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.