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The Black Willow Tree
One of the most common willow species in North America, Salix nigra grows throughout the eastern half of the United States and Canada. Known as the black willow tree, as well as the swamp willow, this small picturesque tree is often found growing alongside water or in meadows. It usually reaches heights between thirty and fifty feet, although it can grow to be as tall as one hundred forty feet, and four feet in diameter. It is characterized and named after its deep reddish-brown or grayish-brown bark.
Not only is this tree used for the medicinal properties of black willow bark, but also as a uniquely flexible wood source. It is often commercially grown for wicker furniture and baskets, as well as wooden barrels and crates. Still, the black willow tree remains to be remarkable not for willow wood furniture, but for its ability to treat pain and inflammation. The benefits of black willow bark have been valued for centuries by practitioners of traditional medicine as the bark acts as a natural aspirin substitute.
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Most of the healing properties of black willow bark are due to the presence of one natural compound — salicin. The chemical structure of the tree's salicin is very similar to the active chemicals found in aspirin; in fact, salicin was used to make aspirin in the nineteenth century. Research has shown that treating pain naturally with black willow bark has a similar effect to taking aspirin, although the benefits of this herb are slower to take effect and appear to last for a longer time. With its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, the dried bark can be taken to treat back pain, headaches, menstrual cramps, arthritis, and muscle aches, although it has proved to be most potent for cases of lower back pain.
Aside from the pain-relieving benefits, this natural remedy is sometimes used in skin-care products. It can be used to treat acne, or generally troubled skin. As an anti-microbial and antiseptic, it cleanses the skin, as an astringent it tightens the pores, and as an anti-inflammatory it calms red or irritated areas. Also, it has been used traditionally as a blood purifier because of its cleansing properties, making it a useful treatment for acne when taken internally.
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How to Prepare an Herbal Infusion
Various forms of this aspirin substitute can be found in natural health food stores. It is sold as a dried bark, a powder, a tincture, or as black willow bark extract. To make a tea, take one to two teaspoons of the dried bark or the powder, and infuse in one cup of very hot water for ten minutes. Drink up to three times a day. The benefits of black willow bark tea are not felt immediately, but rather take some time to take effect.
There are no known dangers of this herb, although some people are better off avoiding it. Do not use black willow bark internally if you are nursing or pregnant, have kidney problems, are taking blood-thinning medication, or if you are allergic to aspirin. This natural aspirin substitute should not be consumed regularly for more than four months at a time.
Hoffmann, David. "The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies." (Element Books, 1996).
photo credit: Sean Hickin
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