The Herbal History of Black Willow

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Willow trees have long been used in healing, and there are many traditional medicinal uses for willow. When most herbalists turn to willow, they reach for white willow, Salix alba, which is easy enough to find at health food stores. Otherwise, the word ‘willow’ typically conjures up images of the graceful landscape tree with long, trailing branches. That would be weeping willow, Salix babylonica. Very few people are aware of our native willow species, Salix nigra, or its herbal history.

Black willows have a much less dramatic appearance than the familiar and flamboyant weeping willows. Still graceful, they are more upright and slender. They love to keep their feet wet, and the ones I spend time around have grown up among white oak, tulip trees, maples and sweet gums in an area near a small creek.

Historical Accounts of Medicinal Uses for Willow

Although it isn’t much used by herbalists now, black willow was used by the Eclectic physicians, and appears in several of their materia medicas and reference books.

King’s American Dispensatory

According to King’s American Dispensatory (1898), the bark, root and aments (the long, drooping clusters of flowers) of black willow were all used for medicinal purposes.

Similar to white willow, the bark of black willow contains salicin and tannins. It was used in the early 1900s to make poultices for gangrene and ulcers, and also to make a cream for rashes caused by poison ivy.

The root was used as a bitter tonic, taken internally for intermittents. This indicated a febrile diseases where the fever occurs in a cycle at the same time of day or in a reoccurring pattern over weeks or months. As a bitter tonic, it was also considered useful for asthma and gout.

Interestingly, the aments are mentioned for making the preferred preparation of black willow. This is very different than white willow, where the bark seems to have been favored. The aments, like the bark, were cited as being beneficial for gangrene. However, their main use seemed to be as an anaphrodisiac. Considering the historic period in which the Dispensatory was written, we find such language as

“. . .it is especially adapted to the disorders of the sexually intemperate male or female, and of the youth, subject day or night to libidinous suggestions and lascivious dreams terminating in pollutions. . .”

The Dispensary goes on to amend that:

“Not only does Salix nigra act as a check to sexual passion and misuse, but it proves a useful tonic and sedative to many conditions following in the wake of sexual intemperance, among which may be mentioned spermatorrhoea in its varied forms, and prostatitis, cystitis, and ovaritits.”

All of which would strongly suggest that, Victorian prudishness aside, the herb has an effect on the central nervous system, and also that it has cooling actions in the body with an affinity to the reproductive organs.

The American Materia Medica

In fact, Ellingwood, in The American Materia Medica (1919), had this to say about black willow:

“It will exercise a direct and satisfactory influence in many cases of hysteria, overcoming the extreme excitability and nervousness, headache and the globus hystericus, and will permit quiet, restful sleep. It will serve an excellent purpose in these cases in combination with general nerve tonics and restoratives, greatly enhancing their influence.”

So it looks like it could be a very useful herb to add to nervine blends or central nervous system tonics.

Ellingwood also mentioned the use of the aments as opposed to the the bark.

A Modern Note on Willow Uses

According to Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, willows hybridize very easily and can be used interchangeably. I would suggest that this is true to an extent ie there are general uses thanks to a similar chemical profile among willow species. However, as the Eclectic sources note above, I think it’s probably reasonable to say that there are still some uses specific to black willow.

Summary of Potential Black Willow First Aid Uses

Below you can find a summary of the uses for black willow that turned up when I was researching. I’ve organized it by parts used.

Bark

  • topical for gangrene and sores/ulcers
  • eczema
  • topical for poison ivy
  • fevers, sore throat, laryngitis
  • rheumatism
  • gout
  • neuralgia
  • heartburn
  • dysentery

Leaves

  • poultice for sprains, bruises
  • poultice for sores

Aments

  • nervine tonic
  • excitability and anxiety
  • sleep aid
  • cystitis
  • inflammatory disorders involving the ovaries or the prostate

Root

  • chewed for hoarseness
  • as a tea for intermittents
  • for gout (as a tea)
  • as a tea for asthma

Cautions and Considerations

A link between Reye’s syndrome and aspirin use suggests that black willow should be used carefully with children. Because willows contain salicylic acid (aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid), preparations from these species should not be used for children and teens presenting with fever that may be viral in nature or recovering from a viral illness.

References

The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood
Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America by Steven Foster and James A. Duke
The American Materia Medica, Finley Ellingwood M.D., 1919
Kings American Dispensatory, Harvey Wickes Felter M.D. 1898

 

Black willow is a native willow with several traditional uses that can be considered for contemporary first aid scenarios.

 

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