White willow bark is nature’s original aspirin. In the days before pharmaceutical aspirin, the bark of the white willow provided pain relief and reduced fevers. All the way back to Hippocrates, who advised his patients to chew on the bark to calm fever and inflammation, white willow bark has been used by herbalists for the same uses that aspirin and ibuprofen are used today.
The chemical constituent in white willow that is credited for it’s therapeutic benefits is salicin. All willows contain the glucoside, salicin, which is converted to salicylic acid in the body. However, not all willows contain salicin in amounts sufficient for pain relief. The Purple Willow contains the highest concentrations of salicin, with white willow having the next highest concentration, and is more effective at reducing fever than the white willow. White willow is preferred for remedies, however, because it is more palatable than purple willow. A blend of these two willows would make a fair compromise.
The form found in aspirin is a synthetic version of this called acetylsalicylic acid. The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that the effects of white willow bark may take a little longer to work than acetylsalicylic acid, but appears to be longer lasting. Many people also report that it is far less irritating to the stomach compared to aspirin.
Why might this be? Well, our modern aspirin’s effects are based on acetylsalicylic acid alone. This is a common practice in pharmaceuticals, to take a single chemical constituent found in plants and either standardize or synthesize that single chemical. Sometimes, this makes the chemical less effective, or in other cases, less safe. Traditional remedies do not work the same when synthesized in a lab or when only one component is extracted.
White willow bark is a whole material with many chemical constituents, some of them have been shown to boost the immune system and reduce fever. It is the concert of plant components that likely account for it’s longer-lasting effects and the lessened impact on the stomach. Most testing would be necessary to make a definitive statement about this.
In Bald’s Leechbook, Bald recommends white willow as a remedy for pain in the spleen and suggests green bark to be boiled in honey, the patient is to fast overnight and be given two-three pieces of the bark to chew/eat in the morning. A similar complaint is found in Norse Magical and Herbal Healing, Medical Book from Medieval Iceland, and recommends white willow bark for a “pain in the side”. Bald specifically says pain in the spleen, where as the Icelandic book only calls it a “pain in the side”. I suspect they are referring to the same ailment, but that is just my speculation.
For a “pain in the side” white willow bark, the recommendation from the Icelandic book is to willow berries and ginger, and use in a warm wine. There are no instructions for this “use”, but if I had to recreate this, I would first make a decoction of two tablespoons the bark instead of the berries (as I have not found any other information on the effectiveness or safety of the berries, but still looking) and piece of sliced/peeled ginger about the size of one’s thumb in 1 cup of water. When the water is reduced to half. Strain, return the liquid to the pot, and add 2 cups of wine to the pot. Gently warm it up, then drink.
Please note: I cannot attest to the appropriateness of either of these remedies for the spleen, but present them for the folklore value.
How to Make White Willow Bark Tea
For modern remedies, you have your choice between taking it in tea/decoction form, or as a tincture. For both taste and potency reasons, I would prefer the tincture. However, as tincture takes six weeks at a minimum to make, a tea may be a viable option.
Put 2 teaspoons of white willow bark in 2 cups of cold water in a pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Keep at a simmer for 30 minutes. Allow it to steep for another 30 minutes. Strain, add a sweetener (I prefer honey), and drink 3-4 cups of tea per day.
How to Make White Willow Bark Tincture
When I make white willow bark tincture, I tend to make it on the strong side. I use a 1:3 ratio of white willow bark to 100 proof vodka. 80 proof will work as well, but I prefer 100 proof for tincturing the hard bits, like roots, bark, and seeds. Put the bark into a glass canning jar (I usually use a quart size for this), pour in some vodka, gently mix with a long knife or skewer so as to make sure all of the bark is mixed with the vodka. Top off with more vodka, and securely fasten the lid to the jar.
Keep in a sunny spot for six weeks, and be sure to pick up the jar daily and shake it gently so that the vodka moves through all the bark. At the end of six weeks, strain and bottle in one or four ounce bottles with eyedropper caps/pipettes. Store in a dark, cool place, and it keeps almost indefinitely. Take one eyedropper-full serving (about 30-40 drops) in an ounce or two or water or juice, three to four times per day.
Another nice touch would be to only bottle half of it for immediate use, and make a double or even a triple tincture with the rest. Using the same ratio, put more bark into another glass canning jar. If you used a quart-sized jar before, use a pint-sized jar this time. Add new white willow bark to the jar, and cover with the white willow bark tincture for another six weeks. Repeat the gentle shaking daily, and keep in a sunny spot for these six weeks. Strain and transfer to bottles and store in a dark place.
All of the precautions that are associated with pharmaceutical aspirin should be taken into consideration with white willow bark. Both aspirin and white willow bark are contraindicated for children under 17 because it could lead to Reye’s Syndrome, a potentially fatal condition that can cause brain and liver damage. It is also contraindicated for pregnant and nursing women, as well as anyone who is allergic to aspirin. Do not take white willow bark if you are already on a blood thinner, and white willow bark may compound the effects.
Please use caution and common sense if aspirin irritates your stomach. White willow bark may irritate the stomach less, and in some cases, not at all. But, other people have reported stomach irritation. Use your best judgement based on how sensitive your stomach is, and the type of reaction your have with aspirin.