Willow trees are one of the most commonly used landscape trees, and are also common in the wild environment too. Willows are members of the Poplar family (Salicaceae) which is composed of poplars, cottonwoods, aspens and willows. The genus of willows, called Salix, is very broad and is one of the largest families of trees in the world. Most willows are shrubs, but some grow into trees.
In southern Ontario, we have many different native species, only two of which commonly reach tree size. Those are the Black Willow (Salix nigra) and the Peachleaf Willow (Salix amygdaloides) All the other willows are shrubs, and are netoriously difficult to identify. Few scientists can accuratelty identiffy willows, mainly because they are very similar to each other, highly variable and form hybrids all the time.
However, willows of all types all share some general characteristics. Mainly the slender, lance shaped leaves with finely serated edges and their generally favored aquatic habitats. Willows also have an incredible practical use, few people of which know what it is. If you keep on reading, you will be one of the few that does know!
The thin layer bark that is found on year old willow twigs has long been used traditionally by the Native Americans as a pain killer. In the bark, there is a chemical called salicin, and this compound is also known as acetylsalicylic acid. Incredibly, acetylsalicylic acid is very similar to asprin, which is commonly used as a pain reliever. Willow bark, when steeped into a warm tea, can be used in the same way! When brewed properly, willow bark tea can be effective means of treating headaches and pain (particuarily lower back pain, osteoarthritis and various inflamintory conditions. These uses have been tested by science, and proven to be even more effective then commercial aspirin!
Willow bark is also believed to have positive effets towards relieving menstrual cramps, lowering high fevers and helping manage flu like symptoms. However, the usefulness of willow bark tea towards these conditions is unceratin and has varying effects on different individuals. Still worth a shot though! Although different willow trees or shrubs have different levels of salicin in them, all species of willows can be used for this same purose. As long as you have willow bark, this tea will be effective!
So, I suppose that now you want to actually brew some of this tea? Well hold your horses, you need to get the twigs first! As most people know, willows favor sunny, wet environments in swamps, floodplains, lakesides and river edges. They often grow in dense colonial patches, which makes harvesting easy. Once you have identified some willow trees or shrubs, just look for the healthy, flexible slender twigs on the ends of branches. Make sure the twigs are alive when you harvest them, for only live ones will work! If the insides of the twigs are green and wet, and the twigs are bendy and do not snap easily when you bend them slightly, you are good to go. As with harvesting all wild edibles and medicinals, use discretion! Please do not over harvest! A loose handful of twigs will be enough for several cups.
Once you harvest the twigs, you have two choices. You can leave the twigs in a dry, sunny location for the thin bark to dry on them, or you can peal the bark off right away. I recommend pealing the bark off the twigs within 24 hours of harvesting them, so the bark is still stretchy and more flexible. This allows you to remove the bark from the twigs easier, for they to not break when they are fleshy and still have water in them.
In order to remove the bark, you must remove it by hand and this can be a bit tedious. A vegetable skin pealer works wonderfully. Just strip the bark (the buds sometimes come off with the bark, but these can be left on) from the twig, trying to avoid taking too much of the pith and woody part of the twig off with the thin bark. If you get too much of the pith in with your mixture of willow bark, it can make the tea bitter and distasteful.
Once you have scraped all of the willow bark from the twigs, it is now time to cut them in small peices and let them dry. You may have noticed that getting the bark off the smallest parts of the twigs was difficult. You can just cut up the ends of the twigs (including the pith) into small chunks instead of trying to peal the bark off, it is all good. Once you have removed all of the bark from the twigs, they can be thrown in your composer or your garden to decompose. Using scissors or kitchen shears, chop up the collection of bark strips that you have now collected as fine as you can get it. Do not turn it into a powder like consistancy, but the smaller the pieces of bark you end up with, the faster they will dry and the more flavour will steep out of them.
To let the bark bits dry, place them on a plate or a bowl and set them by a windowsill where they will be dry and get lots of sun. Leave them there to dry for at least 2 or 3 days before you use them. After they are dry, they should crack but not split when you crush them between your fingertips. The strong fibers in the bark prevent them from splitting even after they are dead and dry. When dry enough, the bark will last for months in good condition, as long as they are kept in a dark, cool environment, like a cubby or drawer.
In order to be well, you must steep the tea well! Here is the best recipe that I have tred with willow bark, and I have had great success with this combination:
1. Place 1 or 2 teaspoons of willow bark bits per cup of water in a pot.
2. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, being careful not to boil it, but gently simmer it.
3. Remove the brew from the heat, and let it sit and steep for half an hour.
If you are drinking the tea in order to help with pain, generally 3 or 4 cups daily will be suffficient. Each person reacts different for certain levels of salicin in their body, so with practice you will learn how much you need! It is best not to exceed 4 cups a day, for this can be harmful. The tea has an exceptionally pleasant earthy flavour and aroma, but is unique in its own ways as well. It may be slightly bitter depending on the species of willow and the condition of the bark used, but this can easily be solved by adding some sugar or honey to counteract it with sweetness. I personally love to mix willow bark with Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) needles, Eastern White Cedar (thuja occidentalis)needles, or Wild Raspberry (Rubus strigosus) leaves to the steeping tea to enhance the flavour!
Some individuals experience side effects from drinking willow bark tea, but these are very mild and are often felt due to over consumption or improper brewing methods. The most common side effect is stomach upset, but this rarely leads to complications such as ulcers and stomach bleeding. Effects from having too much willow bark tea include skin rash, stomach inflammation or irritation, nausea, vomiting, kidney inflammation, and tinnitus (which is a ringing sound inside your ears)
The flavour and comfort of willow bark tea has been used for thousands of years, and there is no reason to let this grand and noble tea fall victim to history! The continued use of willow bark tea as a medicinal or recreational tea is an honorable deed in its own, connecting us with the world that we continue to drift so far from as we as human beings become more and more modern. Never ever forget your roots, and exploring the world of wild edibles and medicinals offered by my environment is one of the ways I connect with the natural world, not just physically but also spiritually. I hope you find as much pleasure in consuming this incredible tea as I do. Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!