How to Make Willow Bark Medicine


The following is a guest post by Anna Bradley, founder of Rewild Eugene, Feral Botanicals and Whole Earth Nature School.

Ever since reading one of the “Clan of the Cave Bear” books by Jean Auel I had been entranced by the idea of using willow as medicine. I remember clearly one of the characters peeling willow bark and making a decoction for his injured brother to help ease the pain and swelling. Since then I have been itching to get out there to make a tincture or decoction, but I was nervous, thinking the skill was perhaps beyond my level. I just wasn’t sure how to go about peeling bark off a plant without hurting or killing it.

Then, a few weeks ago, I learned that an easy way to collect willow is to simply clip off willow twigs and then peel the bark off of the trimmings. Duh! It solves the problem of possibly killing the plant and it is a simple way to harvest in a caretaking manner.

Last week I took a trip to the coast and found quite literally a sea of willow bushes just inland of some of Oregon’s great sand dunes. Turns out these willows were most likely Hooker’s Willow, Salix hookeriana, a coastal willow. Willow loves to grow with her feet wet, so look for her on stream banks, near lakes and rivers, and marshy areas. There are many species of Salix and some may be small shrubs while others can be larger trees. The leaves are alternate, and generally also oval and elongated with smooth margins, however there is variation between species.

I decided to prune twigs that appeared overcrowded and unlikely to thrive. Some sources say to gather the twigs before the catkins even begin to come out as this has the most medicine, but many of the leaves were already unfurling and the catkins were starting to flower, so I picked twigs that were in an earlier stage of growth. However, you can harvest year round since the plants contain the medicine in it at all times. Early spring is when the plant medicines are most concentrated and so is the best time of year to harvest.

I peeled the inner and outer bark from the stick using my fingers, right down to the heart wood. It was slightly time consuming but also very meditative. The bark, buds, and new leaves all found their way into my pint jar. Then I added 80 proof brandy and screwed on the top. I will be letting this sit for up to 6 weeks before I strain out the material.

My goal for this tincture is to use it primarily for pain caused by headaches. I have not yet found my perfect headache plant and am excited to see how willow will do.

Willow has been used for thousands of years around the world for its amazing pain relieving, anti-inflammatory, and fever reducing effects. The magic comes from salicylic acid, a natural plant growth hormone that can be used for rooting new cuttings. In 1900 Aspirin was patented and sold as a Bayer product. In order to make aspirin, scientists combined acetyl chloride and salicylic acid. The salicylic acid was actually not derived from any willow species but rather from a plant called Spiraea ulmaria or meadowsweet (another plant I would love to work with) which is where the “spir” in aspirin comes from.

Happy harvesting! Share this post with friends and family and help them get pain medicine for free!

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26 thoughts on “How to Make Willow Bark Medicine

  1. really like some recipts for most homemade meds and corsponing plants and how to harvest sorry spell check isnt working like to make full fledge survial book incase the world come crumbling down around us all

  2. Acute attacks can be managed by taking a normal dose every 30 minutes until symptoms subside.

    For severe cases and chronic headaches you may consider adding the following herbs to a separate tincture especially if there are muscle spasms or sleep disturbances:

    Lobelia seed and leaf
    Valerian root
    Black cohosh root
    Blue vervain

    Combine equal parts in a jar and cover with vodka. Let it sit for a minimum of 1 week. Dosage is 2-5 dropperfuls or 1/8 – 1 tsp. in combination with the willow bark. Same rules apply for acute headaches our severe pain.

    I order from mountainroseherbs.com what I cannot harvest locally. The lobelia is quite bitter so mix with your choice of juice. I prefer grape or orange juice.

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  6. Hey Guys,

    I’ve been using my own willow bark tincture made w/ Skyy Vodka for about 3 months now and using willow bark as tea for almost 6 months. Basically, I suffer from nerve damage in my neck from too many crashes. Went through the complete ringer (medically and pharmaceutical) trying to figure out what was causing these severe headaches and how to manage them.

    If you choose to use Willow bark by foraging locally, my advice is to stay away from landscaped trees. 1) It’s better to use what is locally available by foraging and 2) Why would you want to scar up the trunk of your Weeping Willow or break off branches. If you use Willow bark you will need many, many trees in order to maintain a sustainable supply. I prefer to harvest from the tree trunk with a large stiff bladed knife. I use a large Khukuri knife. Choose a tree free of fungus and moss and at least 6-8″ round. You can use smaller trees but the bark is much thinner and therefore much easier to damage. Lay a rain coat, a rain fly, or a drop cloth under and around the base of the tree to catch your shavings. Hold the knife at a slight angle against the tree and carefully scrape down the tree trunk. Eventually you’ll get the hang of it and be able to shave off nice thin slices with a SHARP knife. Scrape off an area about 1-2 sq.ft. of tree trunk depending on how much bark you need. BE ESPECIALLY CAREFUL NOT TO EXPOSE THE WHITE LAYER OR INNER BARK.

    Gather up your jacket or cloth by collecting the corners. You can either tie the jacket off and stuff it in your pack or pour the bark into a plastic bag. Once you are finished it should look basically like a deer rub on the tree. This method is completely safe and sustainable as the willow trees grow extremely fast.

    Place the shavings in a mason jar and cover it with the vodka. Make sure you don’t fill the jar too full as you won’t be able to pour it out without spilling it. Leave about 1″ of air in the jar. Date the jar and store it in the pantry shaking it every 1-2 days. In about (2) weeks you should have a liquid that looks like tea. Mine has a red tint to it and so does the bark I use. Strain the tincture through a fine pour plastic coffee filter or the unbleached paper filters. Do NOT use bleached filters or cheese cloth. Let the bark drain for a couple of hours into your container. Then take the bark and place it in a sauce pan. Using the original mason jar (now empty) fill the jar with water and add it to the willow bark in the sauce pan. Bring this to a boil and reduce by 2/3, leaving only 1/3 of the liquid. This is a decoction and removes other compounds that the vodka may have left behind. This liquid should also look like a tea. Add this remaining 1/3 to the original tincture and you are finished. Store this tincture in a dark bottle or pantry like any other medication. Discard the bark or compost it.

    In my opinion, the tincture I’m making is more effective at controlling inflammation then Ibuprofen, Meloxicam, or Naprosyn and also more effective at controlling the awful pain of my headaches then Lyrica and Flexiril combined. For me it seems the inflammation is the key to controlling the pain. I take (2) tsp of Willow bark tincture (3) three times a day. In the morning I mix (1) tsp per cup of coffee and drink (2) two cups. In the afternoon and night, I mix (2) tsp with a small glass of orange juice.

    There are other benefits to taking a liquid instead of a pill. Again from my experience, there is NOTHING that I have taken that can get rid of my headaches faster than drinking it with orange juice. Literally within 5-10 minutes I can feel relief starting to kick in. I don’t have to tell anyone who suffers from severe pain how important that can be.

    I am currently off all prescriptions and have been since about (2) two weeks after I started using Willow Bark. Be cautious when starting any new medication or diet but don’t be afraid. Start with a small dose and wait 8-24 hrs for any side effects. Willow Bark has been used for thousands of years now so I’m pretty sure humans have found most all of the serious side effects. Try Willow Bark for at least (2) weeks before you pass judgment on whether or not it works for you or how well. It does take time to initially get up to speed in your system. In my opinion, this method is totally different then taking a pill in the delivery “system” is much safer for your stomach and intestine. However, you still need to take Willow Bark tincture or tea with food or a full glass of water. The Willow Bark tea upset my stomach more than the tincture but less then Ibuprofen. DO NOT mix Willow Bark with ANY other NSAID.

    That’s about all I can think of for now. Now you can see why I “tested” the blog before typing all this…..Lol! Any questions?

    Tim

  7. Willow bark extract became recognized for its specific effects on fever pain and inflammation in the mid-eighteenth century. allegedly used willow bark tea in 1803-1806 as a remedy for fever for members of the famous expedition.

  8. @Hank, since whole plants don’t really equal chemicals based on synthesized constituents, it’s very hard to make accurate comparisons in that way. Salix as a whole plant is much safer and much less concentrated than Aspirin, which is part of why it doesn’t necessarily work well as a generic headache medicine.

    Too much Salix (amount will depend on species, preparation and time of year harvested) will result in a headache, possible nausea and a “fuzzy” feeling but side effects stop with cessation of the plant. Theoretically, people who have Aspirin sensitivities may also be similarly sensitive to Salix, especially large amounts over long periods of time.

    If you use the twigs, the amount of outer bark is fairly negligible and this is how I harvest the bark of many trees as opposed to taking bark from the trunk of the tree.

    My ten year old daughter is exceedingly fond of eating the leaf buds off of our Salix irrorata each Spring. Considering the chalky, bitter taste, I’m not sure what the appeal is but she’s been doing it for years and swears she loves it.

  9. I thought only the inner bark of the willow was used, and I have always wondered about how to best control the strength of the tea/liqueur. Willow bark is some powerful stuff – powerful enough where I don’t want to mess with it without getting a better handle on what, roughly, I’d be drinking when I had a nip of this stuff. Is it like 2 aspirin? 1/2 a one? 10?

    Any info on dosage/strength in terms of amount of inner bark: liqud as a factor of time?

  10. Hi!

    Having read about using willow bark as a pain reliever and aspirin substitute, I’m curious: can you use any willow?

    I see the Weeping Willow in the top picture. I have family with some Weeping Willows on their property but didn’t know if this was the “right” type of willow.

    Thanks!

    - Garth

    • Hi Garth,

      Awesome question! I was curious about this myself and wanted to do some more research.

      So here are some updates on the matter…

      In the medicinal plant books I read the authors always seem to write Salix spp. I generally don’t see any specific species he or she recommends to use. So I assume from those sources that any Salix species could work.

      According to Howie Brounstein of the Columbines School of Botanical Studies that assumption is mostly correct.

      The white willow or Salix alba is the willow most commonly used by herbalists. The salicylic acid is the highest in this species and so can be used very effectively for symptoms such as head aches.

      This species (Salix alba) is not native around the Northwest or North America for that matter.

      Almost any native species of willow is not nearly going to have the amount of medicine as the white willow. And so it is difficult to get high amounts of the medicine out of these native species. Many times tinctures of native willows are used more as an astringent for poison oak dermatitis rather than headaches.

      Fascinating stuff!!

      -Anna

    • Hi Garth,

      That is my understanding, but I’ve asked Anna if she can look into it (this being her post/area of expertise) and she said she will confirm with Howie Brounstein, her teacher in Eugene.

  11. Good write up, Rebecca. Let us know how this works for you.

    How full of willow was your pint jar before before you added the brandy? Loosely packed? Tightly packed?

    • Hi Tom,

      When I made the tincture I had just barely enough to fill a pint jar. If I had had more bark I would have fill it all the way up to the top and then poured alcohol over it.

      It was mostly loosely packed.

      -Anna

  12. Nice post and lovely pictures. :)

    I find that when dealing with symptom issue like a headache, it often works better to address the underlying symptoms (or at least look at the basic symptom pattern or type) than to suppress the symptom itself. So if the headache is caused by neck and shoulder tension, then something like Verbena or Black Cohosh might be appropriate, whereas a migraine might benefit more from Clematis or Vinca, depending on the person.

    I tend to see Salix as more a long term anti-inflammatory, with its effects often showing up over a period of days or weeks rather than hours in most cases. It does work specifically well for urinary tract infection pain with heat signs (red tongue, sharp, burning pain, scalding urine) though, one of my favorite ways to work with the plant.

    And strangely enough, some very strong species of Salix can actually cause a headache (often with nausea) if taken at too high of a dose.

    Thanks again for the post, I really like the work you’re doing with ReWild Eugene and Whole Earth Nature School.

    ~Kiva Rose

    • Hi Kiva!

      Thanks so much for the kind words.

      I absolutely agree with you about truly understanding where the headache comes from rather than simply treating the symptoms.

      I don’t get many headaches any more which is amazing. However, when I do I know exactly where they come from. I have hypoglycemia and some days I crash (less and less however because of diet change etc!) and when that happens I get a low level temple pain and pressure.

      This pain and pressure slowly intensifies throughout the day until it peaks in the evening. I have not found any herb to help stop that pain yet. I have tried lavender, rose petals, fever few, and chamomile and none of these even begin to take the edge off. This was why I wanted to experiment with willow.

      I would love to come visit you some day down south!!

      -A

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