White Willow

Common name: Willow bark
Other names: Weeping willow, salicin willow
Latin name: Salix alba
Affinity: Nervous system, cardiovascular system
Actions: Analgesic
Diseases: Pain(1), osteoarthritis(1), lower back pain(1), inflammatory pain(2)
Parts used: Bark

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Characteristics: White willow is a species of fast growing willow native to Europe and parts of central and western Asia (Meikle, 1984; Rushforth, 1999; Alan, 1978). It is a medium sized tree growing up to 10-30m tall. The leaves are covered with fine white silky hairs most evident on the underside.

History: In ancient Egypt, white willow grew on the banks of the river Nile and the Egyptians considered it a symbol of joy (Castleman, 2001). The Hebrews acquired the tree, however, after the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem the tree became a symbol of sorrow. It is written in the Bible, “By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down, and there we wept, when we remembered Zion. Upon the willows, we hanged up our harps, for they that led us there captive asked of us … song”. Subsequently, the tree became known as weeping willow. Traditional Chinese doctors have used willow bark to relieve pain since 500 B.C. It took 5 more centuries for the pain reliving therapy to find its way to Europe. The famous Greek physician Dioscorides was the first Westerner to recommend willow bark for pain, later it was used in the 17th century by Nicholas Culpeper to ‘clear the face and skin’, then by Rev. Edmund Stone for ‘fever and chills’. It was popularised by Rev. Edmund Stone and spread into North America to treat pain, chills, and fever. In the 1830’s salicylic acid was extracted from willow bark, the precursor to aspirin, however it was Meadowsweet which also contains salicylic acid which was used to eventually synthesise asprin. Modern day herbalists still use willow bark for headaches, inflammation, pain, fever, and to reduce the risk of heart attacks.

Current applications: Willow bark may be useful in rheumatic pains, painful muscles, gout, sciatica, and neuralgia (nerve pain) (Bartram, 2013). Can be combined with jamican dogwood for treating nerve pain.

Science: There is strong evidence willow bark extract is effective at reducing pain in humans suffering from osteoarthritis (Schmid et al., 2001) and lower back pain (Chrubasik et al., 2000). It is likely willow bark extract contains compounds other than salicin that contribute towards its analgesic effect. A lower frequency of adverse events has been observed than with NSAIDs and it has been recommended as an alternative option.

Safety: Willow bark is safe for most; however, it should be avoided whilst breast-feeding. There are no known issues with using Willow in pregnancy and in most cases, it will be tolerated fine by the young or old.

Dosage: Follow recommendations on packaging.

Brands: We recommend Herb Pharm in the U.S. and Indigo Herbs in the U.K.

Scientific Summary

Research on humans

Lower back pain: Willow bark extract has been found to successfully treat lower back pain over 4 weeks (n = 191, double blind placebo controlled). A dried willow bark extract was used that was standardised to contain 120-240mg salicin and taken once per day. The willow bark extract was well tolerated.

Osteoarthritis: Willow bark extract has been found to reduce the pain of osteoarthritis over 2 weeks (n = 78, double blind placebo controlled). The extract was standardised to 240mg salicin and taken per day. Willow bark extract appeared well tolerated.

References:

Bartram, Thomas. Bartram’s encyclopedia of herbal medicine. Hachette UK, 2013.

Meikle, Robert Desmond. “Willows and poplars of Great Britain and Ireland.” Botanical Society of the British Isles, 1984.

Rushforth, Keith. “Trees of Britain and Europe.” (1999).

Alan, Mitchell. “A Field Guide to the Trees of Britain and Northern Europe.” (1978).

Castleman, Michael. “The new healing herbs.” Bantam Book, New York (2001): 465-471.

Chrubasik, Sigrun, et al. “Treatment of low back pain exacerbations with willow bark extract: a randomized double-blind study.” The American journal of medicine 109.1 (2000): 9-14.

Schmid, B., et al. “Efficacy and tolerability of a standardized willow bark extract in patients with osteoarthritis: randomized placebo‐controlled, double blind clinical trial.” Phytotherapy Research 15.4 (2001): 344-350.