Botanical Name: Salix caprea.
Other Common Names: Pussy willow, great sallow, saule des chèvres (French), selja (Icelandic), seljepil (Danish), salweide (German), selje (Norwegian), sälg (Swedish), raita (Finnish).
Habitat: Goat willow is native to Europe and western and central Asia.
It does not tolerate full shade and is often found growing in open fields, in forest edges or forests that are not overgrown and along beaches, streams, lakes, and roadsides.
Description: Goat willow is a deciduous shrub or small tree that belongs to the willow family (Salicaceae).
It can grow up to 10 meters (33 feet) in height with a broad crown and trunk diameter up to one meter. The trunk and branches have grayish colored bark and yellow-red hardwood.
The leaves are relatively large, green and 3 to 12 cm long. Goat willow blooms before the foliage appear usually in April or May. The flowers are silvery and form male and female catkins growing on separate trees (dioecious).
After flowering, the female catkins produce grayish green and densely hairy capsules that contain numerous small seeds embedded in the hairs. The small size of the seeds along with the hairs aid in the dispersing. The seeds need bare soil to germinate.
Plant Parts Used: It is primarily the bark that is used medicinally. Buds, catkins and young, fresh shoots and leaves can be eaten.
Therapeutic Application, Benefits and Traditional Uses of Goat Willow
Active Ingredient and Substances
The bark contains salicylates in varying amounts, on average about 0.5% in the fresh bark. The bark also contains high amounts of tannin. The leaves contain flavonoids such as rutin (rutine), cynaroside, quercetin, and luteolin.
The most important substances in goat willow for medicinal purposes are the phenol glycosides (salicylates) salicortin and salicin. Salicortin is hydrolyzed to salicin, either in the plant or after it has been consumed, and the salicin is converted to saligenin (= salicyl alcohol).
Saligenin is absorbed into the bloodstream and oxidized in the liver to salicylic acid. The acetylated form of salicylic acid (acetylsalicylic acid or ASA) is the well-known analgesic (pain relieving) medication Aspirin.
Goat Willow Uses in Traditional Folk Medicine
The fact that the bark of goat willow has analgesic and antipyretic properties, was already known by the philosophers of ancient Greece Hippocrates and Theophrastus.
In medieval times in many parts of Europe, the medicinal properties of the bark were known and the bark was commonly chewed on in order to relieve pain associated with a headache and toothache.
Furthermore, the bark was used traditionally as an astringing agent, to halt bleeding, and as a remedy for diarrhea.
Externally, extracts of the bark were used traditionally to clean wounds and as a remedy for minor skin inflammations, injuries, and aches. Once the bark was also added to vinegar and used as a treatment for warts.
Natural Source of Salicylic Acid
The plant genus Salix is large and all species in the genus contain salicylates (e.g. salicortin, salicin and tremulacin) to a greater or lesser extent.
It is primarily white willow (Salix alba) and purple osier willow (Salix purpurea) that have been used to extract salicylic acid. Salicylic acid was first isolated from totally unrelated species meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).
Salicylic acid is the precursor of acetylsalicylic acid, a synthetic substance similar to the salicylic acid recovered from the bark of goat willow and other plants, and it was first introduced by the German company Bayer in 1899.
The name Aspirin has become the generic name for acetylsalicylic acid medicines and is one of the most widely used medicinal substances in the world. Acetylsalicylic acid is commonly used for its fever-reducing, antirheumatic and analgesic properties, and is the active substance in many well-known medications such as Albyl-E, Dispril, and Globoid.
Due to the fact that goat willow and other willows are a natural source of salicylic acid, the bark of these plants can be a useful remedy for arthritis and rheumatic ailments, especially when the back, knees, and hips are affected.
In combination with other herbs, goat willow bark may be helpful in relieving inflammation and swelling and provide greater mobility in painful and rigid joints.
The bark also has a high content of tannins, and a decoction of the bark can be used as a gargle in the treatment for a sore throat, and a tea made from the bark can be used as a remedy for heartburn, minor stomach ailment, and food poisoning. The herb may also reduce night sweats and hot flushes associated with menopause.
The advantage of using goat willow bark or meadowsweet instead of the synthetic drug Aspirin is that the herbs do not thin the blood or irritate the stomach, which are common side effects of Aspirin.
The analgesic effect of willow bark is slower but longer lasting than the one achieved with Aspirin. The downside of using goat willow is that its medicinal effect can be somewhat unpredictable and depends largely on the presence of enough friendly gut flora to convert the bark’s active components to the desired pain-relieving substances.
Other Uses of Goat Willow
The dried twigs with the leaves attached were once used as animal feed, but from a nutritional point, this practice is apparently not of great value.
As a food source for humans, the buds (during winter) and the young catkins (during spring) can be cooked and eaten, or perhaps preferably mixed with other ingredients in soups and stews.
Although the young leaves and the soft annual shoots have a rather bitter taste, they may also be eaten fresh, or they cooked to a green mass in the same manner as spinach.
The innermost layer of the bark (phloem) can be dried, ground and added to flour as an extender to make it last longer but in earlier times when substituting flower this way, it was generally the bark of elm (Ulmus glabra) and pine (Pinus sylvestris) that was used.
The wood of goat willow is hard, tough and elastic and has been used to make various household items and farm tools.
Because the wood does not contain resins that can contaminate or alter the flavor of food it was often used in the past to make storage containers for milk, butter, and other food.
Due to the high content of tannin in goat willow, it was used for tanning (the process of treating skins and hides of animals to produce leather).
In Sweden, the bark was once used as a dye, yielding black color, for wool and linen.
Dosage and Administration
As a tea: Add 2 or 3 grams of the crushed or powdered bark to a cup of cold water. The mixture is then heated to the boiling point and allowed to soak for five minutes before straining.
Traditional dosage is one cup 3-4 times daily as a remedy for minor rheumatic ailments, headaches, high fever and inflammation of the digestive system.
As a tincture: The bark should be collected during spring from not too thick branches and then placed in a sealed glass container.
Add 40% alcohol until the bark is covered and then store the mixture in a dark place for a month or so before removing the bark. Place the tincture in a sealed glass bottle for future use.
The recommended dosage of the tincture is one teaspoon in a glass of water three times daily. The tincture can be used for e.g. headaches, inflammation, rheumatic pain, muscle aches, back pain, menstrual pain, urinary retention, colds, flu, and minor sports injuries.
Potential Side Effects of Goat Willow
Just as with aspirin, goat willow can cause allergic reactions in people that are sensitive to salicylates.
Goat willow and other species belonging to the genus Salix should not be used concurrently with conventional medication containing acetylsalicylic acid.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should always use the herb in consultation with a with a professional healthcare provider.
Prolonged use or higher doses than recommended of the herb can cause irritation of the digestive tract, nausea, and constipation.
Commercial products containing goat willow bark should contain a standardized phenol glycoside extract (calculated as salicin).
It should be noted that goat willow cannot replace aspirin to achieve an anticoagulant effect.
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Källman, Stefan: Vilda växter som mat och medicin. Västerås, ICA bokförlag 2006.
Skard, Olav: Trær, røtter i kulturhistorien. Oslo, Landbruksforlaget 2002.
Skenderi, Gazmend: Herbal Vade Mecum. 800 Herbs, Spices, Essential Oils, Lipids Etc. Constituents, Properties, Uses, and Caution. Rutherford, New Jersey, Herbacy Press 2003.