Have you ever noticed that rivers just have that particular ‘river’ smell? Full of heavy, wet odors the smell seems to bring a sense of nostalgia and happiness for people. Whenever I pull out any medicines containing cottonwood buds I get the same reaction from people – the eyes close, a smile appears, and say “Wow that is amazing! It reminds me of something – like the river.”
Cottonwood or Populus spp., is a deciduous tree that grows natively in North America, Europe, and Asia. One of the reasons the smell reminds people of rivers is because it likes to grow in riparian areas. I often use this tree as an indicator species in drier climates to tell me where water might be in the distance. In the Willamette Valley we are bursting with trees since we are so wet, however in drier climates like in the Southwest it can be very useful; as they grow where even small seeps of water occur in a landscape otherwise barren of taller trees or shrubs.
Cottonwoods are in the Salicaceae family which includes many species of aspen, willow, and poplars. This plant family is special due to the salicylates they contain which is the chemical we seek for the medicine it provides for pain relief, anti-inflammatory, and fever reducing qualities. To learn more about using willow as medicine feel free to check out my guest blog on the First Ways website.
In my region of the Pacific Northwest one of the most common cottonwoods is the black cottonwood or Populus trichocarpa which is what I normally harvest. Winter is the time to harvest the leaf buds of the tree as they are not yet unfurled and contain the highest amount of medicine during this time. Once the leaves start to unfurl it is too late. My favorite time is right about now, mid February, because the buds are starting to swell and get exceptionally sticky and gooey.
In order to harvest the buds sustainably it is best to wait for a wind storm that knocks off branches to the ground. It is always best to keep in mind that when one is harvesting leaf buds you are actually taking away the tree’s ability to get food from the sun. Removing buds from downed branches eliminates any harm to the tree by the wild crafter. Yesterday I went out along one of the forks of one of our major river systems to see what branches I could find. We had a wind storm about a week before and so assumed I would find some branches. The cottonwoods were intermingled with Oregon white oak, oso berry shrubs, blackberry, roses, and new spring greens. After searching for 15 minutes and only finding small branches here and there I found the jackpot. A cottonwood had completely lost its entire upper half and left a huge pile of its branches on the ground. Within two minutes I was able to fill my quart jar to the rim.
Cottonwood buds are maddeningly sticky and resinous as you will find if you go and start picking them. The resin is soluble in alcohol and oil which is why I only make tinctures and oils out of the buds. I use olive oil when making an herbal oil. Using the fresh buds (picked on a dry day) fill the jar about half to 3/4 full of the buds and cover all the way to the top with the oil. This can sit for 6 weeks or longer. I find straining it to be a real pain because not only are the buds sticky but they also stain equipment and hands so I end up just leaving the buds in the jar and draining off when I want to use it. The oil is extremely anti-microbial and so I never add any additional preservatives like Vitamin E oil like I otherwise do with herbal oils.
The oil can be used on its own, mixed with other oils, or turned into a salve. Due to its analgesic (pain relieving) and anti-inflammatory properties cottonwood bud oil is wonderful to use externally for arthritis and other inflammatory and painful conditions. I often use it for my muscle oil rub in combination with St. John’s wort and arnica oils. These are just mixed in equal parts. A popular salve can be made using this oil called Balm of Gilead. This salve makes a great addition to any first aid kit as it can be used to help heal wounds and burns as well. The salve can actually help skin regeneration from burns.
This year I have plenty of oil and so decided to harvest to make more tincture. Once again I fill my jar of buds 1/2 to 3/4 full then cover with alcohol. Because the buds are resinous I like to use a higher percentage of alcohol than 40%. Using pure grain alcohol I decided to do a 60% dilution using the ratio of 1:0.6. So for every ounce of pure grain alcohol I will use .6 ounces of water.
I use cottonwood tincture as a great substitute for willow bark. In this area the native willows are not very high in salycilates compared to white willow in Europe and so cottonwood buds are the alternative. I use the tincture more for its expectorant properties for the lungs. This is a lesser known use of the plant and I find works wonders. I like to make a mixture of equal parts of cottonwood bud, elecampane, and mullein for folks who are dealing with dry persistent coughs at the end of a cold. Time and again I give the mixture to my clients and within a day or two the cough is gone – and this after sometimes months of coughing! The tincture can be used for bronchitis and other lung issues.
I add the tincture to my throat spray as it is very helpful with laryngitis and loss of voice due to the inflammation. Once again the tincture is wonderful to add to first aid kits as it is a great anti-septic and can help with skin infections or the prevention there of.
This is the perfect time of year for harvesting the buds so wait for that windstorm and have fun!
– Reuse the same mason jar for oil and tincture. The resins ruin any container and are almost impossible to clean.
– Search for a large or several large downed branches instead of picking smaller ones.
– To remove the resin from hands I like to first rub olive oil until it starts to come off, then using soap and a scrub brush you can scrape the rest clean. Alcohol works great too. While harvesting be sure to carry some salve if you need to clean hands in the field. Or rub in dirt so that it takes away the stickiness until you get home.