Category: Medicines - plant based
Introduction and description
Salix alba (white willow) is a species of willow native to Europe and western and central Asia. The name derives from the white tone to the undersides of the leaves. The stems (withies) from coppiced and pollarded plants were and are used for basket-making and this is the tree used for cricket bats.
Salix alba has a long history of medicinal use – bark and leaves. The sale of ‘willow bark extract’ has become something of an industry, but care needs to be taken. There are many kinds of willow [Salix] from the Pussy willow to the Weeping willow. Salix alba readily forms natural hybrids with crack willow Salix fragilis, the hybrid being named Salix × rubens Schrank.
Mary Cicely Barker’s child holds a Pussy willow [either Salix caprea or Salix cinerea]. It is noticeable that in some of the pages on the Internet dedicated to selling herbal extracts, there are pictures of Weeping willows [Salix babylonica and related hybrids] and this is incorrect. When used medicinally, the correct plant must be used.
There appears to be the widespread belief that Salicin is the important chemical in willow. It isn’t. It may have been extracted long ago, it may be the basis for aspirin, but it is not Salicin which heals. All we can do is point you to Dr Duke’s analysis [provided as an observation below] which shows both the activity and the chemicals in White willow.
What this means is that a very very large number of the so called ‘herbal remedies’ on the market today could be worse than useless. Now let me quote:
The willow family includes a number of different species of trees and shrubs native to Europe, Asia, and some parts of North America. Some of the more commonly known species are white willow/European willow (Salix alba), black willow/pussy willow (Salix nigra), crack willow (Salix fragilis), purple willow (Salix purpurea), and weeping willow (Salix babylonica). Not all willow species accumulate a therapeutically sufficient amount of salicin. In one study, the amount of salicin after 1 and 2 year growth in autumn and spring ranged from 0.08 to 12.6%. The willow bark sold in Europe and the United States usually includes a combination of the bark from white, purple, and crack willows.
Dr Duke provides no analysis for either Salix purpurea or Salix fragilis meaning he did not recognise either as being medicinal plants. What this means is that in the least worse case scenario you are getting virtually no benefit from the watering down of the medicine with Salix purpurea and Salix fragilis, and in the worst case scenario they contain chemicals which are poisonous.
Salix alba (white willow) is a medium-sized to large deciduous tree growing up to 10–30 m tall, with a trunk up to 1 m diameter and an irregular, often-leaning crown.
The bark is grey-brown, and deeply fissured in older trees. The shoots in the typical species are grey-brown to green-brown.
The leaves are paler than most other willows, due to a covering of very fine, silky white hairs, in particular on the underside; they are 5–10 cm long and 0.5–1.5 cm wide.
The flowers are produced in catkins in early spring, and pollinated by insects. It is dioecious, with male and female catkins on separate trees; the male catkins are 4–5 cm long, the female catkins 3–4 cm long at pollination, lengthening as the fruit matures. When mature in midsummer, the female catkins comprise numerous small (4 mm) capsules, each containing numerous minute seeds embedded in white down, which aids wind dispersal.
White willows are fast-growing, but relatively short-lived, being susceptible to several diseases, including watermark disease caused by the bacterium Brenneria salicis (named because of the characteristic 'watermark' staining in the wood; syn. Erwinia salicis) and willow anthracnose, caused by the fungus Marssonina salicicola. These diseases can be a serious problem on trees grown for timber, medicine or ornament.
Salix alba 'Caerulea' (cricket-bat willow; syn. Salix alba var. caerulea (Sm.) Sm.; Salix caerulea Sm.) is grown as a specialist timber crop in Britain, mainly for the production of cricket bats, and for other uses where a tough, lightweight wood that does not splinter easily is required. It is distinguished mainly by its growth form, very fast-growing with a single straight stem, and also by its slightly larger leaves (10–11 cm long, 1.5–2 cm wide) with a more blue-green colour. Its origin is unknown; it may be a hybrid between white willow and crack willow, but this is not confirmed.
Salix alba 'Vitellina' (golden willow; syn. Salix alba var. vitellina (L.) Stokes) is a cultivar grown in gardens for its shoots, which are golden-yellow for one to two years before turning brown. It is particularly decorative in winter; the best effect is achieved by coppicing it every two to three years to stimulate the production of longer young shoots with better colour. Other similar cultivars include 'Britzensis', 'Cardinal', and 'Chermesina', selected for even brighter orange-red shoots.
Salix alba 'Sericea' (silver willow) is a cultivar where the white hairs on the leaves are particularly dense, giving it more strongly silvery-white foliage. This cultivar has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.
Salix alba 'Vitellina-Tristis' (golden weeping willow, synonym 'Tristis') is a weeping cultivar with yellow branches that become reddish-orange in winter. It is now rare in cultivation. It is, however, still the best choice in very cold parts of the world, such as Canada, the northern US, and Russia.
The golden hybrid weeping willow (Salix x sepulcralis 'Chrysocoma') is a hybrid between white willow and Peking willow Salix babylonica.
It is unknown whether these hybrids and varieties have the same medicinal properties and activities.
The use of white willow to relieve inflammation and pain goes back to antiquity. It has long been used in Europe and China for the treatment of these conditions. The Assyrians knew of its properties:
…..The ancient Sumerians and Egyptians, as well as Hippocrates, Celsus, Pliny the Elder, Dioscorides and Galen used this natural product [willow] as a remedy for pain, fever and inflammation. In the Middle Ages these remedies were used for fever and rheumatism by Hildegard of Bingen and Henrik Harpestreng. The first "clinical trial" was reported by Edward Stone in 1763 with a successful treatment of malarial fever with willow bark. In 1876 the antirheumatic effect of willow was described by T. MacLagan, and that of salicylic acid by S. Stricker and L. Riess. PMID: 20509453
The Cherokee and other Native Americans used an infusion of the bark for fever and other medicinal purposes. The bark was used as a pain reliever for a variety of ailments. In 2014, archaeologists identified traces of salicylic acid on 7th century pottery fragments found in east central Colorado.
But in the 1800s, we have the start of ‘chemistry’ and one active extract of the bark, called salicin, after the Latin name Salix, was isolated to its crystalline form in 1828 by Henri Leroux, a French pharmacist, and Raffaele Piria, an Italian chemist, who then succeeded in separating out the acid in its pure state.
And from that moment, the race was on to find a drug that could be sold as opposed to willow which was free.
Although a French chemist, Charles Gerhardt, was the first to synthesize aspirin in a crude form, the compound was ignored, and later studied by Felix Hoffmann. He reportedly tested the rediscovered agent on himself and on his father, who suffered from chronic arthritis…. First used for its potent analgesic, antipyretic and anti-inflammatory properties, aspirin was successfully used as an antithrombotic agent. Sir John Vane elucidated aspirin's active mechanism as an inhibitor of prostaglandin synthetase and received the Nobel Price in Medicine for this work in 1982. Two isoform of cyclooxygenase (COX-1 and COX-2) have now been identified, each possessing similar activities, but differing in characteristic tissue expression. The cox enzyme is now a target of drug interventions against the inflammatory process. After two centuries of evaluation, aspirin remains topical, and new therapeutic indications are increasingly being studied. PMID: 10763200
Aspirin is not Willow bark extract or willow leaves.
In the first place acetylsalicylic acid is not the same as Salicyclic acid. Furthermore, the White willow, if we look at Dr Duke’s analysis is a good deal more complex in its make up than just Salicylic acid.
If we compare the eHealthme statistics for Willow bark extract and those for aspirin we could not get a more different picture. We have provided the aspirin figures as an observation under Salicylic acid, but very briefly,
- Willow bark - On Feb, 24, 2016: 0 [zero – nobody] people who reported to have side effects when taking Willow bark extract. Whereas
- Aspirin - On Feb, 24, 2016: 161,407 people reported to have side effects when taking Aspirin. Among them, 3,623 people (2.24%) have Death.
Clearly more people take aspirin than willow bark and also the way aspirin is packaged it is easy to overdose, but the statistics cannot be ignored, Willow bark appears safer. It also has more applications – it is not possible to use aspirin to treat malaria, for example, but the Rev. Stone had great success with it.
Dr Duke's analysis of activity [extract]
There are numerous chemicals in White willow and those chemicals provide a truly amazing set of activities that way exceeds aspirin. Just a small selection according to Dr Duke’s analysis:
Antiaflatoxin IC50=2.57 ppm IC50=25 uM IC50=7.5 ppm IC50=9.52 uM
Antibacterial MIC=>1,000 ug/ml
Anticarcinomic (Breast) IC50=1.5 uM
Anticataract 1 g 3x/day 15 mg/day 30 mg/day 350 mg/day 400 mg/day 400 ug/day
AntiCrohn's 400 mg/man/3x/day 50-100 mg/day/orl/man
AntiCTS 1,000 mg 3x/day
AntiCVI 270 mg/man/day
Antidepressant 2,000 mg/day 200 ug/day
Antidiabetic 10-30 mg/man/day 200-1,000 ug 3-5 mg/day 30 mg/day 400-800 mg/man/day
Antifibromyalgic 200-300 mg 3x/day
Antigallstone 1,000-3,000 mg/day
Antiglaucomic 2 g/day 60 mg/day
Antihepatitic 1 g 3x/day/man 2-6 g/man/day
Antiherpetic 1-5 g/day 20-54 ug/ml 48-150 ug/ml
AntiHIV IC50=143 ug/ml IC72=200 ug/ml
Antilepric 1.5 g/man/day
Antileukemic 1.6 mg/kg ipr mus 20-50 uM 5.5-60 uM IC50=10 uM IC50=25-56 ug/ml IC50=>10 ug/ml
Antilupus 150 mg/man/day/2 mos
AntiLyme 400-1,000 mg 50 mg 50 mg/day 500-2,000 mg
Antimalarial IC50=1-6.4 ug/ml IC50=>100 ug/ml
Antimelanomic 1-50 uM 480 ug/kg
Antimigraine 200 mg/day/man
Antiparkinsonian 1 g 2-3x/day 100 mg/day 200-400 ug/day
Antipolio and Antipoliomyelitic
AntiRaynaud's 1,500-4,000 mg/day 280-350 mg/day 500 mg 1-2x/day
Antistreptococcic ID50=120 ug/ml
Antitinnitic 60-120 mg/day
Antitrypanosomic 100 mg/kg IC50=13
Antitumor 1-50 uM 10 uM 100-200 (-400) ug/man/day
Antitumor (brain) 38-150 ug/kg
Antitumor (Breast) 0.8 mg/kg scu mus 1-50 uM 150 ug/kg diet rat 230 ug/kg orl rat 333.6 ug/day IC45=60 ug/ml
Antitumor (CNS) IC43=45 ug/ml
Antitumor (Lung) 240 ug/kg diet IC30=60 ug/ml
Antitumor (Skin) 20 uM
Antitumor (Stomach) IC26=45 ug/ml
Antiulcer 1 g/5x/day/man/orl 12 mg 3x/day/man/orl 15,000-25,000 IU/day 50 mg/3x/day/man 88 mg/rat/day/15 days
Antiviral 1-5 g/day 20-54 ug/ml 48-150 ug/ml IC50=10 uM
Asthma-preventive 1,000 mg/day/orl
Cancer-Preventive 22 ppm
Diuretic 10 ppm 700 mg/man/orl
Fungicide ED50=2.9-4.6 ug/ml MIC 1,000 ug/ml
HIV-RT-Inhibitor IC50=<1 ug/ml
White willow is, if Dr Duke’s analysis is correct, a sort of wonder plant, able to help with numerous viruses including the flu, herpes and HIV. It also seems capable of combatting some ferocious parasites, is a fungicide and is an antidote to a large number of heavy metals.
Why are we taking aspirin when we could wander into the fields of the fens in the UK and gather Willow of our own – free - and if the above analysis is correct, safer and more effective?
When Dr Stone did his analysis he treated ‘the agues’. The agues in those days was usually either malaria or the flu and his dried powdered willow bark was effective against both.
References and further reading
- Norn, S.; Permin, H.; Kruse, P. R.; Kruse, E. (2009). "[From willow bark to acetylsalicylic acid]". Dansk Medicinhistorisk Årbog (in Danish) 37: 79–98. PMID 20509453.
- Seaman, David R. (19 July 2011). "White Willow Bark: The Oldest New Natural Anti-Inflammatory/Analgesic Agent". The American Chiropractor.
- Hemel, Paul B. and Chiltoskey, Mary U. Cherokee Plants and Their Uses – A 400 Year History, Sylva, NC: Herald Publishing Co. (1975)
- Stone, Edmund (1763). "An Account of the Success of the Bark of the Willow in the Cure of Agues". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 53: 195–200. doi:10.1098/rstl.1763.0033.
- Rev Med Interne. 2000 Mar;21 Suppl 1:8s-17s. [Aspirin throughout the ages: a historical review]. [Article in French] Lévesque H1, Lafont O.
- Meikle, R. D. (1984). Willows and Poplars of Great Britain and Ireland. BSBI Handbook No. 4. ISBN 0-901158-07-0.
- Accumulation and distribution of trivalent chromium and effects on hybrid willow (Salix matsudana Koidz x alba L.) metabolism 020525
- An account of the success of the Bark of the Willow in the Cure of Agues - Rev. Mr. Edmund Stone 1763 020518
- Chemical composition and antibacterial activity of propolis collected by three different races of honeybees in the same region 020527
- Culpepper's Complete Herbal on White Willow 020521
- Dioscorides and De Materia Medica - Willows and Opium 018069
- Dr Duke's list of Chemicals and their Biological Activities in: Salix alba L. (Salicaceae) -- White Willow 020519
- Dr Duke's list of Plants Containing QUERCETIN 021446
- Dr Duke's list of Plants containing SALICYLIC ACID 020467
- Dr Duke's list of Plants containing SELENIUM 020550
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antiglaucomic activity 019952
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antineuralgia activity 019580
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antiosteotic activity 018450
- Efficacy and Safety of White Willow Bark (Salix alba) Extracts 020510
- Fortified extract of red berry, Ginkgo biloba, and white willow bark in experimental early diabetic retinopathy 020529
- Inhibition of proinflammatory biomarkers in THP1 macrophages by polyphenols derived from chamomile, meadowsweet and willow bark 020528
- Mesopotamia - Its technology and culture 03 Healing 022204
- Mrs Grieve on White Willow 020520
- Physiological and proteomic responses of different willow clones (Salix fragilis x alba) exposed to dredged sediment contaminated by heavy metals 020524
- Tanacetum parthenium and Salix alba (Mig-RL) combination in migraine prophylaxis: a prospective, open-label study 020523
- The potential for phytoremediation of iron cyanide complex by willows 020526
- Willow species and aspirin: different mechanism of actions 020511