Sometimes at this time of year when our grey cold days stack end to end, it is easy to forget that spring will indeed arrive. It is at these times we often need an extra reminder from a wise elder, of the magnitude to which we are guided. Such a day arrived here not too long ago and with the wisdom of Grandmother Willow (or perhaps one of her many granddaughters) which completely changed my perspective.
Here in Washington State we had been enduring a marathon rain. With each day’s downpour more of my energy seemed to wash away with it. Finally, the days dried out and the pull to get outside was met with a short walk to the willow patch, whose brilliant yellow branches glowed so brightly it was like the sun itself. It gave me pause to stop and reflect on the many gifts of willow and realize this plant, which grows literally everywhere, is one which everyone should know. It is one of our foundation medicinal plants as well as a versatile utilitarian one. Each spring I harvest hundreds of willow withy to dry and weave into strong baskets. They become my stakes for garden plots, fencing for berry beds and we have even planted them for living willow structures. We split and skin the willow for fine twined baskets and lashings and peel the bark into long strips for strong cordage.
Some of the nicest bark, however, always gets carefully peeled, and set in a shaded place to dry, as this lovely bark is one of our most useful medicines. No other plant used for healing purposes has a longer recorded history nor wider use in the world than White Willow.
Willow appears frequently in prescriptions on the 4,000-year-old Sumerian tablet from Egypt (16th Century BCE). About 2,400 years ago, Hippocrates, the Father of Modern Medicine, prescribed hundreds of natural medicines from the plant kingdom. Among the plants he used frequently was white willow bark for pain and fever. It is this same willow that thousands of years later would be the inspiration for a German alchemist to create a drug to help his arthritic father. This new product was named aspirin. While now commercially available, it is important for us to remember the earth connection and be reminded that the earth still continues to provide for our many needs.
While white willow (Salix alba), red willow, and western willow have the most recorded uses by native tribes in North America, all willows (Salix spp.) have the aspirin-like compound salicylic acid. Simply by simmering the bark in water, a tea can be made to effectively reduce fevers, reduce pain, and reduce inflammation. This makes it effective for treatment of arthritis and rheumatism, sprains, strains, fever from influenza and malaria, headaches, muscle cramps – including menstrual cramps, as well as general aches and pains. While willow tea is bitter, remember that bitters have many beneficial qualities such as helping to promote digestion.
Willow is a plant that has so much to offer, yet I was reminded of one additional gift one day while weaving a large basket using stout willow weavers. As I started working up the sides of my basket, my hands began to ache so badly I was sure I would have to stop soon. However, after pushing through another couple of rounds I noticed the pain had almost vanished. It was then I realized how tremendous the gift of willow was. The “aspirin” in the willow I was weaving had worked through my hands, enabling me to finish my weaving Gift indeed!
Life in balance was the big reminder here. While we are given challenges, the earth also offers us the solutions, just as willow lends strength to our baskets and our hands, it also offers respite from the pain it begets. These miracles are all around us. Take the time to listen to what the plants have to teach and always expect a miracle!