I spend a lot of time on the farm. My daily routine consists of farm work, housework, blog work, school work, dinner with the family and if I am lucky an hour’s worth of down time before I head off to bed. I am not complaining. I am incredibly lucky to pursue the things that drive and challenge me. I am just practical – sometimes to a fault. I know exactly what time away from my duties as a farmer, mother, home tender and student gets me: more work. So when something calls me – it better call loud and clear.
I heard the call of the cottonwood trees this spring. Clear as a bell.
As a student herbalist, the allure of venturing out into the wild to collect nature’s seasonal offerings is great, even if my time is limited. So when an unseasonably warm and sunny March Sunday afternoon rolled around, husband and I dropped it all for a couple hours and headed to the woods near the river to “gather small bits of witchcraftery” as he teasingly called our wildcrafting adventure…
The resin of cottonwood buds contain a bounty of medicinal properties. The resin contains “salicin” – the same compound that gives aspirin its pain relieving and fever reducing benefits. The resin is analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, febrifuge, stimulating and expectorant. This translates to externally incredible wound healing, joint pain reduction (as with arthritis and rheumatism) and chest clearing (as in with a mucousy cough) when applied to the skin as a balm. Taken internally, in tincture form, one can reduce fever and pain, and loosen phlegm. And cottonwood smells wonderful. Kinda just a win, win, win…
of the rainy Pacific Northwest. Other poplar (Populus) and willow (Salix) species may grow in your area and have similar medicinal benefits, so I encourage you to research for proper identification and usage. Notorious for the “cotton” tufted seeds heads that the cottonwood releases in late spring, these prolific trees are a wildcrafter’s dream. Cottonwoods draw up so much water from the boggy soil that the fast growing branches and limbs often break off and fall to the ground during high winds. During late winter and early spring, an eager wildcrafter can gather the buds from the fallen branches.
Cottonwoods are characterized by rough, craggy bark. Young, small twigs often very “nubbly” in appearance (I may have just made that word up – but I think it conveys the image – lumpy, bumpy). The cottonwood buds exude a reddish resinous sap, which contains many medicinal properties and have a sweet, almost honey-like, aroma. Perhaps this scent in no coincidence – in fact, that honey, instead, smells like the resin. Honey bees collect the resin (from cottonwoods and other sappy trees) to produce propolis. Propolis is a gluelike substance that acts to seal off parts the hive, provide structure and prevent disease (due to its antimicrobial properties). Propolis has many benefits for us humans too – but that is a post for another day.
It does take a little time and patience to search out and find the fallen cottonwood. Once your eyes are “trained” to see them, they are fairly easy to see — although, sometimes, not always so easy to get to. I simply pinch the cottonwood buds off the stem and place into plastic zip closure “sandwich” bags while harvesting. If you are not blessed with such trees in your area or it is the wrong time of year, you may be able to order cottonwood buds from online sources, although you are likely to pay a hefty sum.
So, back to our adventure… Our first trip out this year yielded a couple sappy, sticky, resinous pounds of the delightfully scented cottonwood buds. Our harvest was gathered along the sight of a recent flood, so after some debate, I did decide to rinse the silty residue from the buds before use. After a careful and thorough rinse, I placed the damp buds on a rimmed cookie sheeted that I had lightly greased with coconut oil and parchment paper, then set them in a warm oven for a couple of hours. I then allowed them to air dry for several more days before using. At this point, they were dry enough for storage in a cool, dry place for future use.
But I was excited and set about making my first two concoctions from this wonderful woodland gift. First is a simple and highly effective balm for pain and wound care called Balm or Gilead. This amazing balm dates back to biblical times and beyond and was much heralded for its healing properties.
I also set out to create a tincture from the cottonwood buds. Because the resin is not water soluble, this requires a high proof alcohol to extract the medicinal properties. I live in a state where “Everclear” is legal and was able to locate 190 proof grain spirits (do not try to explain to the liquor store guy that you are not drinking the stuff – he will look at you just as weird when you tell him you are making medicine, trust me…). Many states do not allow sales of high proof grain spirits at the consumer level, so you may only be able to find 80 or 100 proof alcohol (although your tincture may take much longer). You will know when your tincture is ready to strain when it is a dark reddish color and the individual buds no longer feel sappy to the touch. This will all depend on the state of your buds and the alcohol content of your tincturing menstruum. Below you will see both recipes with more detailed instructions!
Although other tinctures can be made using glycerin or vinegar (for those that are adverse to alcohol), I do not feel like either menstruum is a strong enough solvent to extract the medicinal resin from the cottonwood buds. High proof alcohol is really the only way to go here. Furthermore, alcohol makes for a fast delivery system for the medicinal benefits as it enters the blood stream quickly.
It should be said that if one has an adverse reaction to aspirin, cottonwood and related Poplar and Willow species should be avoided. Additionally, due to the aspirin commonalities, one should avoid using with those suffering from chicken pox or that are on blood thinners. Follow the same precautions as you would for aspirin.
Cottonwood Balm of Gilead
- 6 oz organic extra virgin coconut oil
- 2 oz extra virgin olive oil
- 4 oz dried cottonwood buds
- 1 tablespoon beeswax pastilles
Gently warm oils together until the coconut oil is completely liquefied.
Place the oil mixture into a tightly lidded jar and place in a crock pot with water up to the fill height on jar and heat on lowest setting for 24-36 hours. If you prefer to not use heat, allow the mixture to infuse in a warm spot for at least 6-8 weeks. Once fully infused the oil will take on a sunny, orange-ish hue.
Strain the oil through a fine mesh sieve lined with muslin, wringing to extract all oil.
Add beeswax pastilles to cottonwood bud infused oil and gently heat until the beeswax dissolves.
Pour into small jars and allow to cool completely before placing a lid on the jar.
Tincture of Cottonwood Buds
- 3 parts high proof grain alcohol
- 2 parts cottonwood buds
The resin is best extract in high proof grain alcohol. Locate a spirit with the highest grain alcohol available to you.
Place alcohol and cottonwood buds in a jar and seal tightly with a lid. Allow the tincture to steep until the liquid become reddish and the cottonwood buds no longer feel sappy to the touch. This may be as little as a few days up to weeks depending on the quality of your buds and the percentage of alcohol in your menstruum.
Once your tincture is finished, strain with a fine mesh sieve line with 3 layers of muslin, wringing to extract all moisture. This will stain the cloth, take note. Place in a dropper bottle(s) and store in a cool, dark place.
For administration, use 1/2 to 1 dropperful (15-30 individual droplets) in a small "shot" of water every 2-3 hours while symptoms persist.