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.

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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.

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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.

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“Nurse Ratched” AKA Camp Healer

Every year Whole Earth Nature School holds our seven day overnight, Big Bear Camp.  Kids from across the county sign up for an epic adventure of survival camping, archery, creek walks, gnarly hikes, friction fires, and crazy night games such as “Invisible Capture the Flag”.  Each year this camp grows in leaps and bounds and Whole Earth is proud to say that we had 27 wild kids sharing nature with us.

The more kids though equals more need for first aid and I had the distinct honor of acting as ‘Camp Healer’.  I have found it a challenge to practice my herbal healing and first aid skills since I am not going through medical school or any other training that requires constant practice and repetition.  Even with a couple of re-certifications  in First Aid/CPR and Wilderness First Aid it’s just not enough practice to become proficient or automatic.

Still I value every opportunity where I can help heal someone whether it be physical or emotional.  Most of ‘camp’ first aid is simple – a bandage here or an ice pack there.  However, I find the simplicity to be deceiving for what I am truly gaining skill in is tracking.

Diagnosis is probably one of the most scariest and exciting aspects of treating people especially working with children.  There is always SO much going on underneath that even the child may not know!  Practicing the ‘art of questioning’ while diagnosing a person is crucial to getting to the ‘meat’ of the problem.

We do some pretty dangerous activities at camp that involve sharp implements, hot, dry weather, flying objects, off-trail hazards, bees, allergies, sharp sticks, fire, and cooking.  Yet I only had two “serious” cuts, one wasp bite, one vomiting kid, two belly aches, and a various assortment of ailments.  Pretty good for seven days in the woods.

My job is fairly easy when I have a kid with a cut and visible blood.  Always my first response is “Let’s go get some plantain!”.  Having the child pick a plant, chew it up, and put it on the cut does wonders for their mental state and he can see the wound change for the better by his own actions.

When a kid comes to me with no wounds and no visible ailments then my tracker mind has to come out along with a barrage of questions.  I have learned to never take a situation by just face value – dig, dig, dig!  Here is a great example:

A 12 year old boy comes to me complaining of itching arms.  “Oh my god they itch!” he exclaims as he frantically scrapes his nails up and down both arms.  I took his hands to stop the scratching and to get a good look at his arms.  No redness, no swelling, no hives, no bites.  So I pump him for more details and from what I gathered the arms had just started itching a few minutes ago, he hasn’t had this before, he has no known allergies, and it is driving him insane.

I pull out my lavender essential oil and put a little on to make sure it didn’t make things worse.  It does not so I liberally apply his arms while he prances around the room doing the ‘itch dance’.  It seems to calm him more but not by much. Meanwhile as I am applying I grill him more about the circumstances, then a question struck me that I hadn’t asked before.  “What were you doing when the itching started?”  He replies “I just put my hands in the dish water to do the dishes.”  Ah ha!  Well that narrowed it down to two things 1) he has a sensitivity to the soap or the warm water was causing the blood to go to his arms and 2) perhaps you can guess this one?

I decided to use a different tactic.  The boy wasn’t in real distress he actually seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the attention.  One plant I always keep in my first aid kit is Osha Root because some herbalists believe it can stop allergic reactions.  (I have had personal success when one evening I started getting hives, of which I have never had before, and took three drops of Osha under the tongue and within two minutes my reaction went away. )    Because of the nature of the situation I wasn’t concerned with any sort of major allergic reaction or systemic reaction and so did not automatically reach for Benedryl.  Instead I asked him to smell the Osha first.  FYI it is a very strong aromatic if you have never tasted or smelled it before.  He said “Oh it smells like maple syrup!” Sure I’ll take that.  I put one single teeny drop on his tongue and away he whirled like a dust devil running to rinse out his mouth.  “Yuck! That’s like insane maple syrup!”

I always carry with me peppermint candies and pulled out my bag to give him one to take away the taste.  He looks at the bag and notices some ginger candy.  “What are those orange things?” he asks.  I tell him and he wants to try one.  Gingerly I hand a small chunk to him and once again he is whirling around the room screaming about it being spicy and what not.  He yells for the peppermint candy and runs out the door and I never hear another word about itching arms.

I am always looking to expand my knowledge and experiences in order to blend herbalism with conventional medicine.  To me I think it is a perfect blend of heroic medicine and holistic healing.

There are a couple of herbalists I would love to work with in order to be a better first aid herbalist.  Charles Garcia of the California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism and 7Song of Northeast School of Botanical Medicine are a couple of folks I would recommend and give my eye teeth to study with!

Happy healing!

June First Aid Plant: Plantago spp. Archived – Posted 2010

I just spoke with a friend of mine who lives in Texas and is the mother of a young boy. She told me that she had just taken her son to the doctor for several very infected spider bites and was prescribed strong antibiotics. I gave her some unsolicited advice that I believe every parent should know. It is a particular remedy for those scary spider bites, itchy mosquito bites, terrible bee stings, infected wounds, painful splinters, and the key to prevent doctor visits for antibiotics for any of the aforementioned. It is simply a weed. A weed that grows underfoot. A weed that invades your lawn. A weed that has been used for thousands of years all over the world. And a weed that was called “mother of herbs” by the Anglo-Saxons.

My advice to my friend was to use Plantain. She then asked “Well how do I use it and how can I get it?” Wonderful question! This is how:

First and foremost before we use any plant for any reason is to safely and correctly identify it. Plantain is not the tropical fruit but rather a perennial weed that is found throughout the world with more than 200 species in the Plantago genus. One species you may know well is Psyllium Seed Husks for troubles with digestion. Same genus!

The species I am most interested in are Plantago major and Plantago lanceolata simply because those are the two species that grow in my lawn. Plantago major or Common Plantain have oval shaped leaves while Plantago lanceolata has spear shaped leaves. Both species grow in a basal rosette and have veins that run parallel or like train tracks from leaf stem to leaf edge. As mentioned before Plantain loves to take over lawns, and you will most likely find them in disturbed fields, along road sides, along the sidewalk as you walk to work, and where soil has been disturbed or packed. Here is a picture of a huge Common Plantain found at Armitage Park last month.

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Now, once correctly identified, how do you use it? Plantain is well known for it’s drawing capabilities. Once I had a splinter deep in my finger and I worked on that sucker for a good 10 minutes to no avail. I came across some Plantain and picked a nice, clean, healthy leaf, stuck it in my mouth and chewed it to a pulp. I spit it out onto my finger and held it there for 3 minutes. After I removed the pulp I squeezed my finger and out popped the splinter!

It’s no magic trick (though sometimes it is nice to give a little mystery to kids) it’s chemistry. Plantain is very astringent and this quality makes for good pulling (things out including infection), stopping (such as bleeding), and closing (tissue together from a wound).

No matter what kind of camp or program I am teaching Plantain always finds a way to teach a lesson to kids. This summer we are teaching an array of summer camps for kids and one topic that always comes up are bee stings. Plantain can pull out the venom from a bee sting, reduce the swelling, kill any bad bacteria that may have been present, and can reduce the risk of major allergic reaction. Yes please!

The best way to apply Plantain is the method I described above for my splinter. Chewing it like gum can get the medicine working internally as well as externally. Now if you are a bit squeamish about chewing up a plant you can always squish it between your fingers really well or between rocks. This method is called a poultice. Depending upon the severity of the wound you may need only one application or ten.

A story I will leave you with is one I enjoy telling when I am introducing Plantain. One day I was working with a bunch of adults making bow drill kits for friction fire. Before I sat down in the gravel I decided to walk by a patch of grass and took notice of a couple Plantain plants. Then I started my grueling task of making a bowdrill kit from scratch. After a couple of hours in the sun I was getting hot, tired, and cranky. My knife slipped and I saw a rather deep cut slice just above my knuckle on my left pointer finger. Without hesitation I got up walked to the patch of grass, found a Plantain leaf, chewed her up and slapped her on. I applied pressure and held up my hand for three to four minutes. When I felt that the blood had clotted I removed the pulp and found the cleanest cut I had ever seen. The Plantain had completely stopped the bleeding and cleaned up the blood and I could already tell that the tissue was trying to stitch itself back together. It barely scarred, just enough to be able to show it off.

When in need Plantain will magically appear. Please be sensible about harvesting plants for first aid. Know your plants well before applications and be aware of your limitations. Once you build a relationship with Plantain she will be one of your most important allies!

Recommended Resources:

Tom Brown’s Field Guide Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants Tom Brown Jr.
Botany in a Day Thomas J. Elpel
Just Weeds Pamela Jones
Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast Pojar and Mackinnon
http://www.HerbMentor.com
http://www.celticherbs.com
http://www.pfaf.org
http://www.botanicalstudies.net/