There are so many types of Willows that you could make it a full time study to learn the many idiosyncrasies specific to each species. They are really difficult to identify as there are significant variations even within a single species. Luckily all Willows can be used for medicine so, although it would be nice to be able to, it is not imperative to identify the exact species in order to use them.
Because of this I will be speaking in generalities and mainly about the Willows found in the Pacific Northwest, and especially Mendocino and Humboldt counties of N. California.
White willows are the best for basket making and medicinal use, however it is getting harder to find them in the wild due to eradication efforts of developers and ranchers over the years. Far more plentiful is the Arroyo Willow, and much of the information in this post comes from the use of this Willow in my own life.
Below is a photo comparison of several common Willows found in the Pacific Northwest, and the photos on the right, lower on the page, show the various uses of this versatile and important survival plant.
Willow is not known as a food source, however it can be used for survival. The inner bark of the willow is edible although you will have leach it, much like acorns, in order to use it. Boil it a few times, until the bitterness is out of the bark, then pulverize it, dry it, and grind into flour. It can then be used in bread or as a mush.
It is high in vitamin C (more than Oranges!), and it is high in calcium, magnesium, zinc and other trace elements so it is actually a great food source, it is just a lot of work for little output and fairly bitter even when leached.
The inner bark can be made into rope, the new shoots for baskets and the older stronger stakes for the structure of a home, fences, chairs, and just about anything you can conceive of. It can be used as thatch for roofing a home, to build chairs and as medicine. There are so many uses for this plant, all you need to do is imagine! Garden fences, arbors, animal containment…the list goes on.
Willow makes is a fabulous permaculture remedy for sliding hillsides. Terraces can be made by sticking freshly cut stakes into the ground, weaving walls with more willow stakes and then letting them all grow (there is a picture of these techniques on the right). It can also be used to create a corral to hold animals in.
For baskets, the stems can be split for coiled baskets or for the weft in twined baskets. They can also be used unsplit as the warp in twined baskets. You can use the stems as they are or peel them for a two tone effect, or use a variety of willows for color differences. More on Basketmaking in another post, soon to come!
The wood from the outer bark can be used as firestarter, this is also true of the fluff from the pussy willow.
Willow contains a natural rooting hormone for growing other plants. Root new plants by placing them in Willow water. Watering seedlings with willow tea helps them build a resistance to disease and insects, the salicylic acid in Willow helps a plant’s natural defense.
Caution: Willow should not be used when someone is on anticoagulants
The bark and small branches hold the most potent part of the plant, and is best to harvest in the spring when the plant is growing fast. It can however be harvested in the fall as well.
All Willows contain salicylic acid, which is the active component in aspirin, however some contain higher amounts than others. White Willow contains the most and therefore is the best for medicinal use, however all Willows will do the job. Willow works quite well for reducing pain. The Arroyo Willow is the most commonly found along streams. It is an erect, branching shrub with smooth bark and yellowish to dark brown twigs. It blooms from February to April or May.
All parts of the Willow are useful, however the inner bark is the most medicinal part of the plant. You can use the leaves too, as tea or nibble on them for immediate relief from a headache or other type of pain.
A tea from the inner bark is a simple way to utilize the aspirin effect of willows, however take caution as drinking too much can give you a tummy ache. The leaves and tea are a bit bitter but that is probably a good thing so you don’t drink or eat too much!
Willows help mainly with pain relief. From headaches to fever, colds and chills, to muscular aches and pains, reducing inflammation, anything you’d use aspirin for. It is also useful for itchy skin (topically) and as a tea to relieve diarrhea. It’s even been used for the pain of childbirth, however I’ve known it to be a bit too bitter for laboring women, and throwing it up is often the result.
Willows are thought to protect you spiritually and guide you in your travels. Many native tribes carry Willow in their medicine bundles.