Pitch Wood: How a wounded tree can save your life


It was the old bait and switch. Our four apprentices all aged 12 years were going to get a bit of a surprise that wet spring afternoon. This ‘outing’ was supposed to be their last hurrah to wind down their year long apprenticeship learning survival and naturalist skills. We told them to be prepared for a day hike – bring the necessities such as a water bottle and a snack.

After several hours of hiking the kids felt it was time to head back to the cars. It had been raining all day and was around 45 degrees on a moist Northwest spring day. That’s when we pounced.

“Oh by the way, you guys are staying the night out here.” Silence.

Then, “Wait, are you serious?”. Disbelief and fear began to permeate their thoughts as we assured them that yes we are serious and we better start making a shelter.

After an hour of finding a place to bunker down we made the decision that this shelter needed to be fire dependent and built to fit all seven of us. We brought a bow drill but the look of desperation on the kids faces made us relent and so we offered the “thumb drill” aka lighter.

If you have ever been in the rain soaked Pacific Northwest rainforest you would note that everything is dripping, soaking, water logged, and cold. So how does one make a fire out of materials found in the woods? There are of course the hidden away places, underneath logs, in hollows, or the lower dead branches of conifers. But these are still damp and take a lot of time to dry out underneath clothing and an immense amount of patience is needed when trying to blow a damp tinder bundle into flame.

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Walking along the trail I spotted a stump of a Douglas fir tree. It was only waist high or so but had long thin pillars sticking out like the sky line of a major city. I called the kids over and asked them what was strange about this particular stump. They made some interesting observations but hadn’t yet gotten to the point. Finally one of them touched a spire and noted it was very hard wood while the bottom of the stump was rotting out. I told him to take a whiff – “It smells like sap!”. What those apprentices smelled was pitch wood or “fat wood”, the resin soaked wood that is sometimes left behind after a tree dies.

Our Northwest forests are an amazing source of this phenomenon due to the massive logging industry and clear cutting. When a tree such as a pine, fir or Doug fir is wounded or cut down it sends sap or resin to the wounded area. In the case of our majestic Douglas firs these have the richest resins which makes it highly flammable. After a tree is cut down the resin will fill the heartwood (the inner living part of the tree) and make this inner layer hard, flammable, and rot resistant.

The key to finding this survival gold mine is keeping an eye out for the tell tale signs of stumps with pillars or spires that stick out while the rest of the stump is rotting away. Use your nose to detect the smell of resin then pull off the chunks. If you have a lighter try lighting it. If it is good solid pitch wood it will stay lit like a candle wick.

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I had the kids take off pieces from the stump and to scout out for others. Back at camp we began to shave off tiny pieces into a little pile. Once we collected enough fire making materials we lit a pitch stick and caught the little shavings on fire. The two girls began to very slowly feed the fire more pitch wood shavings then gradually began to add pencil lead sized twigs. The entire process took over an hour to achieve a self feeding crackling fire. Without the pitch wood we would have been stuck with damp tinder material which could have taken twice as long to make.

I have been saved by finding pitch wood countless times even in wet snowy conditions. I am thankful to the trees who provide us with so many gifts – even after they have died trees keep on giving.

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Harvesting Cottonwood Buds for Medicine

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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!

Useful tips:

– 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.

Baby’s First Herbal Bath


I am so proud to announce that my little boy was born earlier this month January 8th. As my readers know it was a nearly 3 year long journey to conceive and finally birth this little guy. His name is Jasper Layne Bradley and he decided to make himself known 3 weeks in advance of my due date at 36 weeks and 4 days.

As birth plans go ours didn’t go exactly according to plan. Because he was considered late pre-term I ended up having to be in the hospital instead of the Nurse Midwifery Birthing Center. I was really against having to go to the hospital due to the environment and the decisions we would have to make about what we did and did not want the nurses to give us during our stay. Turns out it went wonderfully well, the staff at Riverbend were considerate of our choices and understanding of our situation.

I was able to have a normal vaginal birth and the only drugs I had to be on was penicillin since my GBS culture had not completed its 7 day growth period. My water broke the night before and I experienced a mild and slow labor up until 5:30 PM the next day. After 5:30 PM I went immediately into active labor and less than 3 hours later Jasper came quickly into this world. So quick in fact I almost didn’t have a midwife or doctor attending.

My labor journey was amazing and I am so grateful to be able to have that experience and come out well on the other end. I clearly remember being in the middle of it and thinking “Wow, I could never ask for or want to be on drugs.” This was mainly because I didn’t associate the surges with pain but rather intensity and knew I would lose out on so much if I became numbed out.

Jasper is growing steadily and now weighs over 7 pounds (birth weight was 5 pounds 11 ounces). He is a kind and gentle soul but also is quite clear in ‘articulating’ his needs!

I finally decided it was time to give him a bath since I had decided not to wash off all of the protective coating he received from birth. Instead of using a soap based bath I chose to do an herbal one.

First I simply made an infusion in a quart jar using equal parts of chamomile, lavender, and rose buds. Then I put water in the baby bath and added the tea mixture to it. He smelled amazing! The calming, soothing, and astringent quality of the herbs helped him to relax and soothe his crazy infant acne.

I am continuing to use herbal based baby products and will blog those recipes as I go along.

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The Twelve Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Trying to Conceive

After launching my rather lengthy story chronicling my journey to conceive I came up with a shorter list of the top things I wish I had done or known about before starting that quest. So here is a bit of a follow up for those of you who like lists or not reading tomes.

It does not always take just one time! In fact the window for a women’s egg to be fertilized each month is very tiny. Only 30% of women get pregnant within the first cycle.

Be ready emotionally, spiritually, and physically There are many forces out there that may help prevent conception and not just physically. Address emotional concerns within yourself and with your partner before you begin trying. Release fears, doubt, or childhood trauma which will also allow you to be a more open parent as well.

Get Taking Charge of Your Fertility In fact I wish I had started this type of charting when I first started bleeding at 13 years old! This book not only addresses how to get pregnant but also how to avoid it. I cannot even begin to describe how much I learned about myself, my anatomy, and conventional myths about reproductive health. Learning your cycles well before starting to conceive will cut down on the time it takes to get there and red flag any potential problems before you spend year(s) waiting to talk to your doctor about infertility issues. Visit the website for more information: Taking Charge of Your Fertility

Have your male partner tested sooner than later It is true that ruling out any male fertility issues is much easier than with women. The trick is to get your partner to get the test in first place. We learned that it is best to get the test through your partner’s practitioner rather than on your own (i.e. at Planned Parenthood) as the results come much faster and you have someone to analyze and/or refer you to a specialist.

Get a hormonal test if you have any hormonal imbalance concerns Getting your hormones tested is a quick and generally easy blood test. This way you can find any potential red flags that can help you understand where the is a potential imbalance. I highly encourage people to not reach automatically for the Clomid but instead work with someone who will work to correct the basic imbalance naturally such as with a naturopath, herbalist, and even through nutritional changes.

Know when you ovulate! This is where the charting comes in. Because there is such a small window of time when actual conception takes place and every woman has a different time for ovulation (not all are 14 days!) then knowing your window will allow you to get pregnant. This should be determined before you begin trying – not 2 years after trying (as in my case).

Patience Sometimes it just takes awhile.

Use diet, exercise, herbs, and other non-invasive treatments before drugs or fertility treatment No really start here first! Unless you know for a fact that you have a major fertility issue that can only be helped by intense fertility treatment the majority of fertility issues are basic underlying health imbalances. You need to be in top shape before your body wants to reproduce. This will also mitigate pregnancy and fetal issues once conception takes place.

Do your research Be in the know about fertility myths and facts. Understand how synthetic hormone treatment works and what side affects they may have on your body. Don’t just assume that the conventional way is the right way.

Be aware that most insurance companies do NOT pay for fertility treatment Fertility treatment for women is simply mostly not covered. You may be lucky to have the insurance that does cover some of it -most women go into extreme debt as fertility treatment is insanely expensive.

Understand your own family history Speak with your mother and grandmother or find the information about any of their possible fertility or pregnancy issues. Your doctor will be asking these questions anyway once you are pregnant. Many times these issues can be genetic.

No expectations This was a big one for me and I had to learn it by completing a 4 day vision quest to get it through my head. Let go. Everyone is different and your journey is your own.

These are just some of my learned experiences and I am sure I had many more lessons and other women have even more lessons to pass on. Above all though have fun and love making love. Sometimes being so exact can take the magic out of conceiving with your loved one so my hope that all of this work can be accomplished before a couple gets to the point of automatic love making. Listen to your body, she is wise beyond her years.

My Journey to Conception

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Over two and half years ago my husband and I embarked on what i knew was going to be a crazy adventure but had no way of knowing the course it would take to get where I am now. On the first of February, 2012 we decided to start a family and now on the first of February 2015 that small hope will become a reality.

Matt and I had already been together and married for over 5 years and in those last 2 years my clock had begun to tick louder and louder. Baby stuff would come up here and there and we would have minor discussions of if and when but knew we just weren’t ready to make that dive just yet. Matt wanted our home and income to be stable and l just needed the acknowledgement from myself and he that this would hopefully one day occur. I had an enormous stigma about pregnancy through years of fear of getting pregnant too young, having an wanted pregnancy, or feelings of judgment by others. A small part of me knew that I would need to overcome these ingrained thoughts and accept the beauty and want of conceiving and having a child.

I had many expectations of what I thought I knew about getting pregnant and was beside myself that very first night we tried. Everything that I had been taught had been drilled into me: “it only takes once!” “If you don’t use protection you’ll get pregnant” among other phrases to scare me into being extremely cautious and convinced that it would take no time. Not to mention that I was a surprise to my own parents. I never allowed myself to think that this could actually take time.

This became a reality after the first month of trying had gone by and the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth! I began to get nervous. This was not meeting my preconceived expectations. Was there something wrong with me, with him? Of course all of the information you get is if you are under 35 years of age then you don’t need to seek help until a year of trying. A year! Twelve months of depressing agony every time my cycle comes round and I don’t know why?! I tried to go in at 6 months just because I always had a certain feeling that maybe there was something preventing me from being able to conceive.

My mother had severe endometriosis and the doctor’s still scratch their heads as to how she had her children at all. This is technically genetic and I could fairly easily have this issue. But the doctor I visited was not ready to perform any tests and said “Just keep trying.” I was pissed.

I began to go to a Naturopathic Doctor convinced I would find something wrong with me. She did find that my progesterone levels were too low along with my cortisol. All of these hormones are interconnected and if one is off that can and does lead to reproductive imbalances including infertility. I began a regiment of heavy duty licorice extract (which if in strong enough form is basically a drug) and a pre-progesterone extract. At the same time I decided to visit my herbalist as I was dealing with minor weight issues, frequent migraines, and hypoglycemia. After a month of the naturopathic supplements my condition worsened exponentially where I was barely able to function the majority of the month.

My herbalist finally knocked some sense into me. I definitely have a hormonal imbalance issue reproductive and otherwise, however I had to look at my issues in a different light. Giving myself hormones whether naturopathic or allopathically is only throwing a band-aid on the crux of the issue. Once I start giving myself these hormones, over time my body will not see the need to produce them herself. I would perhaps reach my goal of getting pregnant if the hormones were the issue in the first, but I would have just created a whole new set of problems and my body would not be balanced naturally.

What I needed to address and correct was my basic health so I could begin on firm ground and adjust from there. I didn’t need to jump right into fixing my reproductive hormones but rather the more distressing issue of my sugar and digestive imbalance. Everything is connected in the body and if I am having insulin issues then that will certainly throw off everything else.

More and more I realized this was going to be a long haul and I needed to get myself in line before I even considered bringing another human being on board.

For the next year and a half I worked through herbs, diet, and exercise to recreate a healthy base line. Working with my liver and yes even some reproductive herbs to begin a balance, and ensuring adequate protein intake my symptoms began to disappear. My sugar lows and crashes dwindled to maybe one or two a month, my headaches were nearly gone, and my energy levels balanced out all within 4 months. I began biking to and from work 13 miles a day and watched my body tone and brighten. Magnesium, Vitamin B, and Fish Oil supplementation also helped kick things into gear and I was the healthiest I had ever been.

By the end of 2013 I was a new person. Fit, healthy, no recurring health problems and kept to my regiment with blinding faith. Come February 2014 I hit the 2 year mark of trying to conceive. I was officially infertile and was becoming depressed again now completely convinced there was something wrong with me physically.

We had of course checked out Matt and his sperm count was lower than normal but according to the doctor not low enough to be of any real concern. The only likely culprit for him was an unknown reason for hormonal imbalance. Matt doesn’t drink alcohol, smoke, work near chemicals (in fact he works in our house or outdoors), and so I decided to whip him up a male reproductive tincture focusing especially on his liver to help correct whatever issue might be there.

My gynecologist was stumped and said after 2 years you should have conceived by now. It’s time for further tests. Guess what most of those tests aren’t covered under insurance! We couldn’t even afford the first test they wanted to try and the fertility center requires a $600.00 deposit just to be seen for the first time. I was beyond frustrated. I wanted to conceive without the need for intervention and without the need to dish out thousands of dollars even before there was even the possibility of a child. We broke down in March and scheduled our fertility center appointment. I remember telling Matt “we need a miracle”.

Now at the beginning of 2014 I decided to finally try a couple of things that for whatever reason I was dragging my feet about doing. After all this time I only sort of knew when I ovulated. A high school friend of mine suggested an incredible book called Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler.

I knew that charting, temping, and checking cervical fluid was helpful but I just couldn’t get my head out of my ass to actually try! Well I tried it and was blown away by the information I could glean about my own body, the actual knowledge of how my system was working, and well taking charge! I have to convince myself not to go to “what if I had actually done this when I first started trying” because I would drive myself insane.

The author of the book said that if I didn’t get results within the first 4 months of trying then it would be best to seek further assistance. The first month went by, second, third, and the fourth. We even purchased that pre-seed lube to see if maybe we could help out these little swimmers a bit. I poured over the forum attached to the book online and read positive and not so positive stories. I read my chart over and over and was diligent about temperature taking. Also around this time I started charting I decided to try Susun Weed’s fertility tea blend of Raspberry Leaf, Red Clover Blossoms, and Stinging Nettle. I drank this infusion by the quart every day.

Then as the fourth month was about to slip by I noticed some strange things around the time I was supposed to bleed. I didn’t get the regular cervical mucous color- change that I see when I am about to start and I distinctly remember feeling very odd cramping right where my uterus should be – it was almost imperceptible and I was 2 days late.

Now I have been convinced SO many times before and never allow my mind and heart to hope. But this seemed different. Finally I had Matt take me to the store to get some tests because I never had them on hand (I hated taking those things) and came directly home to pee on a stick. This was evening time and I knew it was better to test in the morning but I bought two boxes so thought I would try again in the AM if it was negative.

A strange thing happened though. Where there is usually one horizontal line I began to see the faintest outline of a vertical one intersecting the first. I thought I was seeing things — but then it grew darker, and darker until I was staring at + sign. I calmly walked out of the bathroom, found Matt and said “Could you help me interpret this?” As calm as ever he said “Well, looks like a plus sign.” I honestly was in shock and just started laughing. Laughing at all of the lessons I had learned on this journey, laughing at the pain and heartache, and laughing from joy and fear that it was now a reality.

I am celebrating my 6 month mark this week. My goal of conceiving and bringing myself to healthy level with only herbs was achieved. I have had so far no complications and am radiating with health and that pregnancy-glow (or so I am told). I don’t know if there ever was physical problem and may never know and will probably never know why exactly it took so long. But I am glad it did. I have learned about myself and as the lifelong student that I am I now can take these experiences and help out the women in my community. There is still a fairly long road ahead until that day I can deliver this little bundle but I can take the time to feel proud and grateful for this journey.


Dandelion Wine – Part 3 Bottling!

First and foremost – Happy Herb Day!

Part 3 of making Dandelion Wine nearly completes my series. The last installation won’t take place for months out – that is when we will enjoy the fruits (or flowers?) of our labor.


After nearly 3 weeks the wine finally stopped bubbling and fermenting. The first two weeks were none stop bubbles and my airlock was constantly jostling around inside its container. At the 2 and half week mark there was a significant decrease in the bubble action and for a couple of days it nearly fooled us into thinking it was done.


The importance of it being completely done fermenting lies in the fact that if we bottle it while still under pressure we could risk exploding the bottles. This tid bit does actually come from direct experience. My husband and I were playing around with making Nettle Soda (blog post to come about that!) and in order to not make it so alcoholic we only let it ferment for a day or so then put it in the fridge to stop the process. For whatever reason 3 or 4 exploded outside and inside of the fridge. Glass shrapnel is kind of a safety hazard.

Luckily we waited until we saw no more bubbles for an entire day before making the decision to bottle.

We didn’t have any wine bottles and I was too lazy to get some. Instead we used some of our beer bottles with either disposable caps or with a latch.

Wash and sterilize the bottles in the dishwasher using the hottest setting if possible. Remove the airlock from the wine jug and using a funnel, gently pour the liquid into the clean bottle.


There is a lot of sediment at the bottom of the jug so be sure not to swish it around as we don’t want that in our finished product. Cap all the bottles (or cork if you are using wine bottles) and label. Be sure to add the date as well since these will not be drunk for quite some time.

I am going to wait until at least the winter solstice before opening one of them. Dandelion Wine ages very well and becomes more complex and flavorful over time. Right now mine smells pretty yeasty and I hope that will work itself out in time. I also think it is going to be quite alcoholic – but we will see. Here is a very interesting blog from a winery whose family has been making Dandelion Wine for many years – Bellview’s Blog.

Happy waiting!