A couple years ago, I picked some small willow branches (more like twigs) and leaves when a family member was battling a persistent fever. I knew willow bark contained the compound from which aspirin was derived, so I brewed a tea with what I’d gathered.
I gave it, along with a host of other herbs and medicines, to the patient. Since it wasn’t taken alone, I couldn’t tell if it helped at all.
I dried what I hadn’t used and put it in a jar in my pantry. A couple months ago I had the opportunity to try it again, this time on myself.
Twisting my torso to reach for a tote bag in the car (after a workout at the gym), I pulled a back muscle and ended up bedridden in terrible pain for a couple days.
Although I really wanted to start popping ibuprofen, I was cautious because in the past it had exacerbated some stomach issues.
Instead, I turned to herbs, which I hoped would act more gently on my digestive system. A family member brewed me a cup of willow twig tea. It had a slightly bitter flavor, although not as bad as I expected, and at that point I would have drank mud if I thought it would relieve some of the pain.
The willow tea did alleviate some of the discomfort — as much as I would have expected had I taken an over-the-counter pain killer.
Other herbs helped, too — specifically a few with antispasmodic properties such as black haw, and a blend my sister sent.
These herbs, rest and a heating pad put me back on my feet in a few days. Once I was still in pain but able to move around, the antispasmodic herbs helped me heal. Within minutes of taking the blended tincture, my pain subsided or disappeared for hours or even most of the day.
Having learned from this experience, I plan to harvest more willow twigs and other herbs this spring.
Willow can be harsh on the stomach, like its pharmaceutical counterparts, but it seemed to be OK for me at the dosage I used.
This experience also left me curious about aspirin, so I looked up the history. According to the National Aspirin Foundation, documentation of the use of plants containing salicylic acid (the natural substance giving willow pain killing and fever relieving properties) dates back at least to 2500 BCE.
The website describes clay tablets from the Assyrians in the Sumerian period (around 4,000 years ago), and texts from the ancient Egyptians and Chinese, from Hippocrates and other ancient medical sources, recommending the use of willow. Folk medicine from around the world also incorporates use of willow bark.
Apparently, in the mid-1800s, scientists worked on purifying the salicylic acid found in various plants and eventually established its chemical structure.
In the late 1800s, Dr. Felix Hoffman (supported by several other scientists), a chemist working for the German Bayer and Co, managed to synthesize the substance into a pure and stable form. This was the first time a drug was made synthetically. Patented in 1899 by Bayer, the manufacture of synthetic salicylic acid, known as aspirin, marks the beginning of the pharmaceutical industry.
My understanding is that Hoffman used meadowsweet, rather than willow, in his work creating aspirin.
Although I’m grateful for modern medicine, I like having the originals in my medicine cabinet as well.
ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email firstname.lastname@example.org