Cottonwood: Learning to Make Medicine from the Majestic Tree

cottonwood buds in basket

 

Before we bought our house we rented an old, dumpy sort of house in Saint Paul’s North End.  The best thing about this place were the three majestic Cottonwoods that towered over the house and backyard. The yard was tiny and bounded by a chain-link fence and the Cottonwoods were the dominant feature.  I loved those trees.  They were so remarkably tall that it was sunny in our backyard for the better part of the day and then cool and shaded in the afternoon.  I was just learning to make medicine at the time and it certainly didn’t occur to me that Cottonwoods might be a medicinal tree, but that was my intimate introduction and ever since I have loved them.  In spite of their huge size they have a very graceful arching silhouette that fills me with awe and appreciation.  While I’m sorry for those who suffer from allergies I find a day filled with cottonwood “snow” to be enchanting.

I’ve been a student of the plants for over 17 years and a practicing herbalist for over a decade.  Only in the last couple of years did I became aware that you can make medicine out of Cottonwood.  When you are a student of herbal medicine you find certain teachers and they teach you the plants they know and love. You find certain books and the author has selected for you the herbs that they will introduce and discuss.  Herbalism is a lifelong study.  I say this over and over to my students and in my writing.  To know the plants around you is a lifelong endeavor. But it can be difficult to learn new plants independent of your teachers.  Just like you, I have experienced this too. As northern herbal student you may get to a point when you find that it’s difficult to find new local plants to learn and harvest as herbal medicines.  You may feel like many of the plants you read about and want to work with don’t grow here, plants like Kava or Saw Palmetto or Oregon Grape Root or Passionflower.  My friends, there are abundant local, native and naturalized plants that are medicinal and don’t get a lot of attention in the herbal books on your bookshelf.  Cottonwood is one such plant.

Come along with me while I learn about Cottonwood as medicine and I will share what I learn with you.

The Botanical Bits

The graceful mammoth tree that I love is Populus deltoides.  The Populus genus is a part of the Willow family and it has just four members in Minnesota:  Balsam Poplar, Cottonwood (also called Plains Cottonwood or Eastern Cottonwood), Bigtooth Aspen and Quaking or Trembling Aspen. There also a couple of non-native Populus species that are planted in towns and cities and sometimes on farmsteads.  If you don’t yet own a copy of the fantastic book, Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota, I recommend you purchase one.   Mature Cottonwoods are very easy to identify.  While you do find them in the city, their preferred habitat is the floodplain. They tolerate serious flooding and thrive in a wet environment.  They are so tall–the tallest trees in Minnesota they can grow over 100 feet tall and have a diameter of up to 5 feet. They are the only Minnesota Poplar species that does not reproduce through suckers or create clonal stands.  But they do tend to form communities of many Cottonwoods spread about their chosen locale.  Walking in a grove of Cottonwoods near the Mississippi River gives rise to a strange feeling inside me. They tower above and the it is so clear of brush beneath them and it feels like a park or a cathedral and it is both calming and serene but a little stimulating and buzzes with magic.

The bark of a mature Cottonwood is deeply furrowed.  Other local trees with deeply furrowed bark include Black Walnut and Bur Oak, however, these large trees are usually smaller than the Cottonwood giants and have markedly different silhouettes. Study them all closely to learn how to tell them apart before they leaf out.

The flowers of Cottonwood (and all the Poplars) are called catkins and the present as a dangling cluster visible in April and May.  The cotton (or snow, as I like to call it) are the wind-borne seeds.

The buds are the part I was after as medicine.  They are coated with and full of a sticky, resinous substance that is quite fragrant. Buds form on trees in the summer and are dormant throughout the fall and most of the winter, but if you look closely they are there. In the late winter/early spring they buds swell and eventually burst open into flower.

You can read more about native Populus species here.

close up mature cottonwood bark

Harvesting Cottonwood Buds

While I found one article by a respected herbalist, Ryan Drum, that suggested harvesting the dormant buds before they swell, the consensus seemed to be that late winter/early spring, the same time you would harvest medicinal barks is the time to gather Cottonwood buds.  Many harvesters seem to be fine with the swollen buds.  You just don’t want to harvest too close to bloom time, which could be as early as the beginning of April, then your bud will have a hairy fuzzy catkin well developed inside and about ready to burst out and less resin, which is the good stuff you are looking for.

handful of cottonwood buds

Cottonwoods are extremely tall and they often do not have low hanging branches. Despite how massive Cottonwoods are, the branches tend to be somewhat weak and brittle. Many medicine makers suggest going to your Cottonwood grove after a storm and finding all the small branches and branchlets that have been knocked to the ground and harvesting your buds from the windfall.   I went out on a lovely day with no storm in recent days. I found that some Cottonwoods growing right on the banks of the river have large exposed sort of root systems, not really roots, more like the bottom part of the tree responding to waters flooding and receding are gnarly and branched out like claws digging into the earth.  Anyway, I climbed up on these and was often able to reach some buds.  Further from the river on the flood plain there were certainly many Cottonwoods whose branches and buds I had no hope of reaching without a giant ladder, but there were a few that had  low hanging branches I could reach from the ground.  I spent a long time walking around enjoying the day but overall, I only spent a few minutes hands-on harvesting  about a cup of the buds.

The buds glimmer with resin. They smell delicious and they make your hands really sticky and dirty!

cottonwood bud harvest fingers

 

Making Cottonwood Infused Oil

I read A LOT of blog posts  and web articles about how to make Cottonwood oil.  The diversity of approaches can be exciting (so many choices!) but also overwhelming.  What to do when you are making a medicine for the first time?  I read about people who pinch open all the buds by hand, people using blenders all sorts of different steps. Some people leave their buds to infuse for a month, or 3 months or a year.  There are also plenty of people out there doing a simple cold infusion or warm infusion.  I am a simple sort of gal.  The resin was right there–it was all over my skin. Intuitively it didn’t seem like it would be that hard  to get it extracted. So I decided to just do a simple warm infusion. I felt like the addition of some heat would facilitate the extraction of the sticky resin. I put the buds in a clean, dry mason jar and I added organic sunflower oil. My jar was probably 2/3 full of buds.  I screwed on a lid. Then I filled my crockpot with a few inches of hot water and I put the jar into the water bath in the crockpot and covered it.  I allowed it to sit in the bath for probably 12-18 hours.  It smelled incredibly fragrant and the oil became opaque with a lovely rich color.  It probably would have been fine to strain it right then but I was busy, so I left it for a few days at room temperature in the jar until I was ready to work with it. I feel pretty confident that my bit of warm/cold infusing was sufficient.

cottonwood buds in oil

What next?  Strain out the plant bits and compost and now you have a infused Cottonwood Oil.  Normally, I would say you can use the infused oil without any additional steps if you wish, but that’s not really the case with the Cottonwood oil. As the preparation returns to room temperature, all the resin settles to the bottom of the jar.  It’s thick, super sticky and really waxy.  I decided that it’s best to bring the decanted oil to a high enough temperature so the resin becomes fluid and well mixed with the oil and then add beeswax to make a solid balm, ointment or salve.  If you are new to salve making check out this post about how to turn an infused herbal oil into a solid ointment or salve.

Interlude:  Common Name Confusion

Before we talk about uses for our Cottonwood Balm, it’s time for a brief discussion about name confusion.  There’s another Populus tree in Minnesota and it’s called Balsam poplar.  Balsam poplar is found in New England and the Northeast, the Upper Midwest, several Western Plains states, and the whole West Coast. Balsam Poplar looks much, much different from the plant I think many of us in Minnesota refer to as a Cottonwood.  It’s much smaller, it forms clonal colonies like the other Populus species, it is not a floodplain or riverside tree and the leaves are differently shaped. Balsam Poplar was prized in American medicine in the times gone by.  It has buds that are even more fragrant and aromatic than Cottonwood.  Balsam Poplar resin was made into ointments called “Balm of Gilead” which was, and is, a valued medicine. Balm of Gilead, however, is also the name of an ancient Mediterranean preparation, mentioned in the Bible and by the fathers of Western medicine, Galen and Dioscorides and it is NOT made with a North American Poplar. Wikipedia and Maude Grieves are both good places to start when reading about the history of this iconic plant preparation. In any case, it can be confusing (and interesting).

Additionally note that  there are up to 40 different North American species in the Populus genus.  (Scientists disagree about plant naming and categorizing too!) Herbalists are using lots of different species. You can find many articles about making “Balm of Gilead” from a “Cottonwood” and the species pictured in the illustration could be one of maybe 6 different Populus species, none of which are what you may think of as Cottonwood.  Maybe I am splitting hairs here. Maybe it doesn’t really matter. It is not terribly uncommon for herbal practice to involve the interchangeable use of several plants in a genus.  If you are confused, just know you are not alone. There doesn’t seem to be a strong consensus about all these different Populus trees and what to call them and which one to use. Personally, however, I think there are significant enough differences between Quaking Aspen (P. tremuloides), Balsam Poplar (P. balsamifera) and Cottonwood (P. deltoides) that I like to treat them differently.

Medicinal Uses of Cottonwood Ointment

Folks love this ointment!  It truly does smell amazing. Many herbalists note it’s shelf stability and antimicrobial properties. People seem to agree that it lasts a long, long time and is largely impervious to rancidity and mold.

Remember that Cottonwood is in the Willow family and this family is rich in salicin and related compounds.  Cottonwood and the other poplars have a long history of use as both topical and oral medicine for pain, headaches, joint pain arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and related symptoms and disorders.  Michael Moore writes that Populus remedies are a safe alternative to Wintergreen as an analgesic.

Cottonwood is used for just about every first aid and skin condition under the sun.  Here’s a couple of the more interesting indications that I came across. Some folks use it as a mild sedative and but a little dab of ointment under the nose at bedtime.  Numerous medicine makers also find that it is a useful as a chest rub to help with coughs, break up stagnation and clear the respiratory passages.

Uses and Properties

  • antinflammatory
  • analgesic
  • antimicrobial
  • antioxidant
  • prevents mold and rancidity when mixed in other preparations
  • sore muscles
  • arthritis
  • alternative to Wintergreen
  • nerve pain
  • eczema
  • psoriasis
  • chapped lips
  • diaper rash
  • cuts and wounds
  • bruises
  • burns
  • sunburns
  • bug bites or stings
  • athlete’s foot
  • fragrant oil used for lip balms, body oils, moisturizers

Allergy Concern

Some people are allergic to Populus trees. If you know you are allergic to Populus trees I would use Cottonwood preparations with caution, even topically.  Some people are very sensitive to Salicin and other salicylic compounds. If that’s you or your kids or your loved ones, proceed with caution. Perhaps use something else altogether, like Plantain or Chickweed. There are so many fine herbs for topical use, first aid and skin troubles.

Want to read more?

Excellent links about the Populus genus, Cottonwood, Quaking Aspen and more are scattered throughout this article. But here’s a couple of favorites if you are looking for more.

Very nice article from Deer Nation Herbs that does specifically discuss P. deltoides

Of all the articles I read about how to make a Populus ointment, this one is my favorite. She is specifically writing about P. balsamifera or P. trichocarpa

I always enjoy the writing of Kiva Rose. Here she discusses Cottonwood medicine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this great article on cottonwood! I purchased a quart of cottonwood oil last year at an herbal conference and haven’t done anything with it yet. But now I realize I’ve been sitting on a gold mine! Off to make some Balm of Gilead.

    1. Oooo… That’s fun! Does it smell good? Mine has such a lovely and interesting smell and from what I read other people describe the scent in glowing terms. You know, how a lot of infused herbal oils kind of smell yucky? At least, I think they do. This one is a little balsam-like, a little pine-like, but also a rich, warm, dry, yummy sort of smell, not sharp like a floral or citrus smell. I don’t know..it’s hard to describe.

    2. If I had to describe the smell in two words, those two words would be nutty and green! Its a very subtle and rich smell, very unique. Can’t wait to actually use it.

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