Wildcrafted cottonwood buds are fragrant and healing. Learn to identify, harvest and prepare your own Balm of Gilead and medicinal cottonwood bud tincture!
I spend a lot of time on the homestead. My daily routine consists of farm work, housework, blog work, book 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 author 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 an 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 witchcraft-ery” as he teasingly calls 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…
The Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) grows prolifically along the waterways 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 glue-like 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 sheet 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.
While cottonwood leds itself to variety of amazing preparations, a simple balm and tincture are easy starting point for even novice herbalist. 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.
Interested in learning more about cottonwood and 49 other common wild medicinal plants, as well as get the recipe for my FAVORITE salve for achy joints and sore muscles? Check out my new book The Backyard Herbal Apothecary!
I am a trained herbalist with a degree in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, I am not, however, a doctor. Posts in this blog are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Before using any herbs, check for appropriate dosage, drug interactions, and contraindications. Information contained herein is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prescribe. Please consult your primary care physician regarding your specific health concerns.
Cottonwood Balm of Gilead
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.
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, at least 6-8 weeks. This will all depend on the state of your buds and the alcohol content of your tincturing menstruum.
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 Bud Tincture
Cottonwood Bud Tincture
- 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. Depending on the quality of your buds and the percentage of alcohol in your menstruum, the infusion time will be 6-8 weeks or longer.
- 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.
Thank you so much. This is great information and cottonwood really works!! Keep up the good work
Thanks Laura! This was a really fun post to work on I am hoping to get back out cottonwood picking this weekend before the season gets too advanced. Can’t get enough of this stuff!
Is it necessary to place the buds in the oven to prevent molding? I have been researching this for hours and this is the first time Ive come across this method. If so, how long and at what temp shall they “bake”?
It may not be necessary to dry your cottonwood buds in the oven if they are already pretty dry. You can also freeze them for storage too. That said, I weighed mine before and after drying. On a two pound harvest, I reduced the weight by almost eight ounces! Granted I live in a particularly damp part of the US, but any residual moisture will definitely contribute to the potential for mold and may spoil infused oils. The active constituents (the biologically active/medicinal parts) are not water soluble, so you wouldn’t be reducing their efficacy in anyway by drying. I hope this helps!
-Devon, Nitty Gritty Mama
Most of the “good stuff” is terpenes, which are very volatile and will evaporate faster than the water. so, in reality, drying will affect the scent and efficacy of the final product.
it doesn’t ruin the food processor when you pulse the mixture?
By pulsing the cottonwood buds with the warm oil, it is seems to prevent any resin “stickage” to the processor bowl or blade in my experience. You can skip this step and opt for a slightly longer infusion. I also find that if I get the resin on anything, high proof spirits or isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol are effective in removal of the resin. Good luck!
Wonderful! I have my first batch of Cottonwood buds on the way and I am so excited to use them!
I want to try this technique using a crockpot to quickly infuse the oils but I’m curious about condensation and water getting into the jar. The instructions don’t mention anything about covering with cheesecloth or another material. Have you had any problems with water getting into your infusion?
Thanks and love your site!
Hi, Chelsea! Thanks for for the kind words. I have edited the post to indicate that you should use a tightly lidded jar for the crockpot infusion. I guess that I missed that when writing out the instructions – so thank you for pointing that out. I prefer to use the white plastic lids for canning jars as they are solid, but really any lid would probably do as you should only be putting water in to fill part way up the sides of the jar. I have done dozens of infusions using this method and have never had a problem with condensation ending up in my oils. That said, when I use this method using fresh herbs like St. John’s Wort, I do leave the top off and cover with cheesecloth so that any excess moisture escapes. Hope this helps!
I’m late to this cottonwood bud party (both here and in life), so really appreciate the thoroughness of your post. (Also loved, “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…” lol!)
The only caveat I have is that cottonwood trees are often used (in cities) to remediate contaminated soils (because they are phenomenal at it, and grow quickly). I would avoid harvesting buds from trees in/around new developments/housing. Fortunately, the Pacific NW (and other parts of the US) have lots of cottonwood stands that are perfect for harvesting in the unspoiled outdoors.
Thanks again for your work.
Haha! Yes, I know have learned to embrace my weird liquor purchases and the odd looks that go with them.
Thank you for making some great point about harvesting from clean areas. Thank you for reminding readers about the importance.
Hi Devon:) My question is: Is there an expiration date after making the tincture? Thank you for any replies
Great site ! Love the interesting info!
Eek! I left fresh buds on the counter for a day and some have a little white mold growing at the base. I hope they can be salvaged. Can I just heat it at a higher temperture, or what do you recommend?
Would like to purchase cottonwood salve.
My tincture still leaves an incredibly sticky, resinous residue that’s impossible to get off without alcohol. I’m worried about that for internal use–could that build up in your body?
Hello! Thank you so much for the information. Would I be able to use Almond Oil instead of Olive and Coconut? I’m wondering if it would still make a blam as I’d like to put these in chapstick tubes to give as gifts. perhaps I would just need to use more beeswax? Thanks so much for the help.
As a soaper I’m used to measuring by weight rather than by volume.
Are the amounts in the Balm of Gilead recipe by weight or by volume? I can’t wait to try it!