In Chippewa, ozi’sigo’bimle, willow is an edible, medicinal and heavily utilized plant. Its powerful component salicin was synthesized to make the well known OTC medicine Aspirin. “Sal lis” means “near water”. And our many Haliburton waters are surrounded by salix!
The marshes I visit for birding and herping are filled with a wide variety of willow. In the Haliburton Flora survey the following were observed: Beaked (salix bebbiana), pussy willow (salix discolor), stiff (salix eriocephala), crack (salix fragilis), upland (salix humilis), shining (salix lucida), slender (salix petiolaris), flat-leaved (salix planifolia), and balsam (salix pyrifolia). Like serviceberries, willows can be difficult to specifically ID. With some familiarity, they do have a look to them that makes them stand out altogether.
Pictured are a couple different willows:
Edible Uses of Willow
The young leaves, buds, young shoots and inner bark of willows are bitter edibles. A few species are sweeter tasting with young shoots that have a watermelon or cucumber taste.
The young leaves are your best bet for edibility and can even be preserved by canning or drying. They are edible raw or cooked.
The inner bark can be dried and ground to be included in flour mixes.
Willow catkins cooked to form a mash have been a survival food at times. I think I’ll leave those for the bees!
High in vitamin C.
Medicinal Uses of Willow
Willow is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Analgesic, Anti-inflammatory, Antiseptic, Astringent, Diaphoretic, and Febrifuge. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes willow bark for pain, inflammation and fever. The main source of the relief being the component salicin – willow bark sap is rich in salicin. Scientists started the process of making synthetic versions in the 1850s and the end result became the product Aspirin. Willow bark is less potent than Aspirin, but with less side effects too: no impact on blood platelet function and easier on the tummy. A cup of water simmered with 1-2 tsp of willow bark for 10 minutes and taken 3 times a day is a typical regime. (An alternative to salicin for pain relief is red osier dogwood.)
It’s also used for skin issues, like ashes from burnt willow applied to corns, calluses and even pimples. But wait, there’s more! The book The Green Pharmacy has willow listed for anti-aging, preventing heart disease and stroke, tinnitus, Alzheimer’s, angina, arthritis, backache, bunions, bursitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, colds, corns, earache, fever, gout, hangover, headache, pain, sciatica, tendinitis, toothache, warts, and primarily white willow for pain relief. Phew!
Alternative Uses of Osier
Willow’s flexible branches have many uses, most famed perhaps being willow basketry and wicker furniture. Practically every wood and fiber usage is in play, from ropes to use of the bark for leather tanning. Burnt, the wood makes great charcoal for artists pencils.
You can obtain a black dye from the roots and a dark orange dye from the bark.
All of Haliburton’s local native willow species transplant easily and root fast – it has its own rooting compound. Due to this ease of propagating, willow is popular for making living sculptures. The seeds themselves are short lived.
Willow should be planted at least 50 feet from any underground water, gas, sewage, or electrical lines.
Willow is high in tannins, so consume in moderation.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.