In the fifth century B.C., the Greek physician, Hippocrates,
wrote that chewing bark of a willow tree could relieve pain and fever.
(No wonder squirrels don’t get headaches.) In 1829, the effective
ingredient, salicin, was successfully isolated from willow bark.
Toward the end of the 19th century, The Bayer Company in Germany trademarked
a stable form of acetylsalicylic acid, calling it “aspirin,”
the “a” from acetyl, “spir” from Spiraea (the
salicin they used came from meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria, subsequently
renamed Filpendula ulmaria), and “in,” a common ending in
In the 20th century, over one trillion aspirin, the first medicine
created by techniques of modern chemistry, were consumed globally to
regulate blood vessel elasticity, reduce fevers and aches, prevent cardiovascular
ailments, affect blood clotting, or ease inflammation.
Native Americans and early settlers used willow bark for toothaches
and applied it to the source of other pains. But they also recognized
that you can actually grow a whole new tree by taking a stem and sticking
it in moist soil. The hormones in willows cause rapid rooting, and they
discovered these same hormones could induce rooting in other plants,
To harness this power, they made a tonic called “willow
water” by collecting willow twigs, trimming the leaves,
immersing the stems in a pail of water, and pouring the water on newly
planted trees, shrubs, and bedding plants. Commercial rooting preparations
contain a synthetic form of indolebutyric acid (IBA) and growing tips
of willows contain high concentrations of IBA, depending on the quantity
used and length of time you soak them. Any willow (Salix) tree or
shrub species will work.
Another discovery: In the January, 2004 issue of The Avant Gardener,
a monthly newsletter to which you can subscribe for $24/year at Horticultural
Data Processors, Box 489, New York, N.Y. 10028, editor Thomas Powell
notes that gardeners reported all sorts of plants growing remarkably
better when given regular doses of tiny amounts of aspirin (1 part to
10,000 parts water; larger doses actually proved toxic),” and
that The Agricultural Research Service is investigating the reasons
behind aspirin’s beneficial effects.
Plants make salicylic acid to trigger natural defenses against bacteria,
fungi, and viruses. Aspirin thus is an activator of ‘Systemic
Acquired Resistance’ (SAR). However, plants often don’t
produce the acid quickly enough to prevent injury when attacked by
a microbe. Spraying aspirin on the plants speeds up the SAR response.
Tests have shown this works on many crops, producing better plants
using less pesticide. “It also makes it possible to successfully
grow many fine heirloom varieties which were discarded because they
lacked disease resistance.” Powell says.
Scientists first encountered the SAR phenomenon in the 1930s. After
encountering a pathogen, plants use salicylic acid as a key regulator
of SAR and expression of defense genes. “Only recently have companies
begun marketing salicylic acid and similar compounds as a way to activate
SAR in crops—tomato, spinach, lettuce, and tobacco among them,”
according to Powell.
“ARS scientists are studying plants’ defenses, such as
antimicrobial materials like the protein chitinase which degrades the
cell walls of fungi, and nuclease enzymes which break up the ribonucleic
acid of viruses. They’re also testing aspirin and other SAR activators
which could be effective against non-microbial pests such as aphids
and root-knot nematodes,” Powell says. “This may be the
most important research of the century. Stimulating SAR defenses with
aspirin or other activator compounds could result in increased food
production and the elimination of synthetic pesticides.”
He recommends we experiment by spraying some plants with a 1:10,000
solution (3 aspirins dissolved in 4 gallons of water), leaving other
plants unsprayed. Tests have shown that the SAR activation lasts for
weeks to months. (Sort of homeopathic heart attack prevention for your
Things to do:
Make your own willow water:
Easily root azaleas, lilacs, summersweets (Clethra spp.) and roses by
gathering about two cups of pencil-thin willow branches cut to 1-3 inch
lengths. Steep twigs in a half-gallon of boiling water overnight. Refrigerated
liquid kept in a jar with a tight-fitting lid will remain effective
up to two months. (Label jar so you won’t confuse it with your
homemade moonshine.) Overnight, soak cuttings you wish to root. Or water
soil into which you have planted your cuttings with the willow water.
Two applications should be sufficient. Some cuttings root directly in
a jar of willow water. Make a fresh batch for each use. You can also
use lukewarm water and let twigs soak for 24-48 hours.
Ilene Sternberg is a freelance writer and amateur gardener with
a certificate of merit in ornamental plants from Longwood Gardens,
Pennsylvania and a former garden guide at Winterthur in Delaware.