Red Willow is a tree that grows primarily in Western North America near streams. In my area of British Columbia we don't see red willow “trees” as the plant grows in such close proximity to each other that it appears as a shrub, or a wall of shrubs among the other plant life, like a hedgerow.
The bark of the red willow, is in fact red, and remains so even when the leaves fall off the tree in the Winter. This tree/shrub then becomes a favoured food for the elk population during the lean Winter months.
The branches of the red willow were used in earlier times in many ways by the local indigenous peoples, such as making baskets and other tools. I was part of a group that created a traditional sweat lodge and the frame was made of freshly cut red willow branches.
The reason I use red willow, is its bark. The shrub has two layers of bark. The red outer bark and a green inner bark. The inner bark is collected and dried as a smoking herb used in Native American pipe ceremonies. It can also be used as a cleansing ingredient in tea. The outer bark is often discarded, but it has a sweet smell when burned, so I add it to my smudge mix.
Red willow bark, as well as other willow barks, contains Salicin which, when converted by our bodies to Salicylic acid, becomes a pain reliever - most commonly found in aspirin. If you have any allergies to aspirin - it's best not to use red willow internally at all.
Red willow is traditionally picked close to the Spring Equinox, before the buds open up to form catkins. Here in the Valley, we would pick sometime between Imbolc and the equinox, as Spring can sometimes come early.
Magically, red willow has the same properties as other willows. Love, protection and healing all correspond with willow, which is also associated with water and the moon. Being that Valentine's day is approaching, weaving a heart or wreath of red willow, while concentrating on love in your home, or bringing more love into your life, would be a great project or gift to a loved one.
Red willow is a lovely plant, and one you'd be fortunate to be aquainted with. Take a walk out by your local waterways (especially if you live in the West) and see if you can spot some. Don't forget - if you are going to harvest some for yourself, leave a little offering behind as a token of gratitude.
Happy late Winter harvesting!