Where would we be without those who paved the way before us? More often than not, we find that our modern medicines and treatments stem from plant medicines and traditional healing arts that have been practiced for thousands of years all over the world. As herbalism becomes popular in Western culture, through the lens of Western medicine and science, some may view herbal medicine as "ineffective" due to the lack of formal scientific research on using plants as medicine. However, plant medicine has been, and was the only way, for thousands of years! Before commercial drug stores, communities relied on their local healers for care and also were knowledgeable about how to make medicines themselves. For example, poultices were made for wounds from St John’s Wort and Yarrow, influenza outbreaks were prevented with Lomatium, pain was managed with Poppy, fevers broken with Feverfew, postpartum mothers found support with Motherwort, Licorice sticks were chewed on to calm the digestive tract and sore throats, and the list goes on and on.
We owe the medical advantages of our modern world to our ancient traditions. Many of our pharmaceutical medicines today are derived from the knowledge of our ancestors using plants for specific ailments! (Of course, now in 2023, we have unfortunately augmented, isolated, and altered the specific compounds of medicinal plants so much to create pharmaceuticals that the medicine hardly resembles the plant). However, learning about where our current medicines derive from is important to understand how even in the slightest ways, using plants for medicine IS still woven into our modern medicines. Raising awareness about where our pharmaceuticals derive from, may help our society make the shift towards respecting and using herbal medicines more regularly, rather than reaching for over-the-counter medications in times of minor needs such as heartburn, aches and pains, or stomach upset, which can usually be remedied with a good old cup of tea or tincture dosage.
Okay, now back to our herb of the month...
What if I told you that Aspirin is derived from salicylic acid found in White Willow Bark, or, Salix alba?
The recorded use of willow bark for medicine dates as far back as the Ancient Egyptians, when the bark was used to make tea for relieving joint pain and inflammation in response to wounds. Additionally, Native American tribes such as the Iroquois have a history of using the bark for pain relief, while the Cherokee and Blackfoot have also brewed the bark into tea and chewed on young shoots of the tree to relieve fevers, gaining willow’s nickname of “toothache tree”. Many other Native American tribes share special relationships with the willow tree due to how flexible and useful its branches are for weaving baskets, making furniture, and building ceremonial spaces such as sweat lodges. Willow is also a clan symbol for the Navajo, Hopi, Apache, and Pueblo tribes. Between 460 and 365 BCE, Hippocrates documented the effects of willow bark tea, which at the time was infused into tea for dysentery, pain, worms, and other digestive complaints in ancient Greece.
It wasn’t until 1829 when scientist and pharmacist Henri Leroux, uncovered that the compound responsible for these incredible analgesic effects in white willow bark was salicylic acid. The Bayer Institute quickly patented a pharmaceutical pill called “Aspirin” containing higher amounts of salicylic acid than found naturally in willow, and obviously, it did quite well on the market! While all willows contain salicylic acid, it is the Salix alba species that medicine is most commonly made from. The white willow species, Salix alba, is native to Europe and Central Asia but was eventually introduced to the Americas.
In addition to analgesic salicylic acid, white willow bark contains many other vitamins, minerals, and anti-inflammatory flavonoids such as beta-carotene, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium, Vitamin C, and B vitamins. Energetically, it is cooling, drying, and astringent. Today, the bark is typically consumed in tea, tincture, or capsules and may help to treat colds and flus, inflammation, menstrual cramps, arthritis, headaches, toothaches, fevers, and minor pains.
White willow bark is a great example of how traditional plant medicines are still woven into the modern medicines of today. Thank you to the indigenous and ancient practices of plant medicine, and for our ability to continue sharing this sacred knowledge. As we focus on pain and inflammation care this month at The Herb Shoppe, consider trying white willow bark to treat your acute aches and pains. Enjoy this herb on its own, or in our Bane of Pain Tea or Bain of Pain Tincture.
*Disclaimer: Always consult your doctor or healthcare provider before ingesting herbal medicine. This information is not intended to treat or diagnose in any capacity.*
“Herb Spotlight - White Willow Bark.” Sun God Medicinals, sungodmedicinals.com/pages/herb-spotlight-willow-bark. Accessed 1 Aug. 2023.
Lane, K. S. (2022, June 4). A brief history of aspirin: From willow bark to wonder drug. Owlcation. https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-History-of-Aspirin-From-Willow-Bark-to-Wonder-Drug
“White Willow Bark Benefits.” Indigo Herbs, 7 Aug. 2020, www.indigo-herbs.co.uk/natural-health-guide/benefits/white-willow-bark."Willow Bark." Mount Sinai Health System. (n.d.). https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/herb/willow-bark