The Willow-tree is a grey/silvery tree that grows along the shores of streams and rivers, near marshes and in wet woods. The willow is a tree of medium size, with a trunk covered with a pale yellow bark and many flexible greenish branches. Its jagged lanceolated leaves cluster in groups of 3 or 4; they are glossy-green in the upside blade and silvery in the underside blade.
The flowers bloom in March and they gather in big cylindrical yellow aments. Like the hard and flexible wood it is, the willow was employed to make supports for the vines, frames for sieves and long poles to hoop barrels. The branches were barked and interwoven to make baskets and things like that.
The willow bark was then employed in tanneries where, thanks to its high concentration of tannic acid, it played a fundamental role in the preparation of soft, light leather, best known as Russian leather.
As quinine and its by-products were very expensive - but, still, the only effective medicaments in the treatment of malaria -, 19th century researchers worked hard to find good alternatives. The willow-tree had been known since the antiquity for its antipyretic properties and, in 1827, a French research chemist, Le Croix, obtained a bitter glucoside named "salicin" from the willow bark.
Although this substance showed no power against malaria, it revealed a good antipyretic effect and an interesting analgesic action. A few years later, Raffaele Piria from Palermo discovered a molecule that was to become a cornerstone in anti-rheumatic treatment, the salicylic acid. This molecule was then found in the leaves of Spiraea Ulmaria; the following acetylation of this compound led to the creation of one of the most famous medicines of modern times: acetylsalicylic acid, also known as Aspirin.
As we have already pointed out, the ancient knew the properties of this plant. Indeed, they employed both the bark and the leaves to heal the arthritic, the gouty and those who were "growing a hunch".
by Dr. Ernesto Riva