Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tree Medicine: Willows, the Utilitarians

Paul Strauss calls trees "the big herbs."  When folks think of herbal medicine, they often think of herbs as plants, about 1'-5' in height and do not realize many of the very trees they walk by have powerful attributes as well.  Today I am going to discuss willows.

White Willow, Salix alba

With wispy leaves and branches, a willow is mainly regarded as an enchanting tree we see growing along streams or ponds, the stuff of fairy tales and lore.  Remember the man-hungry Old Man Willow in JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings??  Willows have an age old association with the Underworld.  There is far more to willow trees than just mystery and romance.  The instinctive notion that there is something mighty and powerful lurking in such a soft-wooded tree is correct.  Herbalists often talk about willows containing salicin, a plant hormone that is metabolized into salicylic acid.  Salicin was first isolated from White Willow, Salix alba, to compound acetylsalicylic acid, or asprin.  And the word "aspirin" was derived from another famous plant with salicylates, Meadowsweet, whose Latin name used to be Spiraea ulmaria, before it was changed to Filipendula ulmaria.  White Willow, Salix alba, and Black Willow, Salix nigra, are the two primarily used in herbal medicine.

Unlike aspirin, plants with salicylates are not irritating to the stomach nor the rest of the digestive tract.  They have the ability soothe tissues, including healing the irritation caused by aspirin.  Salicylic acid is also well known for being helpful in topical acne treatments.

Plants have a spike in the production of salicylic acid as part of their defense response to being attacked.  This helps the plant to acquire "immunity" if you will to the invading pathogen.  It is called systemic acquired resistance (SAR).  Think of it as a plant's equivalent to antibodies.  Plants can also use salicylic acid to trigger SAR in surrounding plants by converting it to methyl salicylate, which is volatile, and can radiate out to the surrounding periphery with the sun's heat.

The Native Americans and settlers to the "New World" used White Willow and Black Willow to lower fevers, help with rheumatic pains, and pretty much capitalized on their anti-inflammatory, analgesic and febrifuge properties in any fashion necessary.

Being so high in hormones, Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants points out that Black Willow was used as a sexual tonic, listing specific indications of "nocturnal emissions, impotence, ovarian pain before and after menses, nervous disorders, and leucorrhea" during the 19th century (pg. 313).  White and Black Willow have both been used for worms in the intestines.

Salicin and other plant hormones are found more so in the young green branches and especially buds of Willows, and not so much in the mature bark.  Mature Willow bark is incredibly high in tannins.  The combination of anti-inflammatory salicylates and astringent tannins is very helpful for a variety of digestive disorders and many plants possess varying degrees of both of these attributes.  Astringents tighten and tone the tissues, making them impervious to pathogens.

Willows also contain fairly large amounts of indolebutyric acid, another plant hormone, and this causes plants to root easily.  Because of this, green willow branches of any willow species can be cut, plunked in the ground, watered and they will immediately grow roots.  You will see the branches produce leaves in 2-3 weeks!  This special function of willows means that you can use tender willow branches to make your own natural rooting hormone to help cuttings of other plants grow roots that would not do so voluntarily, and the salicin helps keep cuttings healthy while they are growing roots.

This characteristic ease of rooting has lead the imagination of many to come up with multiple practical, beautiful and interesting uses of Willows...the most fascinating being planting live canes into the ground and weaving them together as living hedges or fences, arbors, playhouses, trellises and more.  It is like sculpting with plants!  This is much more popular in the UK and Europe; sadly there seem to be few people in the USA utilizing or selling living willow canes for this use.  Maybe that will change in the near future.

Auerworld Palace, Germany, A Living Willow Structure
See more at Jan Johnsen's Blog

Apparently Willows have been used to plant living hedges for eons, dating back to the Middle Ages if not farther.  Willow is also used to control soil erosion along waterways thanks to its prolific root system, and you can even use branches to weave sides for stream banks, raised beds or even make living furniture with the right variety (some grow giant, some stay small).  Because it grows so fast, it makes a good sustainable option for fueling rocket stove thermal mass heaters which require little wood, providing rods for basket weaving (in a variety of colors, no less) and larger branches for making conventional furniture as well.

If you weave a Willow fence in your yard, be sure you are using branches from a variety that does not grow to be a giant, such as White or Black Willows.  Shorter, more compact varieties are suitable for fences.  Not just because of their end size, but because of their water seeking roots.  The large varieties have been known to destroy septic systems, even leaky foundations because of their large, exploratory root systems.  It's generally advised to not plant any trees around septic systems, as all will eventually use their roots to try to get to the moisture, but Willows are particularly fast growing.  Choose the right variety for your particular project and project location.

To close, here I will give you a recipe to make your own rooting hormone from any variety of Willow.

How to Make Your Own Willow Rooting Hormone

Cut a large handful of young, green willow twigs (new growth) about 5" long, preferably with buds on them.  If there are leaves and not buds, strip off the leaves.

Cut the twigs into 1" pieces and place in a quart mason jar.  It should be around half full.

Boil water in a kettle.  Once it is boiling, remove from the heat and pour over the twigs, filling the jar.  Let steep for 12 hours, then strain.  Alternatively, cover twig pieces with cold water and let them cold infuse for several days before straining.

To use, stand your cuttings to be rooted in the willow water for about a day and then plant in soil, or water cuttings placed in soil a couple of times with the willow infusion.

You can keep your rooting hormone for reuse by putting a lid and label on it and storing it in the fridge for at least a month.

This information is for educational purposes.  It is not intended to be a replacement for advice from a licensed medical professional.  It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

3 comments:

  1. This is fascinating Carla. I am an organic grower (veggies & herbs in dirt w/ aquaponics) & walking that path of herbal medicine right now. I want to learn more! What do you suggest? Do you have a published book I might purchase?

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    1. Hi Jason,

      I'm glad you are finding my blog informative and have found the joy of plant medicine. I do not have a book published (but maybe in the future?). I highly recommend any of Matthew Wood's works, especially his Earthwise Herbals, or M. Grieve's A Modern Herbal, which is actually put up on the internet, though it's great to own the book--its a really large, comprehensive work. I'm considering making my 6-week herbal medicine course curriculum available as an online class, utilizing Google+ hangouts for live class discussion, but that will be a ways off as I need to work out the details! You might want to look up Jim McDonald, he is in Michigan, his website is http://www.herbcraft.org/

      Also if you like could you please send your request to join Herbal Medicine Junction again, I had a glitch with Google+.

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  2. I will definitely take your online class if you do this. I've been looking for that a long time now!

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