Legal Sticky Buds!


cottonwood salve

On Friday I went with my friend Jana and her son Jackson to Powell Butte Nature Park in southeast Portland to harvest black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera) buds for salve.

Powell Butte, an extinct cinder cone volcano, rises near the headwaters of Johnson Creek – an urban creek with remnant populations of native salmon and steelhead. The park is comprised of 608 acres of meadowland and forest.

Cottonwood is a new tree to me. I never once saw an eastern cottonwood (P. deltoides) in my area of Pennsylvania although quaking (P. tremuloides) and bigtooth aspen (P. grandidentata) were quite common. Any of the Populus genus will have the resinous buds needed to make this salve, though some trees are much more sticky and fragrant than others, even among the same species. Winter and early spring is the best time for gathering, you’ll know if it is the wrong time, of course, because instead of buds you’ll find flowers or leaves!

The names, both common and scientific, of plants often offer clues to their uses and characteristics. The name “cottonwood” for example derives from the white cottony seeds produced by the female trees, though the wood itself is also soft and light, good for carving or making burn bowls. Balm of Gilead is another common name for some members of the cottonwood tribe and alludes to their healing resins. The true biblical Balm of Gilead, however, comes from an entirely unrelated kind of tree found in that part of the world, and this name is also applied to several other resinous trees. Too, I’ve been told that poplars “pop” when you chop them down. I doubt this is the origin of the name, but it’s a helpful reminder of the wood’s qualities nonetheless.

As a member of the Salicaceae family, which also includes willow, the poplar/cottonwoods contain aspirin like substances called salicylates making this salve ideal for anti-inflammatory purposes. I took my cues for this herbal project from Michael Moore. No, not the documentary filmmaker, but the author of Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. According to Moore, the salve is useful for sprains, arthritic joints, burns, and hemorrhoids. In addition to their antinflammatory properties, the buds are antimicrobial, increase blood flow to the skin and promote fast would healing, acting as a kind of primitive Neosporin. In particular he recommends a base of animal fat such lard or clarified butter. Lard is cheaper than olive oil anyway, so I was happy to oblige.


Materials: Buds, Lard, Pot, Jar, Cloth.

Step 1: Melt lard.

Step 2: Add buds. One part crushed buds, fresh or dried, to two parts lard by volume. I crushed the buds individually by hand, though I’m sure there is a faster and less messy way. My fingernails are still coated with resin.

Step 3: Cook over very low heat for at least 3-4 hours. I found the lowest setting on my stove was still too hot to avoid smoking, so I altered the directions heating the mixture, letting it cool down, and reheating it several times. You could also keep it warm in a low oven.

Step 4: Strain through cloth into jars.


That’s not all our generous lady cottonwood and her sister aspen have to offer:

-According to Urban Scout, cottonwood is the perfect bowdrill material. In particular the dry uprooted cottonwoods found in log jams provide naturally split roots for fireboards, smaller roots for spindles, a tough rounded outer bark for handholds, and light fluffy inner bark or the cotton for tinder.

-At Rabbitstick I was told that the white powder picked up by running your hands over the bark of the younger trees can be used as sunscreen.

-An article on aspen from Wilderness Way magazine concurs and adds, “The white powder found on the outside of the tree contains a good quantity of naturally occurring yeast. A sourdough bread mix kicked off with this powder will add some leavening and a great flavor to bread, pancakes, and other baked goods. Try scraping off a few teaspoonfuls, and add it to a soupy mix of flour and water. Throw in a tablespoon of sugar for good measure and wait a few days, stirring each day. The mix should begin to foam and smell ‘yeasty.’ “

-According to Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Pojar/MacKinnon, among other things, the Nuxalk used the bud gum of black cottonwood for baldness, sore throats, whooping cough, and tuberculosis. The Okanagan/Stl’atl’imx used it as a glue for securing arrowheads and feathers to shafts. Meanwhile, bees collect the resin, which is an anti-infectant for their hives and seal intruders such as mice in the resin to prevent decay and protect the hive!

-I find that if you bite a cottonwood bud your mouth will taste like perfume for about an hour as if you had just been necking with an elderly woman. Speaking of which the salve would probably make a good perfume if you’re into that kind of thing. I personally get a headache from the overpowering scent even without the oral exposure.

There are so many more interesting things about aspen/cottonwood than I can cover here, so I’d like to ask my readers what is YOUR favorite? Do you have a firsthand experience with one of these trees you would like to share? I’m also looking for folks to try out the finished salve and tell me how it works. I can even trade you some if you think you have a use for it.

Carrots Gone Wild-The Video!

My blog’s statistics indicate that “wild carrot” is one of the number one search terms leading people to my site. This video is for them. At the end of the video you will see a shot of our meal: balsamic glazed wild carrot and stir fried wild pea tips over rice.

First Fall Mushrooms!

Time to gear up for mushroom season. I found these babies outside of my apartment in Portland. I believe this to be a Prince mushroom, Agaricus augustus, based on the scaly, yellow-staining cap, combined with the strong almond-like odor of the flesh, and shaggy stalk among other features. David Aurora writes in All that the Rain Promises and More…, “One of the very best! The sweet fragrance and flavor are a real treat.” Looks like I’ve got a plan for dinner tonight.

Steampunk’d: Rewilding and Steam Technology

Steampunk is a science fiction genre and an aesthetic subculture typified by neo-Victorian design elements including brass, leather, polished wood, clockwork gears and goggles. Popular movies depicting steampunk style include 1999′s Wild Wild West, and Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events.

Does steampunk technology have a place in the rewilder’s vision of the future? Well, sure, some elements might, but I don’t see the return of the sternwheeler or steam locomotive as a step in the right direction. While that melancholy train whistle may sound romantic, these modes of conveyance used shitloads of wood (presumably the most readily available post-apocalyptic source of fuel, although coal and fuel oil were also used) causing massive river bank deforestation and erosion. For example, Flyer, a steamboat built in Portland, Oregon burned 24 cords of wood a day. Most steamboats on the Columbia burned an average or 4 cords of wood an hour, traveling at perhaps 4 miles per hour. For reference a cord of wood is 4 x 4 x 8 feet and the typical amount of wood used to heat a family home is about  3-5 cords per year. The fact is that while they were used for pleasure and travel, as well as commerce, steamboats, and other steam-powered engines would be largely unnecessary in a non-industrialized society.

I did find a fine description of a turkey trap while reading Cutting Wood for the Mississippi Steamboats:

They found a supply of ear corn and they would shell off a few handsful of corn.  They would dig a trench that got a little bit deeper and deeper along.  And then over the end of that trench they would build a house of saplings, just little sticks cut and laid across each other to make a house big enough to hold a turkey or two at the end of this trench that they’d dug.  And as the trench deepened, the turkeys — they would string the corn, one kernel at a time following the other and the turkey would begin eating and would eat his way down to the end.  And when he reached the end where there was no more corn, he’d raise his head up in the air and try to get out.  He didn’t know enough to duck his head down and go out the same way he came in.  And he was trapped inside of the little homemade trap that had been made which was nothing more or less than saplings criss-crossed and made into a little house.

I’m not the first to question the eco-viability of the steampunk movement. Jacob Corvidae waxes philisophical on the romanticization of the steam era while pointing out that perhaps,  “it’s an attempt to reunite our modern technological lives with a crafts-based, hands-on engagement with the materials of our lives”.  Perhaps so, and I have no problem with designs based on the recycling of steel and other non-stone age remnants of civilization, such as the steampunk treehouse below, but have yet to see many practical steam punk inspired items that could be manufactured and used if the entire gas-electric grid were to collapse tomorrow…as it should :)

Designed by Sean Orlando and company, photo by Zachary Wasserman

haha, “donkey puncher”

Traditional NW native canoe building: How’s this for steampunk?

Wild Carrot: Rewilding’s Mascot?

Daucus Carota

The other day Rebecca Lerner and I were prepping for one of our Urban Foraging 101  walks when I spied a regular carrot in somebody’s sidewalk garden.  Domestic carrots will rapidly interbreed with wild carrots. Saving carrot seed involves vigilantly eliminating nearby wild carrots (aka queen anne’s lace).  I said, “Maybe we can point this out for comparison to wild carrot.  You know, if you leave the domestic carrots alone they just revert to their wild state, like, really quickly…hey maybe that is a metaphor! Becky helped me figure out exactly what the metaphor might be which is this: The instinct for rewilding is within each and every one of us. Think about it: Why do we like grilled meats so much? Why do children build forts of sticks and dirt? Why do millions of Americans go camping on vacations? Why do most of our hobbies involve pursuits like hunting, fishing, gardening, and making crafts? If left alone, unconstrained by laws that prohibit wild living, schools that break our spirits, and brainwashing by the media that tells us we need to purchase more consumer products, how quickly might we too begin to revert to a more wild state?! If you have any more ideas about the “rewilding instinct” please share them here.

Rewilding Ritalin…A Walk in the Park

A study by the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that for kids with ADHD a 20 minute walk in the park improved concentration with effect sizes (the relationship between two variables) comparable to Ritalin. The walk in the park beat out a downtown walk, and a neighborhood walk.  Children also rated the park walk as significantly more fun than the other walks.

One basis for this study is Attention Restoration Theory which was developed in environmental psychology to explain why people report feeling restored after spending time in wilderness. The theory maintains that natural environments are restorative in part because they are “gently absorbing” or hold effortless “soft-fascination”.

The researchers in the walk in the park study explain that:

…ART, which is based on work by William James, posits that attention draws on two different mechanisms: one for deliberately directed, effortful forms of attention, and another for involuntary, effortless forms of attention. The notion of two mechanisms underlying attention may partially explain why individuals with ADHD can routinely sustain focus on tasks they find interesting (i.e., tasks drawing primarily on involuntary attention) but are unable to do so for tasks they find uninteresting (i.e., tasks drawing primarily on effortful, directed attention).

In other words, ADHD is probably a result of the things you are required to do being freaking BORING… like HOMEWORK! Duh. Unfortunately rather than the blatantly obvious critique of compulsory education that I read between the lines, the authors of this study conclude that hopefully in the future nature may be used in “doses” to help us do better on homework.

In earlier work on the subject of directed attention, researcher Steven Kaplan implies there may have been historical benefit to the less directed style of attention:

It might seem peculiar that a mechanism so intimately involved with human effectiveness would be so susceptible to fatigue. Yet, in evolutionary perspective, this apparent limitation might have been quite reasonable. To be able to pay attention by choice to one particular thing for a long period of time would make one vulnerable to surprises. Being vigilant, being alert, in one’s surroundings may have been far more important than the capacity for long and intense concentration. Further, much of what was important to evolving human-wild animals, danger, caves, blood, to name a few examples-was (and still is) innately fascinating and thus does not require directed attention. It is only in the modern world that the split between the important and the interesting has become extreme. All too often the modern human must exert effort to do the important while resisting distraction from the interesting (emphasis mine). Thus the problem of fatigue of directed attention may well be of comparatively recent vintage.

If I may paraphrase, I agree with Kaplan that modern life is rather sucky. Yet, if anything many tasks of paleolithic living such as hide tanning, acorn grinding, and basketry, are incredibly slow and tedious, and would seem to require directed attention. Are they the equivalent of primitive homework? And if so, is that ability to concentrate restored by practicing more scout-like skills which require a more the ADHD style of attention!? And doesn’t “gentle absorption” or “soft-facsination” sounds a lot like being in wide-angle vision!?

Cold Cleavers Tea: Tastes Rad


I was demonstrating the cold infusion technique to a class of herbalism students when I discovered my new favorite drink: cold cleavers (Galium aparine) infusion. I had never actually used the cold infusion method on cleavers before. “It tastes like Easter!” I exclaimed. “Banana Laffy Taffy!” said Gabe. You can decide what it tastes like for yourself by chopping up a bunch of fresh cleavers and suspending them in a cloth at the top of a jar of cold water approximately overnight.

-Michael Moore says, “It has feeble effects on liver function but it one of the few herbs that has some healing value and yet may be used during hepatitis without fear of irritation,” and “In cases of urinary calculi or gravel…drink two or three teaspoons of the juice in a cup of water three time a day.”

-Juliette de Bairacli Levy writes, “Its refrigerant properties  make it excellent for all fevers, including smallpox and typhus. For skin troubles including dandruff. It is also an effective jaundice remedy…taken internally, cleavers is also a hair tonic and does much to help check tooth decay.”

-Gregory Tilford says, “Herbalists frequently use cleavers in the healing of stomach ulcers, ovarian cysts, tonsillitis or in circumstances where the lymph circulation seems to be chronically or acutely impaired. Because this herb is safe in large doses over extended periods, it is commonly used as a preventative ‘lymphatic tonic.’”

-Susun Weed comments, “I find it unsurpassed for easing tender, swollen breasts, PMS symptoms, and mild lymphedema. It is also reduces allergic reactions.”

-David Hoffman adds, “Cleavers is helpful in skin conditions, especially the dry types, such as psoriasis.”

-Emily Porter says, “That’s all good, but more importantly, it tastes rad.”