Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is the confusing but highly useful Salix genus. Those of us who aren’t plant nerds know them as willows. There are dozens of species and subspecies in the genus native to Georgia, many of them are nearly identical, and all are capable of hybridizing with one another. For this reason, positively identifying willow species is a nightmare even for professional botanists and taxonomists. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter. They all have similar characteristics, none are deadly, and they are all useful. Willows can be identified by their slender, lanceolate leaves and fissured, peeling bark which can range from reddish to nearly black. The one in the picture is most likely a Black Willow, Salix nigra. Willows love water. They will always be found on riverbanks, lakesides, in swamps, and in creek bottoms. Willow wood is very springy and pliable, although not very strong. It is best used as withies, woven into baskets, and used as fishing poles.
However, the best use of willows is medicinal. Cultures all over the world, from the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians to native tribes throughout North America and Siberia, have all used willow bark as a pain reliever and fever reducer. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates even wrote about it in the 5th century BC. Their inner bark contains the compound salicin, which is metabolized as salicylic acid. If that chemical sounds familiar, it should. It was isolated and synthesized by German chemist Felix Hoffman in 1897. His employer, Bayer AG, decided it was worthwhile to manufacture commercially and was given the trade name Aspirin.
The willow bark tea we make at SARCRAFT has approximately the amount of salicylic acid as a Goody’s powder, or about 500 mg. per 1-quart bush pot. It works every bit as well, too. Actually, it works a little bit faster, since it’s in liquid form and easier to metabolize. It is excellent for treating fevers, getting rid of headaches, and calming sore muscles. In a true wilderness medicine situation, it could be used to treat acute heart issues such as angina just as effectively as an aspirin tablet. It also works as an acne treatment (salicylic acid is the active ingredient in most acne products). Washing your face with it does wonders for clearing up your skin.
If you want to learn more about how to make willow bark tea and other natural remedies that really do work, come to our plant medicine-focused Sunday Afternoon Bushcraft on 9/10!