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Willow—Salix alba

White willow and psoriasisWhite willow (Salix alba) is a short-lived tree species, native to Central and South Europe but also cultivated in North America. White willow belongs to the Salicaceae family. There are over 300 species of willow, but only a few species are used medicinally: white willow (S. alba), purple willow (S. purpurea), violet willow (S. daphnoides), and crack willow (S. fragilis). The tree takes root best near streams, rivers and rich moist lowlands, and grows to a height of 35–75 feet. In the spring the slender branches first sprout tiny, yellow flowers, then long, thin bright green leaves.

Some of the first medicines were made from a different salicin-containing herb—meadowsweet—but work in essentially the same way. From salicin, salicylic acid and finally acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) are derived.

The inner bark of the willow contains tannins, flavonoids, phenolic glycosides, and anti-inflammatory and fever-reducing salicylates. Salicin is probably the most important extract of the willow tree. The bark of the tree is removed, and the salicin glycosides extracted.

When ingested, salicin is converted into salicylic acid in the intestine and liver. Although salicylic acid was known in ancient times to relieve pain, it caused severe stomach and mouth irritation. That all changed on the August 10, 1897 when a man named Felix Hoffmann, working for Friedrich Bayer et Compagnie, a maker of fabric dyes, produced the first 100% chemically pure form of acetylsalicylic acid (an altered form of salicylic acid). This pure form of salicylic acid is known today as aspirin.

White willow's analgesic effect works to inhibit the production of prostaglandins, hormone-like chemicals that are produced by the body in response to injury and that cause aches, pains, and inflammation. Thus, white willow is beneficial in treating acute and chronic pain and inflammation in conditions such as painful menstruation, arthritis, and neuralgia. White willow is best when used over long periods of time and can take days to improve conditions.

When used topically, salicylic acid is a very effective peeling agent. Salicylic acid causes shedding of the outer layer of skin.


Principal Authors: DermaHarmony Editorial Department
Date of Initial Publication: 01/22/2007
Article Last Updated: 03/10/2011