Imagine you are walking through the forest as various aromas ride upon the damp air. The heavy smell of the wet, fecund earth rises to your nostrils, and cutting through all of this, you perceive the sweet, resinous smell of black cottonwood buds. Their pleasant odor brings a smile to your face. The buds are swelling—spring is on its way!
Allow yourself to be drawn to one of the nearby trees. Stand near it and feel the depth and strength of its roots. Touch the bark—feel the first hints of rising sap. Examine the buds. Feel the vigor of the nascent leaves as they prepare to unfurl to begin receiving the light of the sun. Ask the tree for permission, make offerings, and start gathering the resinous buds. With gratitude welcome the beginning of the yearly harvest cycle.
Here is the black cottonwood monograph from Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 120 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness. It arrives on shelves May 17th and is available for pre-order now. Enjoy!
parts used: bud, twig
other common names: balsam poplar
Resinous buds expel mucus from the lungs, soothe sore muscles, and speed the healing of cuts, scrapes, and burns.
How to Identify
From late winter to early spring, resinous buds swell and fill the air with their sweet fragrance. Hanging catkins (dense spikes of single-sexed flowers that lack petals), male and female on separate trees, emerge from early to late spring, followed by thick, dark green, heart-shaped leaves with pale undersides and pointed tips. Fine teeth and small hairs line the edges of the alternately arranged, deciduous leaves. After they ripen, hairy seeds burst out of 3-chambered capsules, filling the sky and covering the ground with the white fluff that gives the cottonwoods their name. Smooth bark thickens into deep furrows as the broad-trunked trees age, and brown twigs turn gray after their first year.
Where, When, and How to Wildcraft
Found throughout western North America from sea level to middle elevations, this rapidly growing tree (formerly Populus balsamifera subsp. trichocarpa) resides in wet forests and along waterways from Alaska to California. At lower elevations west of the Cascades, black cottonwood often grows in large stands in the bottomlands of large streams and rivers. East of the Cascades its range is limited to protected valleys and canyons.
From mid winter to early spring, look for low-hanging branches or limbs that have fallen to the ground after a windstorm. Cut the bud-laden branch ends. Remove buds to make a fresh tincture, or place the bud-covered twigs in bags to dry for making oils or dry bud tinctures. Leaving the slow-to-dry buds on the twigs increases airflow to speed the drying process. Save the twigs for tea after you’ve removed the dried buds to make an oil or tincture.
Warming and stimulating resins in the buds stimulate lung secretions to expel mucus, speed the healing of infections, and increase the circulation of blood to the exterior. Take the tincture in hot water to clear the lungs of hard stuck mucus that causes rattling unproductive coughs, to stimulate circulation to promote sweating and bring blood and warmth to the surface of the skin and extremities, and to help resolve nonviral lung infections.
Bitter salicylates in the buds and twigs reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Rub the oil on sore muscles and strains. The bud oil combines well with hairy arnica and/or Saint John’s wort oil to reduce joint swelling and to ease the pain and inflammation of carpal tunnel syndrome. Drink a tea of the bitter twigs for added effect.
The bud salve or butter reduces swelling, prevents infection, and promotes rapid skin cell regeneration. I find the butter especially helpful for burns and chapped lips.
On the emotional level, the deep anchoring and solidity of this tree is a signature for its ability to impart calmness. Black cottonwood teaches us to radiate a quiet dignity and to receive and transform chaotic energies. It has shown me that when I feel overwhelmed by life, there is often an internal process of change trying to take place. It asks me to stop resisting and go into the process so that the transformation can occur.
Drink 3–4 fluid ounces up to 3 times per day.
1 part fresh buds
2 parts menstruum (100 percent alcohol)
1 part dried buds
5 parts menstruum (70 percent alcohol, 30 percent distilled water)
Take 30–60 drops up to 4 times per day.
Bud Oil and Salve
Dry Herb Infused Oil 1:10
Follow the directions for a standard Dry Herb Infused Oil, but use 1 part buds by weight to 10 parts oil by volume.
Black Cottonwood Bud Butter (Adapted from Michael Moore)
dried black cottonwood buds
Measure 1 part by volume of dried black cottonwood buds. Grind them with a coffee grinder or other device to the consistency of corn meal.
In a double boiler, heat 2 parts by volume of clarified butter (also known as ghee).
Add the ground buds and simmer for 4 hours on very low heat, stirring occasionally. Heating the mixture too high will ruin the medicine.
Into a clean, dry jar, pour the warm, bud-infused butter through a cheesecloth-lined funnel to strain out the herb material.
Label accordingly, and store in a cool dry place.
Find large downed branches to harvest from, or take a few twigs from each tree. Stick branches in the ground where you harvest; they will root in and make new trees.