We had a snowstorm this week. Yes, you read that right: several inches of heavy, wet snow fell onto trees and flowers that were in full-bloom the day before. This resulted in tree branch carnage all over our neighborhood.
Luckily for me, my backyard neighbor has a white willow tree that leans over our fence. Several large branches fell right onto my grass. Being an opportunistic sort of girl, I grabbed a knife and went to cut some fresh willow bark.
Before we begin, let me give a quick re-cap on white willow and its uses. (Please feel free to skip ahead if you just want to know how to cut the dang bark).
The bark of all willow trees contains varying degrees of an active constituent called salicin, which is the precursor to salicylic acid. This is a compound that acts as an anti-inflammatory and is the active ingredient in modern aspirin. In fact, the very first medicinal aspirin was derived from the white willow, or Salix alba. (Modern aspirin is synthesized in the lab.)
Salix alba, is a species of willow that is particularly high in salicin. It is easily recognizable in the spring by its young branches, which turn bright yellow and green. Like other willows, it also features small yellow “catkins,” which are its flowers and look like little caterpillars. The white willow is so-called because the underside of the leaves is a silvery white when compared with the green surface.
Although white willow has the highest concentration of the pain-relieving salicylic acid, all willows contain the compound, which is why they are all in the family salicaceae (where the word salicin comes from). In Colorado, we have white willows, sandbar willows, weeping willows, peachleaf willows, Pacific willows, and various hybrids. All contain the healing compound and can be used as medicine.
Willow bark has been used in various forms for centuries to relieve pain. It can be drunk as a tea, steeped in tincture, or even chewed; although, I wouldn’t recommend that last tactic unless you are particularly desperate. The bark has the characteristic bitterness of an aspirin pill left too long on the tongue.
I personally prefer it in tincture form, and have found it immensely helpful for low back pain and stomach pain. If you would like a little more information on white willow trees and how to use the bark to make a tincture, you can refer to my previous blog entry: Review of White Willow for Back Pain: it’s the Tortoise, Not the Hare
Now on to the task at hand: stripping willow bark. Spring time is typically the best time to do this. I would especially recommend waiting until this time if you are new to foraging for herbal medicine. This is because the tree is much more easily recognized in springtime due to those bright yellow branches and the white underside of its leaves. It is also much easier to separate the inner bark from the outer bark in springtime.
I have only ever stripped bark from fallen branches. In this way, I can be sure I am not harming a standing tree (or myself by trying to climb a tree with a pocket knife). However, if you have a tree that belongs to you, you can certainly take from the attached branches. Just do so in a responsible and very as-needed manner that protects you and the tree.
There are two layers of bark: an outer layer, which is the one we can see that is rough and brownish gray, and an inner layer, which is smooth and pale yellow. The inner bark is what we want.
To strip the bark, I prefer a branch that is at least as wide in diameter as my index finger. Any smaller, and it is very difficult to peel out the inner bark. Start by snapping off a manageable length of branch, as straight as possible. Then, using a sharp pocket knife or razor, cut a single line down the length of the branch, from top to bottom. Don’t worry, you will not be able to cut “too deep.” You will reach the hardwood underneath both layers of bark and be unable to penetrate any further. Its usually only a few millimeters deep.
Once you have your single line spanning the length of your branch, see if you can peel back a portion of it. You have effectively made two “flaps,” which should pull back fairly easily. Once you have started to peel, you may even be able to strip the entire branch in one go. You will be surprised how easily it comes off.
If you are having trouble getting that initial “peel,” you can cut a round line above the vertical line you have just made to give yourself more leverage.
Once you have a good peel of bark, it is time to separate the smooth inner bark from the rough outer bark. This can be a little tricky, especially this late in the spring. But it can be done! The most efficient way I found is to bend the bark in half and try to create a small tear that you can then grab and peel away from the outside. Its very much like removing the paper from the back of a piece of Velcro.
You will be left with a pile of lovely, fresh bark…which you will then want to dry. Lay it out on a flat surface to do this. You can certainly make a tea with the fresh bark or even tincture it right away, but I prefer to remove any water content before trying to preserve it. It reduces the risk of spoilage.
Have you ever taken willow bark for pain? How did it work for you?