Flexible Strength: Willow Medicine

Salix spp

Willow is a distinctive tree that many people recognize, and many more are drawn to.

Willow’s story offers many examples of the power of tree medicines, and the difference between living plant medicines and pharmaceuticals or isolated extracts.

There are over 400 species of Willow, growing all through the Northern Hemisphere. In botanical medicine, White Willow (Salix alba) is most commonly referenced, although other species like Black Willow (Salix nigra) and Crack Willow (Salix fragilis) can be used interchangeably in many cases.

Willow has a long history of medicinal use. Indeed, I first learned about willow at age 12, when I did a science fair project on what was then referred to as “alternative medicine”. Willow was – for me – a gateway plant to the world of plant medicines. Perhaps it has played this role for you as well, or perhaps it still may!

Experience & History
There is a calm elegance to willows. Their comforting, flowing grace draws us to sit beneath them and share their ease. They prefer damp areas, often growing along river banks or lakes’ edges. The notion of flow is reflected in their form and in the water beside them. Willow’s historical use for rheumatism, a condition worse with dampness, mirrors its habitat of choice as well as its chemical action.

The flexible branches have long been used in making baskets, as well as wicker furniture. Elsewhere, willow wood is used for clogs, and for cricket bats.

Phytochemistry
Willow bark contains salicin, the precursor to salicylic acid. When we ingest willow tea or tincture, we convert salicin to salicylic acid in out digestive tract. From salicylic acid you can manufacture acetyl salicylic acid, or ASA, the active ingredient in Aspirin. Willow bark is in fact one of the plants from which Aspirin was originally made! It follows, then that like ASA, salicin has an anti-inflammatory effect in our body, making willow an excellent medicine for muscular and joint pains, fever pains, and gout.

Flower Essence
Willow flower essence helps us to find flexible strength. The essence is used for stiffness in body and mind, helping to address rigidity in thinking as well as in our muscles or joints. Willow helps people to let go, to accept, to forgive, to adapt. It addresses feelings of resentment or victimization. It supports the our feminine – or yin – nature.
From the FES flower essence repertory,
“Willow restores a more “spring-like” disposition, helping the soul to respond with greater resilience and inward mobility to challenges and problems. In this way, the Self takes more responsibility for its condition, and learns to flow more gently and graciously with rather than against the flow of life.”

Actions
Analgesic, anti-inflammatory, astringent, antipyretic

Indications
Arthritis, rheumatism, low back pain & other general muscular aches and pains, period pain, gout, fever, diarrhea

Preparation
Tincture or decoction of bark.

Cautions
Plants are not like drugs, and here is another example. You cannot use willow bark as a substitute for Aspirin if you are taking the drug for blood thinning. Willow does not thin the blood. And while Aspirin is notorious for causing stomach side effects (it increases ulceration & bleeding in the gut), white willow does not.

References:
Conway, Peter. Tree Medicine: A Comprehensive Guide to the Healing Power of Over 170 Trees. London, UK: Judy Piatkus Ltd. 2001.
Godfrey, Anthony & Saunders, Paul (with Kerry Barlow, Matt Gowan, Cyndi Gilbert, Rebecca Blok & Mahalia Freed). Principles and Practices of Naturopathic Botanical Medicine. Volume 1: Botanical Medicine Monographs. Toronto, ON: CCNM Press. 2012.
Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism: The Science & Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press. 2003.
Kaminski, Patricia & Katz, Richard. Flower Essence Repertory. Nevada City, CA: Flower Essence Society. 1986/2004.

The Original Brands

Nature-literacy, Backyard Medicine

There is an infographic going around on social media that is telling:

*Key at end

We are becoming nature-illiterate, and the consequences reach beyond not being able to identify the trees around us. It is telling that we can identify brands and not leaves. It speaks volumes about the values in modern, so-called ‘Western’ culture. And yet, we know that being outside, being near trees, gardening, being in green spaces are all good for us. There are even studies! (For more on the health benefits of being outside, see http://drmahaliafreed.com/action-in-stillness-stillness-in-motion-inspiration-for-harnessing-the-gifts-of-winter/ for instance).

Clearly, there is a crisis of disconnection.

Luckily, the solution is right outside our doors: right there, in the crack at the edge of the road. Right there in the untended yard. Right here on the café patio where I am writing. Literally.

By not having language for the plants around us, by not being able to name nor sometimes even SEE the individual species, we lose our access to the medicine the plants offer.

I don’t just mean seeing Hawthorn and knowing it is medicine for the heart, though this is valuable if you are into studying herbal medicine. I mean that, by noticing the plants growing around us we can benefit from the OTHER medicine they offer: the calming, uplifting presence of mature trees; the lesser known edible fruit delights that summer offers (mulberries! Service berries! Hackberries!); the subtle medicinal information for a plant that is determined by WHERE it grows, HOW it grows.

We can observe this. Some herbal traditions advocate choosing one single plant to work with for an entire year. One observes the plant through its different stages of growth, touches and tastes the plant’s different parts, talks to the plant, and listens for what the plant wants to say.

There is immense wisdom and value in this approach, and I have seen profound results when I have gotten to know herbs in this way.

And, the funny thing about herbs is that as you learn their names, and what they look like, you will start to notice them everywhere. They were there all along, but we humans make sense of all the sensory input we receive by limiting what we ‘see’.

We only ‘see’ what we can name.

And if we don’t ‘see’ the plants, we can’t connect to their medicine.

Just as it is much harder to have a meaningful conversation with someone new when you don’t remember their name – ahem, when you weren’t present when they told you their name – it is harder to engage with plants when you don’t know one from the other.

Luckily, we can remedy this situation. Easily, and for free.

My reconnection prescription is simple.

  1. Go outside. Stay a while.
  2. Be present (Ahem… look up from your phone. Or, pause the dialogue you are having in your head as you walk down the street.)
  3. Observe with an open mind & heart
  4. Ask questions (of the plants, of yourself, of others)
  5. Interact with the plants: use your senses to see, smell, touch; eat weeds (once you have safely confirmed their identity), make tea, make bouquets for your kitchen table.
  6. Watch what happens to the quality of your lived experience as you walk from house to car, from car to office – noticing and greeting these new friends growing everywhere in this city.
  7. Notice how you notice life differently as you observe its vitality emerging even from between the cracks in the pavement.

First steps:

 

Mullein
(Verbascum thapsus)

Choose one plant.

Make it one that you just keep noticing, everywhere you go, or one that has some medicine that is relevant for you, or one that you learn to be edible and tasty. Eg, red raspberry leaf, a well-known women’s tonic herb; or Dandelion, ubiquitous medicinal friend of mine. (for a snippet more on dandelion, see http://drmahaliafreed.com/weeds-as-nourishing-spring-food-dandelion-greens/).

Get to know it. If it’s edible, like dandelion leaf or burdock root, try it.

If it is a tree that you choose, hang out underneath it. Meditate, journal, daydream with it. Take notes. Watch the plant grow, watch how it responds to sunlight, wind, rain, temperature changes. Smell it, touch it. Share what you learn.

Want more steps, more info? Learn about harvesting and eating wild spinach.

Resources:

Try here  for online tree & shrub identification if you are in Ontario or somewhere with a similar range of ecological zones.

Here are some books I like, and find useful either for field identification or learning more about a plant:

  • Edible wild plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate by John Kallas, PhD . More.
  • Backyard medicine: Harvest & Make Your Own Herbal Remedies by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal. More
  • Wildflowers of Riverwood: Field Guide to wildflowers of Mississauga’s garden park and the Greater Toronto Area by Nina Karalin Barabas, PhD, and Eva Sabrina Bruni. http://www.riverwoodconservancy.org/items_for_sale.html
  • Lone pine series:
  • Ontario Wildflowers by Linda Kershaw
  • Trees of Ontario by Linda Kershaw

Image key:

Trees: (from left to right, top to bottom): maple, ash, pine with cone, oak, poplar & white birch

(*note that leaves are best used to identify a tree in context – bark matters, how the leaves are arranged matters, how serrated a leaf is matters, shape of catkins or seeds matters, and so on, thus, some of these identifications from the sketches are up for debate)

Brands: facebook, volkswagon, mcdonalds, lacoste, apple, & nike