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When most herbalists think about willow, they think about white willow, Salix alba, which is easy enough to find at health food stores. Otherwise, the word ‘willow’ might conjure up images of the graceful landscape tree with long trailing branches. That would be weeping willow, or 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. They are currently in their seed-setting stage, so there is a great deal of fluff wandering about in the air. I find it rather playful and endearing, although my friends have explained to me that it is, in fact, a Dreadful Nuisance.
Historical Accounts of Black 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) were all used for certain 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 the rash caused by poison ivy.
The root was used as a bitter tonic, taken internally for “intermittents” (febrile diseases where the fever occurs in a cycle at the same time of day or in a reoccurring pattern over weeks or months), asthma, or gout.
Interestingly, the aments are cited as being used to make 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 time period in which the Dispensary 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 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
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. It looks like all of our willows have gone to seed, so I suppose I will have to wait until next year to make an extract. I might be able to make a salve or cream from the bark though- which would be good to have on hand because we have plenty of poison ivy to go around! Who knows, though? I might be able to find a late bloomer or two.
Summary of 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.
topical for gangrene and sores/ulcers
topical for poison ivy
fevers, sore throat, laryngitis
poultice for sprains, bruises
poultice for sores
excitability and anxiety
inflammatory disorders involving the ovaries
chewed for hoarseness
as a tea for intermittents
as a tea for gout
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.
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