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. 

Salix Alba wikipedia commons

Salix Alba
wikipedia commons

Overview

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.

Harvest your own, or order a nice big bag if you don't have a white willow nearby.

Harvest your own, or order a nice big bag if you don’t have a white willow nearby.

Folklore

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.

White Willow Bark Tincture

Making White Willow Bark Tincture

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. 

Remember to label important information.

Remember to label important information.

Precautions

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. 

16 thoughts on “White Willow Bark

  • August 30, 2013 at 9:49 pm
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    First question: what’s so special about white willow; why not black willow? Second question: do I have to let the bark dry before using it to make the tincture; any reason not to use it freshly harvested? (I peeled the black willow (S. nigra) bark directly off the freshly pruned branches and immediately put it in the vodka, without shredding, crushing, hammering, pestling or anything. I also have some I have allowed to dry for weeks, which I will use in my next tincture.)

    Reply
    • September 6, 2013 at 5:58 pm
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      Gene, my appologies for not getting back to you until now. My mother’s health took a turn for the worse (cancer) and ultimately she passed away. I’m just getting back to this aspect (blogging) of my herbalism practice now.

      The reason for white willow is that out of all the various willows, it has the 2nd highest concentration of salicin, which is what the body converts to salycitic acid, which is the natural version of the active ingredient in aspirin. Purple willow has the highest concentration, but white willow is more palatable, which could come into play when given in a tea form. In a tincture, taste really isn’t so much of an issue.

      I used the dried bark because where I don’t have access to a white willow tree, or at least I haven’t found any on my walks where I would be permitted to (responsibly) harvest some of the bark. In herbalism in general, fresh is almost always best.

      I’d love to hear how your tincture turned out, and if you have had the opportunity to try it.

      Reply
    • September 6, 2013 at 6:02 pm
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      Oh, and one more thing… about the shredding of the bark, when making tinctures (or infused oils, etc), you generally want to make the plant material as small as possible in order to expose the most surface area that you can get. It will allow more of the plant’s medicine to be extracted into your menstruum than if left whole.

      Reply
      • September 8, 2013 at 10:20 pm
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        Thank you for the reply. I only recently opened the jar and applied it to a small patch of psoriasis on the back of my hand. It did not make a difference. Have not tried it for any other use, topical or internal. Unfortunately, I used a recently-emptied olive jar, and the tincture smells strongly of olives. Will continue to steep and try on skin irritations and will let you know. Regarding the black willow that I have dried out on the shelf: I guess I’m going to chop it finely before adding it to a tincture. Also, I did not have a recipe, so I just stuffed the jar with bark and then added 8 oz. of vodka. No water, and no weighing or otherwise measurement of the bark. So, regarding the bark I have dried, how much of the finely chopped dried willow bark should I use per 8 oz. of vodka? Thanks!

        Reply
        • September 8, 2013 at 11:07 pm
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          Making tinctures can be really simple or as complex as people want to get. You could use regular vodka, which is essentially watered down grain alcohol, and you would get both alcohol and water soluble constituents out of the dried bark, sans measurements. To be more precise, and you’re measuring out from a grain alcohol like Everclear, then you need an herb to menstruum ratio of 1:5, which means 1 ounce (weighed on a scale) dried bark to 5 ounces alcohol, the alcohol needs to be at least 30% alcohol or 60 proof. So, you will either need to water down the 90% grain alcohol to 60% or just use any commercially available vodka which will already be about 70 proof (35% alcohol).

          Reply
      • September 8, 2013 at 10:21 pm
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        Also, since you’re not likely to find white willow growing native, if you reside in the North American continent, then why not try to harvest black willow or other kind and try it out? It’s pretty easy to encounter on nature walks!

        Reply
        • September 8, 2013 at 10:44 pm
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          Black willow is often substituted for white willow, as it does generally contain enough salicin to be of therapeutic value. And, if you have access to it, all the better. The reason I focused on white willow for the article is two-fold: 1) it has the 2nd highest salicin concentration, but with a more palatable taste than purple willow, occupying the #1 spot, and 2) because when research is done, it tends to be for white willow.

          Reply
  • November 14, 2013 at 9:33 pm
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    Is it possible to give white willow to children for pain relief when there is no fever present? From Mountain Rose Herbs: do not give willow bark to a child under sixteen years of age who has symptoms of any kind of viral infection, especially flu or chickenpox. I am desperately searching for an alternative to pharmaceutical drugs for muscle/joint pain for my 11 year old daughter who has severe cerebral palsy.

    Reply
    • January 13, 2014 at 4:42 pm
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      Hi Lindsay,

      The risk with children and teenagers taking white willow, and any remedy containing salicin or salicylic acid (like birch or aspirin), is when it is coupled with a fever. Fever is a sign of an infection, which coupled with white willow could lead to Reye’s Syndrome. However, choosing the most appropriate pain reliever is really dependent upon the cause of the pain. There are many herbs that when applied topically in a salve provide pain relief from muscle aches, arthritic pain, headaches, back pain, and so on. For muscle and joint pain, I’ve been seeing wonderful results from a salve made with cayenne (capsaicin), comfrey, arnica, lavender essential oil, and blue chamomile essential oil.

      Reply
      • September 12, 2014 at 2:51 pm
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        Hi Catherine,

        I saw your reply post to Lindsay here regarding the muscle and joint pain salve made with cayenne, comfrey, arnica, lavender essential oil, and blue chamomile essential oil.

        A couple of questions, if I may…

        ~ For the cayenne, comfrey, and arnica, do you use tinctures of these and add them to a salve base? What would be the ratio(s) of tinctures to base? If tinctures, are these alcohol-based or glycerine-based or water-based?

        ~ What are the quantities of each essential oil used?

        ~ For the chamomile essential oi, is that the german chamomile?

        ~ I’ve read that both nutmeg essential oil and also copaiba balsam essential oil contain constituents with strong pain relief characteristics. Do you know anything about that? If so, could you add these in addition to or as a replacement for the chamomile and lavender essential oils?

        ~ Do you have a favorite or recommended recipe for the salve base?

        Thank you for any assistance you can provide.

        Reply
        • September 24, 2014 at 9:18 pm
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          Hi “Just Wendy”
          For the salve, I use infused oils, not tinctures. I make mine in the crockpot. In this case, you could either put all the herbs in with the oil, or you could make individual infused oils. The measurements don’t have to be so precise when making these. I just put my herbs in the crockpot and make sure the oils are sufficient to cover all of the herbs. I only use the “Warm” setting on my crockpot, never low, and certainly not high. Low and high will eventually get to the same temperature, but “Warm” will stay low enough to just gently heat the oil, and not actually cook it. A usable oil can be had in about 2 hours, though I ideally will let the oils macerate on “Warm” for 2 weeks. Otherwise, you can steep herbs in oil in a mason jar in a cool, dark place for 6 weeks. In either case, when the herbs are done infusing in the oil, strain out the plant material, and reserve the oil.

          My salve base is 2/3 of a cup of oil and 2 tablespoons of beeswax pastilles. I melt the beeswax into the oil in a double boiler over low heat. Once the beeswax is completely melted, I let it cool just a little before adding any essential oils. If you add them too soon while the oil is still quite warm, you run the risk of cooking off your essential oils. Pour immediately into tins or jars. The salve will start to cool and harden faster than one may think.

          As far as quantities of each oil, I use equal parts of comfrey and arnica. The cayenne oil really depends upon how hot it is.

          As to the essential oils, I have read that they are, but I haven’t tried them myself. I can’t say why, other than I just haven’t gotten around to it. It might be time to change that. ;)

          Reply
  • December 17, 2013 at 7:58 am
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    I noted you said not to give to children under 17yrs. What coukd I make for natural pain relief for young children then. As I dont want to give my kids paracetamol or ibuprofen anymore. Thankyou

    Reply
    • January 13, 2014 at 6:09 pm
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      Hi Valery,

      True, white willow should be avoided in children under 17 when there is a fever, which may mean an infection is present. Anything containing salicin or acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) should be avoided. Otherwise, you can give white willow to children for aches and pains. There are, however, many herbal pain remedies for pain. Knowing the cause of the pain, however, is very important. For example, treating the pain of an ear infection would be quite different than treating the pain of a sunburn or a sprained ankle.

      Reply
  • June 8, 2014 at 1:34 am
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    is white willow and weeping willow the same? do you have any tips on how to make a willow bark oil infusion?

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    • July 18, 2014 at 4:51 pm
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      White willow (Salix alba) and weeping willow (Salix babylonica) are two different species of the same genus. Weeping willow is more of an ornamental tree and not appropriate for herbal medicine. If you were making it into a tea form, a decoction would be a better method than an infusion in order to extract more from the hard bark. In a pot, put 1 oz (by weight) dried or 2 oz fresh white willow bark into 2 cups of cold water. Turn on the heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes or until the water has reduced by half. Strain out the bark, and you have your white willow bark tea.

      Reply
    • September 24, 2014 at 9:23 pm
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      Hi Redgar,

      Unfortunately, they are not the same tree, and you would likely not see any pain relief from weeping willow. To make the infusion, you need to obtain white willow bark and made what is called a decoction. You could put a tablespoon or two of the bark in a pot with 2 cups cold water. Bring it up to a boil and boil for ten minutes, then reduce to a simmer for another 20 minutes. The liquid should have reduced by half. Strain out the bark, and drink the tea. All of the same precautions that exist with aspirin apply here as well.

      Reply

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