White willow bark (Salix alba) is an effective herbal pain reliever. It is one of the 50 herbal ingredients included in the Materia Medica section of my book, which I believe are most important to preppers to have in their storage.
White willow has been called “Herbal Aspirin” or “Nature’s Aspirin” due to its salicin content. Salicin is metabolized by our bodies into salicylic acid. This is the natural chemical which the primary ingredient in commercial aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, is synthesized to mimic. White willow has a very similar effect as commercial aspirin, relieving general pain, headaches, inflammation, and reduce fever (never give to a child with a fever). However, there are some major differences that are important to note.
Calling white willow “nature’s aspirin” almost implies that nature is copying our technology, when it’s actually the other way around. And, naturally, Mother Nature does a better job. White willow, and other herbs containing salicin (such as meadowsweet), have a very similar effects as aspirin. The interesting part is that white willow actually contains very little salicin. The amount of acetylsalicylic acid in aspirin far exceeds the amount of salicin (converted to salicylic acid in the body) in white willow.
How is it, then, that white willow has such a similar effect? One would think that if there is a low amount of salicin, there would also be only the mildest of relief. Certainly there wouldn’t be relief at the same level with less of the “active ingredient”. This is a major way that pharmaceuticals and herbals differ. White willow is a synergistic remedy. It is many chemicals in combination, the combination resulting in a sum which is greater than its individual parts. This isn’t a “single active ingredient” medicine. What this also means is that some of the risks associated with aspirin are generally less of a concern with white willow bark, if at all.
Side Effects: Aspirin vs. White Willow
One of those side effects is stomach irritation and damage to the stomach lining. Aspirin always irritates my stomach. White willow never has. Obviously, everyone is different, and it may be irritating to certain people’s stomachs. But, even in working with others, I have only had one person claim that white willow irritated their stomach. Upon further conversation, we figured out it was the alcohol used to make the tincture that was causing the stomach upset. She tried filing a capsule with tincture, and that worked. Grain alcohol can be very tough on people, so the capsule trick might work (the capsule will dissolve if you let it sit for too long, so be sure to fill capsules on an as-needed basis only. Clinical studies have shown, that white willow does not thin the blood the way aspirin does.
How to Make White Willow Bark Tincture
White willow tincture is something I would absolutely insist on including in your herbal first aid kit. It would be ideal if you had a white willow back nearby that you were sure of the species and wildcrafted the inner bark yourself. Otherwise, you will need to order your plant material. You can use either the Simpler’s Method, which is to fill a jar with your plant material, and then macerate it with alcohol, usually vodka.
You can also be a bit more precise by using a ratio of:
A ratio 1:5 = 1 ounce of white willow bark by weight to 5 ounces of menstruum by volume
You can use any alcohol that is 50% or close to it, such as:
- 100 proof (50%) vodka
- Grain alcohol watered down to 50% alcohol
- 100 proof brandy
Whichever method you choose is fine. They both work. Steep your inner bark in your alcohol menstruum, and allow it to steep for 4-6 weeks. You could begin to siphon some off the top after 2 weeks if it were necessary, but do try to leave it sit for 4 weeks, with 6 being even better.
There are still certain precautions that I would keep. Never give white willow or any other plant which contains salicin to a child with a fever. The risk of Reye’s Syndrome is not something to mess around with. However, as long as there is no fever, white willow is safe as a pain reliever for children. There is no evidence that white willow will cause Reye’s Syndrome, but I sure don’t want to be the person to find out conclusively that it does.