• Medicinal / Folk-medicinal aspects: Salicin, which is a phenolic glucoside, co-occurs in the plant material with its aglycone saligenin, otherwise known as salicyl alcohol. Saligenin has been used as a local anaesthetic. Although salicin does not appear to have any history of use as an externally-applied remedy, aqueous decoctions and alcoholic extracts of the buds, bark and twigs of both Populus and Salix species have been used to treat skin conditions. •
Until recently considered to be a family comprising just two genera, namely Populus L. and Salix L. (Mabberley 1987), the family has now been expanded to include genera formerly placed in the Flacourtiaceae, Samydaceae, and Scyphostegiaceae (Mabberley 2017). Populus species and in particular members of the genus Salix, are noted for their propensity to produce inter-specific hybrids. This makes accurate identification of plant material difficult. Thus, dermatological reports referring to Populus or Salix taxa that have not been properly identified by an authority on this plant family need to be interpreted with caution.
Members of the Salicaceae are perhaps best known as a source of salicin, the precursor of aspirin, which was at one time widely available as a purified chemical entity with the antipyretic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties we now associate with aspirin.
Flacourtia ramontchi L'Hér. (Madagascar plum) and others have edible drupes. Ryania Vahl species are highly poisonous because of their content of ryanodine and related ryanoids. These are insecticidal and piscididal alkaloids that can produce lethal muscle paralysis in higher animals including humans at exceedingly low concentrations. According to Smith (1971), Ryania mansoana Eichler, alias the silent killer, is lethal if the fumes are inhaled when it is burnt.
Standley (1937b) described Xylosma turrialbana as being a spiny shrub.
Schwartz et al. (1957) and Orsler (1973) listed West Indian boxwood from Gossypiospermum praecox as being irritant, perhaps confusing this with South African boxwood derived from Gonioma kamassi E.Mey. (fam. Apocynaceae), a timber with a well-established reputation as a cause of occupational disease in woodworkers. West Indian or Maracaibo boxwooda has not been reported to cause ill-effects in wood-workers. Oliver (1908) documented that at a meeting of the British Medical Association held in Manchester in 1902, Dr T. F. Young of Birkenhead described symptoms (dryness of the throat and of inflammation of the eyes) observed in men working with wood known as "Marcaibo [sic] boxwood or Zaputeso" stated as having been "furnished by a tree known as Tabebuia pentaphylla of the order Bignoniaceae", adding that the fine sawdust caused inflammation of the eyes and dilatation of the pupils. However, according to Record & Mell (1924), Maracaibo boxwood is derived from Casearia praecox. Woods & Calnan (1976), noted there was at that time great confusion over the sources of various boxwood substitutes.
Aplin (1976) included this species in a list of spiny plants capable of causing mechanical injury. This (Williamson 1955) and other species of Dovyalis E.Mey. ex Arn. (Burkill 1935) are used as live fences because of their spiny branches.
Fine hairs upon the fruit are irritant to the mouth and the fruit is almost too acid to eat raw but is used in jams (Burkill 1935).
This species has stout thorns on the stem and makes a good hedge (Irvine 1961).
Codd (1951) described Flacourtia hirtiuscula as a spiny shrub or small tree growing to about 10 ft [= 3 m] high.
Some authorities consider Flacourtia indica (Burm.f.) Merr. and Flacourtia flavescens Willd. [see above] to be conspecific; and that confusion with Oncoba spinosa Forssk. [see below] is possible.a
Corner (1952) noted that the trunk and branches of this small evergreen tree are spiny, the strong, woody, often branched thorns being up to 4 inches [= 10 cm] long, adding that the ripe fruit is acid and astringent but rubbing it between the hands bruises the flesh of the fruit and causes a chemical change to take place that renders the fruit sweet and palatable.
According to Ainslie (1937), the seed produces an oil that is used [in Nigeria] in treating leprosy and skin complaints.
The branches bear horrific sharp axillary spines, as is suggested by the specific epithet (Gibson 1999, Hyde et al. 2022).
According to Mabberley (2017), about 30 species are found in northern temperate regions. The genus includes some of the fastest-growing trees in these northern regions; many inter-specific hybrids are known.
A feature of Populus species is the presence in the bark, twigs, leaves, leaf buds, and flower buds of phenolic glycosides, and in particular salicin and salicortin (see Salix L. below). The presence of salicin and salicortin in the following taxa (and in others considered separately below) was noted by Boeckler et al. (2011):
In addition to the timber provided by many species, these trees produce a sticky resinous material that is collected from the buds and young twigs by honey bees [Apis mellifera Linnaeus, 1758 (fam. Apidae)] for conversion into propolis — bee glue — which the bees use to coat and seal their hives and which in turn is harvested by man from bee-hives. Propolis is a dark yellowish-brown substance with a fragrant smell suggestive of cinnamon [Cinnamomum verum J.Presl, fam. Lauraceae)]. The resinous material may also be harvested by man directly from the buds and young twigs to produce a minor article of commerce known as balm of Gilead. Clearly, the precise botanical origin of any given sample of either propolis or balm of Gilead will be obscure unless positive attempts have been made by the supplier, user, or investigator to determine this information.
A balm of Gilead sample purchased in Oxford, UK and supposedly derived from Populus candicans Aiton [now considered to be a synonym of Populus balsamifera L. (see below)] exhibited chemical characteristics suggesting that it was actually derived from Populus nigra L. or a hybrid thereof (Whatley et al. 1989).
The composition of bee glue varies according to its plant source and includes wax, crude resins, essential oils, colouring matters and esters of cinnamic alcohol (Bunney 1968, Hjorth 1961). Trees given by common name as sources of bee glue are poplar (Populus), horse-chestnut (Aesculus), spruce (Picea), willow (Salix), lime (Tilia), sycamore (Platanus) and fruit trees (Ribbands 1953); and fir (Abies), alder (Alnus) and birch (Betula) (Rothenborg 1967). Whilst various Populus species or hybrids seem to be the principal source of propolis in Europe, propolis collected in different parts of the world may have an entirely different botanical origin and therefore chemical constitution. For example, propolis sourced from Brazil may be derived from one or other of the following species (Bankova et al. 1999, Park et al. 2002):
Propolis sourced from Venezuela, by contrast, appears to originate from Clusia minor L. and Clusia major L., fam. Guttiferae (see Tomás-Barberán et al. 1993).
Dermatitis from bee glue was reported by Umansky in 1934. In 14 cases of bee-keepers' dermatitis, positive patch test reactions were observed to samples of bee glue obtained from various parts of the United Kingdom and in all of 7 and 6 patients tested to resins extracted from the buds of balsam poplar (P. balsamifera) and lombardy poplar (query P. nigra) respectively. Additional sensitivity was observed to extracts of buds of spruce (Picea), willow (Salix), horse-chestnut (Aesculus), lime (Tilia) and apple [Malus domestica (Suckow) Borkh., fam. Rosaceae] (Bunney 1968). She concluded that once a patient has become sensitised by the more potent or abundant allergen in bee glue derived from poplar, he may then react to the weaker or less abundant allergens in the resins of some other trees from which bee glue is derived. The allergenic fraction of bee glue is found in the volatile oil derived from it by distillation.
Patients contact sensitive to Populus and to bee glue derived from Populus have been observed to show positive patch test reactions to balsams of Peru and Tolu (see Myroxylon balsamum Harms, fam. Leguminosae) (Rothenborg 1967). Benzyl salicylate and cinnamic acid derivatives may be mutually responsible. According to Rothenborg (1967) allergic contact dermatitis from unpurified beeswax contaminated by bee glue can occur in patients who have no contact with bees but who become sensitised by beeswax in cosmetics and medications or who are cross-sensitised by balsamic resins derived from other plants.
Beeswax was suspected as a cause of dermatitis in a man who worked inside a barrel which contained resin and beeswax (Fuqua 1931). Early reports of dermatitis from beeswax (Greenberg and Lester 1954) probably refer to raw or unpurified beeswax. Patch test reactions to purified beeswax were negative in 2,634 patients who had dermatitis (Rothenborg 1967). It seems, therefore, that purified beeswax is unlikely to be a significant source of cosmetic dermatitis. Beeswax has been reported to produce untoward reactions when used as an injection vehicle (Fernstrom 1959); injection of honey produced a state of shock (Mazzi 1964). Beeswax used for art work caused dermatitis in a woman who was employed in making mouldings (Camarasa 1975).
A bibliography is provided by Rothenborg (1967), Bunney (1968). Bee-keepers' dermatitis has been reported from Hungary (Racz 1960).
Perioral dermatitis from propolis (bee glue) in creams was reported by Wanscher (1976). In these patients, balsam of Peru (from Myroxylon balsamum Harms, fam. Leguminosae) produced negative patch test reactions. She states that propolis is collected by bees from resinous exudations of horse chestnut (Arbor castanea [sic]) (Aesculus hippocastanum), spruce (Abies nobilis), willow (Salix), larch (Larix), fir (Pinus) and especially poplar (Populus).
Schulmann & Détouillon (1932) noted that "le peuplier" — poplar — is commonly implicated in woodcutter's eczema. Dermatitis from poplar sawdust in a carpenter was referred to by Senear (1933). Lovell et al. (1955) observed a strong (4+) patch test reaction to "poplar pollen oil" in a patient with allergies to various tree pollen oils who presented with an airborne contact dermatitis.
Dermatitis of the hands and forearms followed by exfoliative dermatitis and lymphadenopathy resembling lymphoma occurred in a wood-worker from the sawdust. Positive patch test reactions to dry and moistened wood dust were observed (Weber 1953). This author noted that closed patch test with moistened wood-dust of various woods often produced irritant reactions and he questioned some of his own findings as to the allergenicity of some native woods. A cabinetmaker developed dermatitis from poplar saw-dust which was derived from a factory situated above his workplace (Caro MR, in discussion of Weber 1953). Cross-sensitivity has been observed between poplar (Populus), aspen (Populus) and willow (Salix) (Tan and Mitchell 1968). Two woodmen who had dermatitis had been in contact with resin of white poplar buds showed positive patch test reactions to purified balsamic resins and essential oils derived from the tree and to bee glue (propolis) produced from the tree by honey-bees (Winkler 1956). There was no history of contact with bee-hives in these patients.
According to Stuart (1979), possibly from Osol et al. (1955), balm of Gilead of commerce is derived from Populus candicans, the air-dried closed winter leaf buds from which provide a minor article of commerce known as balm of Gilead buds (Populi Gemma). Osol et al. (1955) also note that Populus tacamahacca similarly provides balsam poplar buds. The balsam separates from the buds when they are immersed in boiling water (Felter & Lloyd 1898). It (the balsam) is also known as tacamahac.
Care should be taken not to confuse the balm of Gilead poplar with the balm of Gilead fir (Abies balsamea Mill., fam. Pinaceae). This fir is the source of Canada balsam, which is also known as balm of Gilead. Similarly, care should be taken not to confuse balm of Gilead derived from the balsam poplar with balm of Gilead, otherwise known as balm of Mecca, derived from Commiphora opobalsamum (L.) Engl., fam. Burseraceae.
The fragrant resinous leaf-buds from this tree preserved in rum or alcohol were a popular household remedy for external use in New England (White 1887). The application of this preparation to bruises, cuts, and sprains produced a smarting sensation but could also produce a very severe inflammation. White noted that dermatitis from balm of Gilead remained localised to the site of application whereas dermatitis from Tincture of Arnica (see Arnica montana L., fam. Compositae) became disseminated. He observed one or two cases of bullous dermatitis each year from this source. Felter & Lloyd (1898) referred to a similar application prepared from poplar buds using oil or lard rather than alcohol, this presumably not containing the salicin and other phenolic glycosides that one would expect otherwise to be extracted into an alcoholic solvent.
Four of 14 patients contact sensitive to balsam of Peru (from Myroxylon balsamum Harms, fam. Leguminosae) showed positive patch test reactions to Balm of Gilead USP (Hjorth 1961).
The flowers are used as a styptic (Smith 1969).
Pearl & Darling (1971) found significant quantities of salicin, salicortin, saligenin, and pyrocatechol in ethanol extracts of the leaves of Populus balsamifera. See also Salix L. below.
Rothenborg (1967) described dermatitis in a beekeeper resulting from contact with bee glue derived from Populus canadensis. Positive patch test reactions were observed to the leaf and bud of the tree and to raw beeswax from his hives.
Many cultivated forms of this tree are to be found, it now being regarded as a hybrid arising from P. deltoides Bartram ex Marshall × P. nigra L. (Polunin 1969). Accordingly, it is difficult if not impossible to identify retrospectively the particular cultivar to which Rothenborg (1967) refers. The best known cultivar is probably Populus × canadensis cv. Serotina (syn. Populus serotina Hartig), which is known by the common names black Italian poplar and black hybrid poplar. Populus × canadensis cv. Carolinensis (syns Populus carolinensis Foug., Populus × euramericana Guinier) is known by the common names Carolina poplar and Canadian poplar.
According to Le Coulant et al. (1966), the allergens of liverworts belonging to the genus Frullania growing on the bark of "carolins d'Italie" (possibly this poplar) penetrate into the wood and can cause dermatitis in match-makers.
The balm of Gilead poplar is recognised as a hybrid arising from Populus balsamifera L. × Populus deltoides Bartram ex Marshall (Mabberley 2017). It is cited in the literature as a source of balm of Gilead (see Populus balsamifera L. above).
A case has been reported (Jolanki et al. 1997, Estlander et al. 2001) of a farmer who, on patch testing, reacted to aspen wood sawdust and to salicyl alcohol (see Salix L. below).
North American Indians rub the sticky sweet-smelling buds from Populus trichocarpa on the face to prevent sunburn. The hairy fruit pods can irritate the hands (Turner & Bell 1973).
Pearl & Darling (1971) found significant quantities of salicortin, saligenin, and pyrocatechol in ethanol extracts of the leaves of Populus trichocarpa. See also Salix L. below.
About 450 species of trees up to 30 m high, shrubs, and shrublets of 1-2 cm are found in northern cold and temperate regions; many inter-specific hybrids are known (Mabberley 2017).
Flück & Jaspersen-Schib (1976) recorded that a decoction of the bark of Salix alba L., Salix fragilis L. and other species has used in traditional medicine as an application to wounds.
A feature of Salix species is the presence in the bark, twigs, leaves, leaf buds, and flower buds of phenolic glycosides, in particular salicin and salicortin (Binns et al. 1968, Julkunen-Tiitto 1986, Julkunen-Tiitto 1989). Salicin was at one time widely used for its antipyretic and analgesic activity as an alternative to aspirin. However, in part because of its propensity to produce skin rashes following oral administration (Todd 1967), it has fallen out of use.
Surveys of Salix species have demonstrated that levels of salicin and other phenolic glycosides vary widely between species and also show seasonal variation (Boeckler et al. 2011, EMA/HMPC/80628/2016,a Noleto-Dias et al. 2018). This variability was known to Pereira (1842) who advised that those barks possessing the greatest bitterness should be selected for use (salicin being the sought-after bitter principle). The same advice was later repeated by Felter & Lloyd (1898). The following species were listed in these early publications as having the greatest repute:
Salicortin, through the action of an esterase named salicase, releases salicin and 6-hydroxy-2-cyclohexenone (6-HCH) when the leaf or bark is damaged; 6-HCH then spontaneously transmutates [oxidises] to produce pyrocatechol [= catechol] (Weevers 1948, Ruuhola et al. 2003). Salicin in turn (but less readily) produces saligenin [= salicyl alcohol] through the action of a glucosidase. 6-HCH is recognised by many insects as an antifeedant cue. Phytophagous insects that do not recognise this cue can reportedly utilise the salicortin to produce their own defensive secretions by converting salicin to salicylaldehyde (see, for example, Brückmann et al. 2002). Whilst salicortin, saligenin, and pyrocatechol can occur in quite large quantities in intact plant material (see, for example, Pearl & Darling 1970), free salicylaldehyde seems to occur only in very low concentrations (see Zenk 1967). However, salicylaldehyde may be formed from saligenin by the action of an oxidase once plant material is damaged. Both 6-HCH and pyrocatechol are potential contact allergens (see Morelli et al. 1989, Tammaro et al. 2013) but do not appear to have yet been investigated for such activity in the context of sensitisation to Salix (or Populus) species. Saligenin is also known as 2-methylol phenol, a substance with recognised contact allergenic properties in the context of sensitisation to phenol-formaldehyde resins. Patients sensitised to phenol-formaldehyde resins and reacting to 2-methylol phenol also reacted to salicylaldehyde (Bruze & Zimerson 1997).
Saligenin was at one time used as a local anaesthetic for minor surgery (Martindale & Westcott 1924).
Felter & Lloyd (1898) note that a decoction prepared from the bark of this willow has proved efficient as a local application to foul and indolent ulcers.
Several preparations of this willow are used in traditional Chinese medicine: the leaves provide the crude drug known as liu ye (柳叶) or Salicis Folium; the roots provide liu gen (柳根) or Salicis Radix; the flowers provide liu hua (柳花) or Salicis Flos; the twigs provide liu zhi (柳枝) or Salix Ramulus. According to Huang (1993) preparations of the leaves and fibrous roots are used externally to treat urticaria, and on wounds to protect against infection. Perry & Metzger (1980) note also that in China, a decoction of the young shoots or leaves is used for washing abscesses, ulcers, skin diseases, and varnish poisoning; and also that a decoction of the bark of the twigs is added to a bath to treat parasitic skin eruptions.
A further product of the willow tree used in traditional Chinese medicine is liu xie (柳屑) or Salicis Pulvis. This is [probably] the sawdust-like frass of the larva of a weevil, the willow borer (also known as the osier weevil, the willow weevil, and the poplar and willow borer) Cryptorhynchus lapathi (Linnaeus, 1758), fam. Curculionidae.a It is collected for external use in the bath after boiling in water for the treatment of pruritus, leg swelling, and muscle and bone pain.b
Confusion may arise from the use of the common name weeping willow. According to Hunt (1968/70), the commonest large weeping willow is Salix alba var. tristis (Gaudin) Trautv. or Salix vitellina pendula [a name of no botanical standing]. Another sourcec refers to this as the white willow [Salix alba f. tristis Gaudin], naming it Salix vitellina cv. Pendula with the synonym Salix alba cv. Vitellina Tristis. Mabberley (2017) refers to the common weeping willow as Salix × sepulcralis Simonk., a hybrid derived from Salix alba L. × Salix babylonica L. However, Belyaeva et al. (2021) have established that the correct name for this particular common weeping willow is Salix × pendulina Wender f. tristis (Gaudin) I.V.Belyaeva, identifying the hybrid parentage as Salix babylonica L. × Salix × fragilis L. f. vitellina (L.) I.V.Belyaeva.
In Indian traditional medicine, a decoction of the bark is used for cataplasms against obstinate dermatopathies and ulcers (Nadkarni 1976).
Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) recorded that in Basutoland, the bark of Salix woodii is used in making a preparation for the treatment of burns.
Felter & Lloyd (1898), referring to Salix nigra L. [sic] by the common names black willow and pussy willow, recorded that "the bark of black willow is recommended as a poultice in gangrene, and as an external application to foul and indolent ulcers and rhus poisoning, in which it stands unrivaled. It is made by simmering the powdered bark in cream." Wren (1975) appears to have described the same preparation in a monograph on Salix discolor Muhlenb., the common name of which also being pussy willow, identifying Salix nigra Marshall as a synonym. This seems to be an example of the kind of problem that reliance on a common name rather than the scientific name for identification of a plant can generate.
Perry & Metzger (1980) note that in China, the bark serves as a styptic and anodyne on wounds.
The bark from Salix russelliana was recognised by Pereira (1842) as a source of salicin (see Salix L. above). He noted that it possessed the most medicinal power of the various species of willow, but that it could be confused with Salix fragilis, which is why it "occasionally disappointed medical practitioners". This willow is believed to be a hybrid arising from Salix fragilis L. × Salix alba L. (Skvortsov 1999, Marchenko & Kuzovkina 2022).
Biswas & Mukherjee (2003) include this species, which is known locally as jalabetas, in a list of plants of Indian origin used for their wound healing activity in Ayurvedic medicine. The stem bark and flowers are the parts used.
This species is widely cultivated in Europe as a source of raw material for basket-making (Polunin 1969). Three cases of occupational dermatitis of the hands in women working in the basket-making industry were described by Gonçalo et al. (1986). These patients were patch tested with salicylic acid. They were also patch tested with various states of the raw material they used. All tests failed to elicit any reaction.
The genus comprises 85 species of shrubs or small trees found in tropical regions (Mabberley 2017), almost all of which are armed with simple or branched spines or thorns (Standley 1937b). The following are representative:
[Further information available but not yet included in database]