On an early saturday morning in January and I drive out to the Sandy river as it empties into the Columbia. Along the banks tall fast growing black cottonwoods sprout like weeds. I can smell the rich fragrant scent from far away. Sweet resin exudes from the newly formed reddish brown buds. A recent windstorm has downed a couple tall trees and their branches hang heavy with aromatic perfume. I bend down and make a few prayers. Here in the Northwest this is the start off the gathering season. Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) delivers her medicine and magic as a gift to the winds. Breathe in that overwhelming sweet luxurious hedonic scent. The perfume smells like a warm bath, like soft sunshine on the belly, like a gift for those who are scared, grieving, sad.
Cottonwood lifts, opens, allows the body to release, tears to flow, aches to be soothed, fears to dissipate. I am in the midst of a mystery, the way that plants and humans have played with each other for thousands of years. When I collect those resinous buds and bring them home and infuse them in oil, honey and alcohol, I am helping transmute those proto-flowers into Medicine. Herbalists call the infusion of cottonwood in oil “balm of gilead”, a term borrowed from an ancient Biblical preparation of resinous buds (from different trees) in oil. And indeed it is a balm, a balm for aches and pains yes, but really a balm for the soul, for the sadness that lies within us, for what we’ve lost, how we have been mistreated and ignored, for the tears caught in our throat. Like the rivers cottonwood grows by, the tree helps us to flow again, to move, to release and remember our shining golden hearts.
Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) is the most common Populous species near where I live in Portland, Oregon. Further East toward the drier side of the mountains, its cousin Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) commonly grows. We find black cottonwood along river banks and in rich moist well drained soil. This tree needs lots of water and grows quickly upwards of a 100 feet tall. Because it is quick growing, black cottonwood tends to be brittle and easily toppled by wind. That is why you will find branches and whole trees in a field of cottonwoods after a good windstorm. That makes it a great find for ethical wild crafters, who deeply consider the ecology of place before gathering any plant. In this case, the buds from fallen branches will never play a role in energy production and can be gathered without harming the living trees.
Come back when it has warmed up a bit and you may find bees swarming around a cottonwood tree. Bees are deeply entwined with the mystery and magic of cottonwoods. They carry the cottonwood bud resin back to the nest, chew it up to make propolis and add it to their nests. antimicrobial and tough as nails, cottonwood protects and strengthens bee’s homes. This is why one of my favorite preparations is cottonwood bud honey. I like to think of the merger of these two beautiful ancient species entwining, synergizing in a beautiful dance that I can take in, taste and absorb.
Now walk a little farther into the Spring and you will see wisps of white cotton suffusing the air and gathering in clumps and windy patterns along roadsides. This is the combined fluffy seeds of the cottonwood trees, flying and dispersing itself here and there…looking for a foothold to grow anew again. Another key to its mystery is the cottonwoods ability to root from even small branchlets that have fallen. Cottonwood carries a rooting hormone known as auxin that allows even remnants to emerge and grow tall. This is part of Cottonwoods magic- the call to regenerate, that there is life hidden in us- to remember how to plant, grow forth and shoot up, to not get stuck.
Look a little more at this beauty and you will see that the buds have turned into heart shaped leaves that remind us of our own hearts. The cottonwood bark is furrowed and grey, easy to remember. The wood itself is tough as nails. So hard that a chainsaw can sometimes spark when cutting it down. Look up at the sky when it is windy and you will see cottonwoods drifting, swaying and bending, flowing with the currents of the sky. Cottonwood sits near rivers that flow and bend and move as well. Cottonwood is for times when we need the currents of own soul to move again, to rise, to thrive and open.
So how do we work with this beautiful tree that offers its gifts so kindly? Lets walk through each way. The buds are best gathered from around the Winter Solstice (Dec 21) to mid February. Pick buds that look thick juicy and resinous and gather only from downed trees and branches. You can peel the bark and gather twigs throughout the year (again from downed branches and trees only).
Parts Used: Bark, Twigs, Buds
Properties: Bark is bitter, cooling, tannic. Cottonwood buds in oil gently warming, soothing
Energetics: Analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, diaphoretic, expectorant, astringent, diuretic
Tea: The resinous buds are not easily water soluble but the bark and the twigs can be used for making tea. Simply peel a little of the bark from a downed tree or gather some of the twigs. Simply add a small handful (1/4 pounce) of bark to a pint of hot water and decoct (simmer) for 20 minutes on stove. This is an extremely bitter and tannic tasting tea that most folks (outside of freaky herbalists) will be loathe to drink. Like the buds, the bark carries salicin, a nice analgesic and this tea is best used for chronic cold with a phlegmy cough that is not easily dispersed. The tea will help reduce the feeling of body aches as well. To be used only for short periods- best with some honey. 1 cup a day is plenty- often divided into two parts.
Tincture: The tincture of the cottonwood buds can be made by filling up a small jar 3/4 of the way up and then adding 75 % alcohol to the top. Frankly that percentage of booze is mainly to bring forth all the hard to extract resinous compounds but I find the brandy tincture (40 % alcohol) is also quite effective and far more tasty. Let your tincture infuse for several weeks and then strain. Just 10-20 drops can act as an effective expectorant for stuck phlegmy coughs, for a mild analgesic and for circulation issues, stuck menses and as a bitter to improve digestive strength. I have heard it be helpful for urinary infections as it is a mild antimicrobial diuretic but I have not seen that in my private practice. I also like to take just a few drops as an emotional aid for helping to move stuck emotional symptoms. The signature here is someone who has a hard time expressing emotion, can’t cry, appears frozen.
Honey: The honey os cottonwood buds is a lovely way to work with this tree. Its like tasting the merger of bees and cottonwood. Simply place fresh (but not wet) cottonwood buds in a double boiler and add enough honey to cover. Infuse over very low heat for several days and then strain. There is a waxy propolis taste to this honey. It is wonderful for stuck congestion, phlegm and also as an aid to digestion, as an antimicrobial against infection at the onset of a cold. 1-2 teaspoons as needed.
Infused Oil/salve: This is the most common way to work with this tree. Simply gather the buds from downed branches in the late winter/early spring. Let sit for a day in a warm place until assured of dryness. Then one has two options- the cold or the warm infusion. For the cold infusion, simply place buds in a jar 3/4 of the way up and add a carrier oil to the top. Then let sit in a warm place for about a month- then strain.
One can also do a warm infusion by adding buds to a double boiler and then placing enough oil to cover by a half inch (the buds will fluff up and you may need to top up periodically.) Let sit over low heat for 2-3 days then strain.
My favorite carrier oil here is fractionated coconut oil which has no scent of its own and allows for the full expression of the buds. One can also use olive oil thought that has its own scent which competes with the scent of the cottonowood. It is also a little greasier for topical application.
The cold infusion seems to capture more minty, fresh notes and is lighter and brighter. The warm infusion captures the more rich deeper toasty toasty notes. Both are marvelous.
To make a salve simply add one part beeswax to 8 parts cottonwood oil in a double boiler and then pour into individual tins.
The oil and salve is lovely as an external analgesic agent for aches, pains, bruises and small cuts. It is effective for sunburns and is antimicrobial, protecting against external infection. It also just seems to calm and relax people and makes a lovely bioregional perfume.
Essential Oil/Hydrosol: Both the essential oil and hydrosol can be made by hydrodistillation in a still. This is a messy operation as the sticky buds get stuck on the sides of the still and can be hell to clean up. You also need a ton of the buds to get enough oil and the direct infusion in a carrier oil really gets the job done much better frankly. However, the essential oil is useful for adding to soaps, candles and diffusers to bring greater relaxation, to soothe and gently warm the spirit. The hydrosol is quite nice and can be used for a steam inhalation for stuck congestion. It can also be used for a room spray and in baths and soaks.
Incense: I have only just started to explore this way of working with cottonwood and its awesome. Simply powder the buds in a coffee grinder and add it to incense blends. The smell comes through amazingly when you burn it. I would suggest using it for the same reasons listed above, held tight tension, sanders that is difficult to express, potion both physical and emotional.
This article written by Jon Keyes, Licensed Professional Counselor and herbalist. For more articles like this, please go to www.Hearthsidehealing.com. You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.
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