Photo Courtesy of Marty Michener
Photos Courtesy of Marty Michener

Pussywillow, Salix discolor

Family: Salicaceae, the Willow Family

Description: A challenging-to-identify native deciduous shrub 2-7m tall. Male or female catkins may be present, leaves alternate, paler and slightly hairy underneath, twigs hairy when young, hairless and yellowish when older.

Abundance: Common

Habitat: Wet thickets, swamps, swales

Plant Parts Used: Bark

Medicine: Like aspirin, for pain, fever, colds, headache, preventing heart disease and stroke

Medicinally, all willows (Salix spp.) have similar properties. Most herbalists suggest white willow, Salix alba, but all Salix species contain the active constituent, salicin. Willow is best known for its aspirin-like qualities: a tea of the inner bark is drunk for its anti-inflammatory, analgesic properties, especially for relieving colds and fevers. Pussywillow can be used like any willow. In Dr. James Duke’s The Green Pharmacy, he commends willow’s effectiveness against headache and for preventing heart disease and stroke. He writes that a German group known as Commission E, which advises the government about herbs, “endorses willow bark as an effective pain reliever for headache and anything else treated by willow’s pharmaceutical derivative, aspirin.” Duke writes that Commission E recommends the equivalent of about 1 teaspoon of willow bark to treat headache; since almost 90% of the salicin in the bark is absorbed by the digestive tract, this effect will last for several hours. Duke also points out that many experts suggest taking aspirin daily to prevent the blood clots that cause heart attack and since this effect comes from the salicylic acid that the body converts from salicin, he suggests drinking a tea with a teaspoon of willow bark every day to every other day to receive the same effect. Similar to aspirin’s effectiveness for preventing heart disease, Duke describes that there has also been research showing aspirin’s ability to reduce the risk of ischemic stroke by 18%. Again, he describes making teas of willow bark or other plants that contain significant amounts of salicin, such as wintergreen and meadowsweet.

The Algonquin would create a paste of the powdered inner bark to apply on “sick throats.” The Blackfoot would take a decoction of the young twigs for fevers and pain. Willows grow easily and have been planted to prevent erosion. Willow branches can also be steeped in water and used as a rooting hormone to start other cuttings. And of course, willow is used for basket-making.

Mary Holland posted a great photo of a classic pussywillow flower bud on her blog, Naturally Curious, that most people who live in pussywillow territory will recognize. There is also some fascinating information about why these shrubs have adapted to have that fuzzy flower bud. The Forest Service’s website also provides more photos and information here.

Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.


  • Brooks, John. Personal Interview. 28 Nov. 2010.
  • Duke, James A. The Green Pharmacy: the Complete Guide to Healing Herbs, from the World’s Leading Authority. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2000. Print.
  • Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
  • Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
  • Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2009. Print.
  • Szwed, Sue. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010.