Goat Willow (or Pussy Willow) health benefits: the original aspirin

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Male goat willow plants bear the familiar pussy willow catkins in Spring

Male goat willow plants bear the familiar pussy willow catkins in Spring

Goat willow, Salix caprea, is sometimes also called French willow, great sallow, Kilmarnock willow, or vetasa in ayurvedic medicine. Gardeners are likely to call it pussy willow because of the furry catkins produced on male plants in Spring and beloved by children.

It is a native of virtually the whole of temperate Asia and Europe. There is a similar looking plant, American pussy willow, S. discolor, which is native to North America, broadly used for the same ailments by the native Americans, and nowadays by herbalists.

Description

Female goat willow flowers are not as attractive as the male ones

Female goat willow flowers are not as attractive as the male ones

Goat willow is a large deciduous shrub or small tree which can reach a height of 10m (30′) and needs a lot of space. Smaller cultivars are readily available from nurseries, some small enough to be grown in pots.

Although it is a true willow, goat willow has regular leaf-shaped leaves, rather than the straplike ones borne by most of the genus. It is a great bee plant and is used for the production of honey in parts of the USA.

Goat willow is dioecious (has male and female flowers on separate plants), but the seeds are rarely used, so unless you need to produce seeds you can get away with having just one plant.

Cultivation and harvest

Seed is very small and needs to be sown on bare soil or it will not germinate.

Like other willows, goat willow prefers damp or moist soil of any kind (except over chalk) and is not fussy about acidity. It will not grow in full shade, but tolerates both maritime exposure and atmospheric pollution.

If you are buying a plant to produce the pussy willow catkins, be careful to pick a male plant (ask the nursery staff how to find one), as the ones on female plants are not so attractive.

Edible uses

Inner bark and young shoots are edible raw or cooked, but very bitter and really only suitable as famine food.

Medicinal uses

If you don't choose a dwarf cultivar, you can quickly end up with quite a big tree.

If you don’t choose a dwarf cultivar, you can quickly end up with quite a big tree.

Although it contains a substance similar to commercial aspirin, goat willow bark cannot be used as an anti-coagulant to prevent stroke etc.

Goat willow bark lowers temperature, is anti-oxidant, antirheumatic and analgesic. It is anti-mutagenic, ie. it helps prevent permanent changes in the DNA caused by mutagens (eg. radiation and certain chemicals). Because many types of cancer are caused by mutagens, this means that goat willow helps to prevent cancer.

In ayurveda, vetasa is used to treat painful arthritis and to lower high temperatures, as a weight loss supplement and appetite suppressant. It is also used as a prophylactic and treatment for cancer.

Goat willow bark has been chewed since medieval times to treat pain from headache and toothache. If you prefer, you can make a decoction from the bark using 15g (a half ounce) of chopped bark in a small enamel, glass or ceramic pan. Add 500ml (2 US cups, 16 fl oz) cold water and bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Strain before use. You can take up to 250ml (1 US cup) a day of this decoction, split into 3 doses.

The decoction can also be used for diarrhea, to treat arthritis and increase joint mobility by reducing inflammation and as a gargle for sore throat.

It is used externally to stop bleeding, to clean wounds and as a remedy for minor skin inflammations, injuries, and aches.

Goat willow tea is made by adding half a teaspoon of powdered bark to a cup of cold water in a ceramic, glass or enamel pan, heating to boiling point and then turning off the heat and allowing to brew for five minutes before straining. You can take up to 3-4 cups of this a day. It is used as a remedy for headache, high temperature, digestive disorders and minor rheumatic pain.

Goat willow vinegar, made by soaking bark in vinegar, can be used as a treatment for warts.

Other uses

It is fast growing and useful as a windbreak and/or shelter belt because it coppices well and is tolerant of pollution and maritime exposure. It’s also sometimes used for pioneer planting, though it is rather hungry.

The wood is good for making baskets and rugs, as it is flexible and tough. Unwanted wood can be burnt to make good quality charcoal.

The bark can be used as a leather substitute. Tannin extracted from the bark is used for tanning leather.

In Sweden the bark has been used as a black dye for wool and linen.

Contra-indications and warnings

Do not use if you are allergic to aspirin or salicylates, or if you are currently taking medicine that contains acetylsalicylic acid.

Consult a doctor before taking goat willow if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Aromatherapy

Goat willow is not used in aromatherapy.

Final Notes

Even if you don’t want to make your own goat willow preparations, it’s worth finding a space for a small pussy willow in your garden, if only for the sight of kids’ faces when its catkins are out. If you are going to use it in herbal medicine, bear in mind that the bark forms part of the vascular system of the plant, don’t cut all the way round your you will kill the tree, and use organic growing methods to avoid funky chemicals in your remedy.

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