Nature’s Aspirin


Nature’s Aspirin

I enjoy harvesting plants from the wild and we have numerous useful plants.  Black Willow (Salix nigra) is our most common willow species.  Willows are one of the most common trees used in making baskets, because the stems are so flexible. The wood is commonly used for many crafts.  Willow bark also makes a great medicinal tea.

Willows are common to wet areas, especially along ditches and stream beds.  They are among the first trees to leaf out in the spring and they grow very fast.  The bark has deep fissures and interlacing ridges.  Leaves are much longer than they are wide, finely serrated on the edges and the buds are covered with a single scale.  The plants are also dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are on different trees.

One thing to consider about medicinal plants is that dosage can vary greatly.  Bark, leaves, roots, flowers, and fruit don’t always have the same concentration of the desired ingredient.  Time of year, growth stage, weather, and mineral nutrition are main factors that can cause a variation.  We don’t always know how much to use. Just because plant is considered a non-poisonous, and it has not been altered in a laboratory doesn’t mean it is entirely safe.

A few months ago I had flu symptoms along with a terrible headache.  To remedy this I collected some nearby black willow bark and made a mug of medicinal tea.  It was very soothing.  Willow species contain a compound called salicin, which in earlier times was used in the synthesis of aspirin.  Salicin is an effective pain reliever and in no time my headache was gone.

Unfortunately, I became quite groggy and was pretty much wiped out for the rest of the day.  I assume my dosage might have been a little high, though I’m not totally sure.  That’s the problem.  Had I taken a known dosage of analgesic I could eliminate that variable.  It’s possible I might have consumed the equivalent of eight or nine aspirin, perhaps more.  It’s also possible the drowsiness was unrelated to the salicin.

Nevertheless I knew better, but I didn’t think.  Always consume small amounts of any wild oral pain reliever, unless you are fairly certain of the dose.  Topical preparations are a little different.  Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and various species of common plantains (Plantago sp.) can be used to control the dermatitis caused by poison ivy, oak, or sumac.  Simply crushing the leaves and stems and rubbing the mixture on infected areas is all it takes.  There is no danger of overdose.

My willow experience was not a major concern, since as soon as I could feel the effects taking hold I set the mug aside.  Also, I have no problems with aspirin.  It doesn’t upset my stomach and I am not on any medication that might interact with it.  Those who have trouble with aspirin should not consume willow or sweet birch tea either.  Both contain derivatives of aspirin.  To the rest of us they are great if used wisely.

One thing to remember is that when a plant is considered medicinal, that should be an indication it should be consumed in moderation.  We can eat our fill of wild greens, nuts and berries without worry.  You would never purposely pop a dozen aspirin at a time, so be careful with wild medicinal plants.

Ted Manzer teaches Agriculture at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us)

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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