Herb: White Willow

Latin name: Salix alba

Family: Salicaceae (Willow Family)

Medicinal use of White Willow:

Justly famous as the original source of salicylic acid (the precursor of aspirin), white willow and several closely related species have been used for thousands of years to relieve joint pain and manage fevers. The bark is anodyne, anti-inflammatory, antiperiodic, antiseptic, astringent, diaphoretic, diuretic, febrifuge, hypnotic, sedative and tonic. It has been used internally in the treatment of dyspepsia connected with debility of the digestive organs, rheumatism, arthritis, gout, inflammatory stages of auto-immune diseases, feverish illnesses, neuralgia and headache. Its tonic and astringent properties render it useful in convalescence from acute diseases, in treating worms, chronic dysentery and diarrhoea. The fresh bark is very bitter and astringent. It contains salicin, which probably decomposes into salicylic acid (closely related to aspirin) in the human body. This is used as an anodyne and febrifuge. The bark is harvested in the spring or early autumn from 3 - 6 year old branches and is dried for later use. The leaves are used internally in the treatment of minor feverish illnesses and colic. An infusion of the leaves has a calming effect and is helpful in the treatment of nervous insomnia. When added to the bath water, the infusion is of real benefit in relieving widespread rheumatism. The leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season and are used fresh or dried.

Description of the plant:


25 m
(82 feet)

to May

Habitat of the herb:

By streams and rivers, marshes, woods and wet fens on richer soils.

Edible parts of White Willow:

Inner bark - raw or cooked. It can be dried, ground into a powder and added to cereal flour then used in making bread etc. A very bitter flavour, especially when fresh, it is used as a famine food when all else fails. Leaves and young shoots - raw or cooked. Not very palatable. They are used only in times of scarcity. The leaves can be used as a tea substitute.

Other uses of the herb:

The young stems are very flexible and are used in basket making. The plant is usually coppiced annually when grown for basket making, though it is possible to coppice it every two years if thick poles are required as uprights. The bark can be used for tying plants. A fibre obtained from the stems is used in making paper. The stems are harvested in spring or summer, the leaves are removed and the stems steamed until the fibres can be stripped. The fibres are cooked for 2 hours with lye and then beaten with mallets or put through a blender. The paper is red/brown in colour. A fast growing tree and tolerant of maritime exposure, it can be grown as a shelterbelt. The plant's rapid growth and wind tolerance make it a very good pioneer species to use in establishing woodland conditions in difficult sites. Spacing cuttings about every 5 metres will soon provide shelter and a suitable environment for planting out woodland trees that are not so wind tolerant. The main disadvantage in using this species is that the roots are far-ranging and the plant is quite greedy, so it will not as much effect as species such as the alders (Alnus species) in enriching the soil and thus feeding the woodland plants. Wood - elastic, soft, easy to split, does not splinter. Used for construction, turnery, poles, tool handles etc. The wood is also used to make charcoal, which has medicinal uses.

Propagation of White Willow:

Seed - must be surface sown as soon as it is ripe in late spring. It has a very short viability, perhaps as little as a few days. Cuttings of mature wood of the current year's growth, November to February in a sheltered outdoor bed or planted straight into their permanent position and given a good weed-suppressing mulch. Branches of older wood as long as 2.5 metres can be used. Very easy. Plant into their permanent positions in the autumn. Cuttings of half-ripe wood, June to August in a frame. Very easy.

Cultivation of the herb:

By streams and rivers, marshes, woods and wet fens on richer soils.

Known hazards of Salix alba:

None known

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.