(Salix alba L.)
White willow, in Polish nomenclature also known as ‘silver willow’, ‘common willow’ or ‘wierzbina’, meaning willow thickets, originates from the family Salicaceae. It grows along roads, rivers and bodies of standing water. It can be found in the area of Central and Southern Europe, northern Africa, western Asia, and even North America.
White willow is one of 30 willow species growing in Poland.
A willow is a tree growing up to 25 metres in height. Willow bark is brown or yellowish-grey, while young willow twigs, hanging down to the ground, are olive or olive-brown. It has lanceolate leaves with serrated margins, with hairs on the undersides and hairs thinning on top. The name ‘white willow’ derives exactly from the thick, whitish trichomes – thick, tangled hairs on the surface of young leaves.
White willow bark, twigs and leaves used to be extremely precious herbal raw materials in folk medicine.
The best time to harvest willow twigs is the period from March to July, and the bark is obtained from two- to three-year-old twigs cut in the spring, before the leaves and flowers, forming catkins, develop. The bark harvested should be in the form of tubules, which are then dried in drying rooms with good air circulation, or in the sun. Willow leaves are harvested in June and July.
In traditional folk medicine, willow was used to fight fever and other problems described as ‘hot’ conditions of the body. Leaves, twigs and bark were used in such cases. Fresh willow leaves were put on the forehead of a headache sufferer, and to good effect at that. Willow bark was formerly also used to treat rheumatism.
In modern times, the bark of white willow, which contains a variety of active substances supporting the body, is the only willow bark used for therapeutic purposes.
Willow bark contains phenolic glycosides (mainly salicin and its derivatives), tannins, essential oil, minerals, acids (including salicylic acid) and flavonoids. Phenolic glycosides (mainly salicin) are converted into salicylic acid (popularly known as aspirin) in the acidic environment of the stomach.
Willow bark is a herbal aspirin.
Due to their composition and properties, willow bark products are referred to as a ‘herbal aspirin’.
Salicylic acid contained in willow has anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, analgesic and anti-rheumatic effects. Therefore, in modern therapies, willow bark is used primarily to treat rheumatic diseases, intestinal catarrh and gastrointestinal diseases, neuralgia, states of nervous agitation, and disorders associated with elevated body temperature. Willow is also a diuretic as it facilitates the removal of waste products from the body and promotes the washing out of sand and small stones from the urinary tract. Externally, it is applied as a compress to wounds and ulcers and added to baths to treat excessive sweating.
Willow extract demonstrates a range of cosmetic properties.
Willow bark extracts are very widely used in cosmetics. Thanks to the content of valuable components (mainly salicylic acid), they moisturise and smooth the skin, thereby improving its condition. They also tone down and sooth skin irritation. Thanks to their cleansing properties, products containing white willow extract are effective in the care of oily and acne skin. The rejuvenating, moisturising and smoothing effects are further enhanced by phenolic acids (including caffeic acid) contained in the extracts. Willow bark products can be used as hair rinses for oily dandruff and as compresses applied to the skin affected by bacterial and viral problems, and seborrhoea.
What was the relationship between white willow and the rise of the pharmaceutical industry?
Already in ancient times, Egyptians and Greeks appreciated the healing properties of willow. But it was only in the nineteenth century that French scientist Leroux isolated what he called ‘salicin’ from willow – it was salicylic acid. In 1859, the substance was manufactured in synthetic form, and at the end of the century (in 1897), its less irritating derivative, of a more pleasant taste, was obtained – salicylic acid, since that time manufactured and sold under the name ‘aspirin’! That was how the pharmaceutical industry in the world all began.