and bottle in a glass jar. If you are using dried willow bark, measure the weight of the herb. For every ounce of dried willow by weight, use five ounces of vodka or brandy by volume. Place in a jar and let sit two weeks as above. The dosage is 30-60 drops. Store in a cool dark place. Tincture will last seven to nine years.
  • Willow Tea: To dry willow bark and stem, place it in baskets, paper bags, or a food dehydrator on a very low setting. Store in a cool dark place. The tea is very bitter, even for brave souls with flexible palates. It is best mixed with other herbs or taken quickly as a tincture or capsules. Up to an ounce of herb can be simmered in about a quart of water and taken throughout the day. To make willow leaf tea, use 1 heaping tablespoon of crushed leaves per cup of hot water and steep 15 minutes. Drink three to six cups a day. For a pain-relieving bath, try several large handfuls of dried willow leaf in a pot of boiled water. Steep 15 minutes and strain into a bath.

CAUTION: Those taking anticoagulant drugs should not use willow internally. While it is better tolerated than Aspirin by people with stomach aches and ulcers, it should not be used if you have a salicylic acid allergy.


Traditional Technologies: Native People throughout the Pacific Northwest have made cordage from the inner bark of willow. It is gathered in spring, pulled apart, and then twisted to make rope for fishing lines, nets, and trump lines. It is strong and flexible, and does not rot when submerged in water. Willow poles were used as fishing weirs because they root where they are planted. Willow stems are still fashioned into baskets. 

Willow Water for Strengthening New Plants: Willow contains a natural rooting hormone that stimulates root growth called indolebutyric acid. This compound is highest in the growing tips. If a willow branch breaks off a plant and travels downstream it will easily root in a muddy bank.  You can benefit from this by making a willow tea and using it to water cuttings or new plants.  Place new shoots in a jar and cover them with hot water, then steep for 24 hours. Some gardeners make willow water by placing new shoots in cold water and letting it sit for several weeks. New plants will benefit from just one or two waterings with this tea. I have also placed a willow sprig in a jar with a cutting when I am trying to get it to root. 

There is another benefit to watering new plants with willow tea. According to recent research, salicylic acid is involved in a plant’s systemic acquired resistance. When a part of a plant is attacked by disease or insects, it increases salicylic acid and thereby raises its natural defenses throughout the plant. Plants can even convert salicylic acid into a volatile compound that can warn other nearby plants. When you use willow water on tender new cuttings, you may be helping them defend themselves.  


References:

Arno, S. and Hammerly, R. Northwest Trees. The Mountaineers Books, 2007.

Boyer, C. Personal interview

Gray, B. The Boreal Herbal. Aroma Borealis Press. 2011.

Pedersen, M. Nutritional Herbology. Wendell W. Whitman Company. 2008

McIntyre, Anne. The Complete Floral Healer.

Moore, M. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Museum of New Mexico Press. 2003

Netishen, J. The Spirit of Plants Apprenticeship.  September 2009.

Turner, N. and Hebda, R. Saanich Ethnobotany. Victoria, Royal B.C. Museum Publishing. 2012.

USDA AgResearch Magazine. Helping Plants to Defend Themselves. December 2003.  http://agresearchmag.ars.usda.gov/2003/dec/plant/

Visalli, Dana. The Wind and the Willows: Why the Genus Salix is Worth a Second Look. Douglasia 30:1. 2006.


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