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White Willow and The Origins of Aspirin

The white willow (Salix alba) is a prominent member of the willow genus (Salix). All willow trees have an interesting and well-documented history of medicinal use. But as white willow grows quickly, it became a popular species to be cultivated for its medicinal potential.

What Are The Active Compounds in White Willow?

White willow bark contains a glucoside called salicin. This active compound can also be found in poplars and aspen, but it was first identified in willow trees.

What is the Medicinal Potential of White Willow?

The medicinal potential of white willow was officially documented by a cleric known as Edward Stone. However, historical records from around the world, dating back to the bronze age, contain medicinal recipes that used willow.

The blue round sign reads: "OXFORDSHIRE BLUE PLAQUES BOARD. The Revd, EDWARD STONE, 1702-1768. Discovered the active ingredient in Aspirin whilst living near here from 1745-1768. THE CHIPPING NORTON SOCIETY.".
Blue Plaque in the village of Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, England that commemorates Edward Stone | Photo by Spudgun67 on Wikimedia Commons

In 1853 the salicin found in white willows was experimented on by a French chemist called Charles Gerhardt. Eventually, he synthesized the drug we now know today as aspirin. His process was refined by chemist Felix Hoffmann, a researcher for the German pharmaceutical manufacturer Bayer.

Like aspirin, salicin has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. It was historically used to treat fevers and ease pain. Today, people drink white willow teas and take supplements to treat backaches, headaches, muscle aches, and even arthritis.

An old brown Aspirin box with a paper label with german text and Bayer branding.
Old Package of Aspirin from Bayer pharmaceuticals | Photo by Nikolay Komarov on Wikimedia Commons

Can White Willow Be Poisonous?

Like most drugs, side effects can occur. Some people may be allergic to salicin or in rare cases, you may experience mild side effects like nausea or even breathing issues. If too much willow bark is consumed, it can damage the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract. Just like aspirin, salicin shouldn’t be consumed if you suffer from asthma, any intestinal issues, or by pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Cultural Symbolism of White Willow

Throughout history, white willow has been used by humans in a variety of ways. The wood has often been used to create cricket bats. And the long length and pliable nature of the stems made it a popular choice in basket weaving.

A single row of coppiced white willow trees that stands out in a garden with snow covered ground.
Coppiced white willow | Photo by Sten Porse on Wikimedia Commons

The age-old traditions of coppicing, pollarding, and basket weaving were popular in areas like the Poitevin marsh in France where willows thrived in the water-logged soils. These skills are still practiced today, particularly in Somerset and East Anglia in the UK where people can attend basket weaving courses.

Because of its medicinal potential, the white willow tree is often associated with healing, but in literature, it also has links to romanticism and mourning.

What Does White Willow Look Like?

White willow is the largest willow species, often reaching heights of over 20 meters. The crown of the tree tends to be irregular, allowing smaller branches to gracefully droop downwards.

The flowers are known as catkins and will release fluffy seed heads that can be seen floating in the air on a warm, breezy summer’s day. The leaves are finely-haired, pointed, and very narrow. On their underside, the leaves are very pale, which helped to give the species name Salix alba — with ‘alba’, meaning ‘white’ in Latin.

A close up of yellow/green, white willow catkins against a blue sky.
White Willow (Salix alba) | Photo by Willow on Wikimedia Commons

Where Does White Willow Grow?

Like most willows, the white willow favors very moist soil, and will often be found growing beside lakes, ponds and rivers, and around marshes.

It’s native to Europe and parts of Asia, but because of its medicinal and ornamental value, it was grown in countries like the US and has since been naturalized in the wild.

The tree has no leaves and you can see the long drooping stems. It's sunrise or sunset and the sky is in shades of pastel purple, blue, pink and yellow, and the ground is covered in snow.
A solitary white willow growing next to a pond | Photo by Hans-Jürgen Neubert on Wikimedia Commons

Conclusion

The white willow is a handsome tree species. It tends to produce leaves in early spring, and holds them until late fall, making it a popular choice in gardens. However, its greatest impact has been in the world of medicine. It can be used as a natural medicine and bought in health and wellbeing stores, or appreciated for its origins in the development of aspirin.

Featured Image | Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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