White Willow is a tree that is indigenous to central and southern Europe. Willows are now found in temperate wetlands and humid environments throughout the world. They can grow up to 80 feet, have long, narrow, blue-green matte leaves, and rough, grayish bark. The male flowers are yellow, while the female flowers are green. This tree’s name originated from the appearance of the leaves, which are covered with fine white hairs.
The bark of the white willow has been used medicinally since at least 500 B.C. The ancient Romans considered the bark good for fighting fevers. Medical records from the ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, and Egyptians discuss the use of willow in treating inflammatory rheumatic pain. Hippocrates recommended chewing on willow bark to increase the flow of urine. And at least 15 Native American tribes used various parts of the willow tree for pain relief.
In the late 1750s, Edmund Stone, a minister in Oxfordshire, England, found that fevers were common in the same low, swampy, moist areas where willow trees grew. As was popular belief at that time, Stone felt that the plants that grew in areas where a particular disease or illness was prevalent had the ability to cure that same illness. Stone went to work testing this theory by giving the dried, powdered bark of the white willow to those suffering from symptoms such as fever and chills. In 1763, after more than a decade of study, Stone wrote a letter to the president of the Royal Society stating that white willow bark was an effective treatment for fevers.
In the late 1820s, European chemists first isolated salicin from white willow bark. They believed this to be the active ingredient. In 1832, the French chemist Charles Gergardt created salicylic acid from salicin. However, the process was difficult and time-consuming. Gergardt decided the process was not worth the effort and put the project aside.
In 1897, the German chemist Felix Hoffmann was searching for a way to relieve his father’s arthritis pain. He studied Gerdhardt’s experiments and, from Gergardt’s salicylic acid, eventually produced a stable form of acetylsalicylic acid. This would soon come to be known as aspirin.
The Bayer Company worked with acetylsalicylic acid, and, in 1899, distributed the first Bayer Aspirin powder to physicians to give to their patients. Stamped tablets soon replaced the powders in order to prevent contamination of the product.
White willow bark is naturally buffered and acts gently, working along with its other chemical components. Unlike aspirin, white willow bark does not normally upset or irritate the stomach. This is likely because white willow contains tannins, which help to reduce inflammation in the digestive system. White willow bark also has anti-inflammatory, anti-fever, and mild analgesic properties. As a preventative for heart attacks, white willow bark is believed to work in the same way as aspirin.
In Europe, white willow bark is commonly used for conditions that those in the U.S. use aspirin or acetaminophen to treat. German Commission E, which is the group of experts that advise the German government about herbs, endorses white willow bark as an effective pain reliever for conditions such as headaches and arthritis. Commission E authorizes the use of white willow bark for any disorder that would be treated by willow’s pharmaceutical derivative, aspirin.
A German study on the effectiveness of white willow bark in treating people with osteoarthritis found that the white willow bark patients’ pain scores were reduced by 14 percent, compared to just 2 percent in the placebo group.
A study published in the American Journal of Medicine compared salicin use against a placebo in a group of patients with lower back pain. At the end of the fourth week, researchers found that 39 percent of the group taking 240 mg of salicin was pain-free for at least 5 days, compared to 21 percent of the group taking 120 mg of salicin, and 6 percent of the placebo group.
Anyone who is allergic or sensitive to aspirin should not use white willow bark unless instructed to do so by his or her physician.
White willow bark, as well as aspirin, should not be given to children with viral infections, due to the risk of developing Reye’s syndrome.