Recently I have started a series of Goethean plant studies based on the ideas of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) the famous German poet and playwright. These studies are based on ideas of understanding through experiental learning.

This has been incredibly informative for me on many levels. I ultimately feel the best way to learn about and understand plants is to experience them. They are their own best teachers. It is really interesting to see how different people experience plants. Sometimes what you read in a book isn’t what someone experiences. There are so many variables to take into consideration such as the constitution of the person, the plant parts used, where the plant has been grown and where it is in the growing season.

I often read in books that different Willow (Salix ssp.) species can be used interchangeably. I think this has something to do with the difficulty it takes to distinguish between different species. Willow often interbreed and in this way can defy classification, something I find quite admirable. Willow often cannot be identified without their female catkins (flowers) present. Willow are either male or female.

salix exigua
Salix exigua, sandbar willow

I identified 2 species of willow that I have been working with recently. The first one Salix exigua or sandbar willow is one of the easiest to identify because it is quite distinctive and common. I worked with it a lot when I worked in the field identifing plants. Quite simply it has very narrow leaves and the shrubs grow likes sticks out the ground, sort of like bamboo as an analogy.

The second willow species I have been working with is Salix amygdaloides or peachleaf willow. It is flowering now so I was able to key it out in the Flora of Alberta by E. H. Moss. Further I found a publication from the government of Alberta quoting a high species distribution in Calgary, I suspect it was planted as it is a beautiful tree.


salix amyg - tree
Salix amygdaloides, peachleaf willow

Tasting of the two different species revealed that bark of branches of the peachleaf willow were very bitter, whereas that sandbar willow was mildly sweet, aromatic and very pleasant tasting. From a medicinal usage point of view, salicylates that have anti-inflammatory properties and are related to the famous aspirin (acetyl salicyclic acid) are very bitter. This suggests to me that if I am interested in the anti-inflammatory properties of willow it would be best to use the peachleaf willow.

This is a simple example of how our tongues are chemical laboratories that help in the investigation of how to understand and use medicinal plants. Add to this knowledge in plant chemistry and experiential learning can really add incredible meaning to our experience of the natural world.

What I thought I knew about Willow
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