Goats, Willow and Aspirin: A Story of Folk Turned Fact

Whistlebare is lucky enough to have a volunteer visiting who is quite a wordsmith and has written this great blog post for us.

By Riona

When I think of ‘willow’, my thoughts go instantly to a grassy riverbank and willowfronds leaning into the water: a weeping willow, the classic imagery used by grieving and heartsick poets alike, the last boughs of which Ophelia clung to before she drowned, the willows that the wind goes through…

In fact, the weeping willow is only one of many willow trees that grow in Britain, either native or naturalized. They are all part of the genus Salix in the Salicaceae family of flowering plants (interestingly, Salicaceae also includes poplar and aspen, renowned for their trembliness): weeping willow’s Latin name is Salix . ‘Salix’ is the Latin word for willow, and products derived from willow often have a name derived from ‘salix’. 

For example, if ‘Salicaceae’ seems a familiar term to you, you might be thinking of salicylic acid, often seen on the labels of skin products, aftersun creams or even wart treatments! 

It is a compound which can be isolated from willow bark (although is most often made synthetically for commercial use). The form used most commonly in skin products has a drying effect, and also acts as an anti-inflammatory, which leads us to its even more common usage.

Salicylic acid is also the most important part of aspirin, which is itself also known as ‘acetylsalicylic acid’. When aspirin is metabolized by the body, it is salicylic acid that is produced, providing the anti-inflammatory effect. 

Willow bark tea can in fact be used as a painkiller in a pinch, although doubtless it tastes quite disgustingly bitter…! 

And so to the folk medicine. Willow has been in use as an anti-inflammatory and fever reducer long before modern medicine was even thought about. There are tablets from Ancient Sumeria dating back to 4000 BCE that record its usage! In Britain, because it grows so abundantly, it was used as an anti-inflammatory and fever reducer in poultices applied topically as well as in tonics and teas. 

Some even argue that willow bark is more effective than aspirin, as willow bark also contains fibre, that slows the absorption of the acid, and lots of tannins (which are what makes tea, and presumably willow, bitter) – which is said stop the salicylic acid from damaging the stomach membranes.

It wasn’t until 1827, in fact, that the salicylic acid was isolated from willow bark, and not until 1890 that a German chemist produced the acetylsalicylic acid that I mentioned previously, which is less damaging to the stomach due to the salicylic acid compound being produced as part of aspirin’s metabolic process. 

So what does this all have to do with goats? Well, for one thing, goats are traditionally ‘browsers’ – they like to eat higher-growing shoots and leaves on shrubs and small trees when given the opportunity (unlike sheep, which are ‘grazers’ – ie they feed along the ground), so willow is ideal, as it allows them to reach up and nibble on leaves growing higher up. 

They also seem to really like the taste, but on account of not speaking Goat, I can’t confirm that. Willow leaves might not have the same properties as willow bark, but they certainly can be used as a natural painkiller, as well as being an engaging and tasty source of food.

We have a little goat kid on the farm at the moment who’s had a bit of a hard time of things in life – she didn’t bond with her mum or her twin brother, so she’s been bottlefed, which is reasonably common. However, she didn’t seem interested at all in switching from milk to grass or hay, as the other kids have been doing. 

She’s getting there now, but it’s only through copious amounts of willow tied up to a little feeder that she’s starting to become interested in eating hay from the ground or grass growing outside. She also has a habit of grinding her teeth, which can be a sign that a goat’s in pain, but seems to be linked to anxiety in her case. However, the willow shoots definitely seem to be working their magic if she is in any pain, and she’s very happily growing and eating now – as you can see!

The species of willow we have here at Whistlebare is Salix viminalis, also known as osier or basket willow (the other basket willow is Salix purpurea, which is best known as purple willow). With the recent heatwave, we’ve been cutting, tying up and drying branches or twigs of willow in great bunches to make tree hay! Given that goats love willow so much, it’s excellent feed for the winter when stocks of grass hay are running low (or they’re getting fed up with it), and very easy to make. Willow also grows very quickly and abundantly, so there’s no risk of us damaging the trees.

So far, I have not attempted any basket-weaving with it, but I’ll keep you posted if any branches end up going spare…!

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