Meadowsweet, willow, cottonwood, black haw, cramp bark, birch, wintergreen, black coshosh and Indian pipe all have some derivatives of salicylic acid, though slightly different depending on the plant family. According to Chanchal Cabrera, salicylate-rich herbs are “…antiseptic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, diaphoretic, anti-pyretic, anti-thrombotic, [and they] stimulate peripheral circulation and promote epithelial regeneration”(27). To reduce fever these herbs act on the hypothalamus (in charge of thermoregulation) which starts the diaphoretic action.
I often hear herb commerce and the media call meadowsweet and other salicylate-rich plants the “herbal aspirins”. Aspirin got its name, of course, from spirea (salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, is named after another rich source, Salix, or willow). While it is certainly true that plants share an ingredient of aspirin, it is not a one-for-one trade. Jill Stansbury states “[Botanical medicines] are more comprehensive tools than aspirin or acetaminophen. Furthermore, they are better tolerated, have fewer side effects, and are more readily excreted via the kidneys, liver, and intestines then are pharmaceutical[s]”(123).
For instance, aspirin and its chemical relatives are harmful to the stomach. Meadowsweet is healing to the stomach. The salicin found in these herbs is not nearly as strong as acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) and does not act the same way. In the 1960’s, researchers found that aspirin is a COX (cyclooxygenase, an enzyme) inhibitor, which means that it prevents COX from converting to pain- and inflammation- causing prostaglandins. Herbs can also act as COX inhibitors, but often they achieve this by correcting the imbalance that lead to an elevated incidence of prostaglandins. Essential fatty acids are often suggested for painful periods because of this mechanism. And lastly, meadowsweet and its salicin-containing cohorts are living, breathing entities while aspirin is man-made; an herbalist doesn’t recommend someone to simply “take two willow bark tablets and call me in the morning”. Care is taken to find which pain-relieving, fever-reducing, anti-inflammatory, blood-thinning herbs, lifestyle and dietary changes are suited to an individual constitution and condition.
Inflammation and is viewed by herbalists as a normal bodily response to injury and irritation. It is, essentially, the body’s way to heal itself. An increase of blood and lymph circulating to the injured tissue helps to remove the waste products and promotes healing. Simple as that. I do not support the use of cold packs on injured areas because it stops the inflammatory response, causing a longer healing time. One of the treatments for a badly sprained ankle last fall was a hot pack; in addition to blood-moving herbs (lots of yarrow and elder) I felt it actually soothed the pain and lessened the swelling. I have also found that carpal tunnel and plantar fasciitis respond extremely well to heat, cured even, as I experienced first hand. Chinese moxa sticks work exceedingly well in these cases.
Obviously, then, fever is also viewed as a normal bodily response. “Fevers accomplish much for the organism. It stimulates circulation of both blood and lymph that bring lymphocytes, immune globulins, and other infection-fighting agents to the site of need. Fever also enhances the removal of lysed, spent, and infected cells for processing by the liver, spleen and lymph nodes” (Stansbury, 118). If a fever is stopped prematurely the individual does not receive the benefits from this complex process, and in fact, may increase the duration of the illness. A fever should be around 102 degrees to be optimal, and definitely no higher than 106 degrees, which could cause seizures (118).
Many herbalists still call Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) by its former botanical name, spirea. According to Matthew Wood, it is a “true normalizer of a badly functioning stomach”, as it both “regulates acidity and rectifies alkalinity”. Meadowsweet can be used as an antacid replacer. It treats peptic ulcers as well as all stomach irritations, especially with fullness without appetite, and treat diarrhea in young children and the elderly. Drink cupfuls of the tea every hour for “fevers, flus, aches in joints, arthritic pain, headache with indigestion” (255). Even though it is high in methyl salicylate, meadowsweet has a great deal of mucilage and tannins that makes it useful as a “tonic to a battered stomach wall” (Mills, 281). Meadowsweet is a beautiful site to find in a field or by a lakeshore. Even the dried, dead, wintered leaves are soft and soothing.
Willow, (Salix spp.) has been used since antiquity for fever, joint pain, osteoarthritis, headaches and injuries as one would expect from a salicylate-rich plant, but because of the high amount of tannins, it is also used for “passive hemorrhages, atonic menstrual bleeding, loose stool” (Wood, 448). Some herbs are seductive to medical researchers; willow is definitely one. Here is a link to some interesting research on willow. After all, it was the plant that led to the synthesis of aspirin in the first place. Cottonwoods and poplars (Populus spp.) are resinous as well as containing salicin. Cottonwood, or balm of Gilead, is known as a stimulating expectorant for bronchitis, soothing to sore throats and laryngitis, as well as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis and sore joints and muscles. Cottonwood oil made from the aromatic gooey buds is one of my favorite chest rubs during a bronchial infection when your chest aches to the touch. One of my favorite The Medicine Woman’s Roots posts on cottonwood.
Black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) and cramp bark (V. opulus) are botanical cousins that are used in similar ways for muscular tension, notably cramps. Both viburnums contain salicosides along with tannins and valerianic acids, making their individual blends of inflammation and pain relieving properties. For women’s health it is used for menstrual cramps, premature labor, and threatened miscarriages, but can be used any time a powerful relaxant is needed for muscular cramps. David Hoffmann uses black haw to treat high blood pressure since it relaxes the peripheral blood vessels as well as for asthma (181). Both viburnums, as typical of barks, contain tannins that make them useful in tonification; cramp bark has been used as an astringent for treating heavy periods or bleeding during menopause (Gladstar, 239; Hoffmann, 194). I seem to recall hearing that menstrual cramps that wrap around the pelvis to the sacrum and lower back call for cramp bark, while cramps that shoot down into the legs indicate black haw.
Gladstar, Rosemary. Herbal Healing for Women.
Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal.
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal Vol. I.
Cabrera, Chanchal. “Pain Management in Phytotherapy”. Medicines from the Earth Official Proceedings, 2005.
Stansbury, Jill. “Botanical Therapies for Fever”. Medicines from the Earth Official Proceedings, 2005.