By: Kelley Garrison, ND
The blustery winds of winter are upon us, causing trees to bend and shake during strong gales. As you walk through the woods and parks of Bellingham and beyond, you might notice tree branches large and small littering the ground after a particularly windy storm. Not only are these branches a boon to birds and small mammals who like to seek refuge amongst the scattered twigs, they are a great place for an herbal enthusiast to find the thick, resinous buds of the Cottonwood tree.
A stand of black cottonwood trees
In the Pacific Northwest, Black Cottonwoods (Populus trichocarpa) are one of our largest hardwood trees. They tend to like wet areas and so are common along stream edges and wetlands but can be found in some upland areas as well. During the winter, their buds become saturated with a thick, sticky resin that exudes a pungent yet pleasant aroma. Sometimes this aroma is so strong you can smell it just strolling through areas where cottonwoods are abundant.
Traditionally, both the inner bark of the tree and the resin of its buds have been used for medicinal purposes. Being a part of the Willow family (Salicaceae), the Cottonwood contains a compound called salicin, which can be metabolized to form salicylic acid (a component of aspirin). Salicin, along with other compounds, impart a slew of medicinal actions including anti-inflammation, pain reduction, and astringency. All of these qualities, along with its pleasant smell, make the cottonwood buds an ideal herbal ingredient in medicinal salves. Additionally, because you can harvest the buds from dropped branches, the harvesting impact is minimal.
It should be noted that some people have a skin sensitivity to salicylic acid and might develop a rash if exposed to the resin. If you are unsure if this is true for you or not, test a small amount on a thicker area of skin before harvesting any in abundance or using the salve.
Making a Cottonwood Bud Salve
Timing is important when looking for cottonwood buds to harvest. They only exude the rich resin in mid-winter and so now is the time to go hunting for buds. Luckily for us, winter coincides with the strong winds that often send branches rich with resinous buds to the ground, making harvest relatively easy. As mentioned before, cottonwoods prefer wetter soils, so if you meander around wetlands and along riverbanks, you will likely run into quite a few.
When you come across fallen cottonwood branches, inspect the buds. You’ll want to squeeze the buds between your fingers to assess the amount of resin, looking for the thick, orange, sticky liquid. Be warned that this resin is very sticky and can stain hands and clothing, so wear gloves if you want to avoid a mess. Once you find some buds that are full of resin, pick away! The buds should come off easily from the dead branches, allowing you to pick and collect rather quickly. You’ll want to bring a small container to put the buds into as their stickiness makes them not ideal to collect in pockets or hands. Once you have collected your desired amount (I usually collect about a pint’s worth), the next step is to make a herbal infused oil.
Making the Oil Infusion
When using fresh plant material to make an oil (which we are in this case), it is important to slightly heat the oil over time to evaporate off any water that could cause the oil to spoil. The first step is to place the buds in a jar, leaving about an inch of space at the top. Fill the bud jar with an oil of your choice: I generally use either olive oil or avocado oil. Other oils to consider include: almond oil, coconut oil, grapeseed oil, and jojoba oil.
For the next step you’ll want to gently heat the oil between 100-125 degrees at a steady temperature. If you heat it at too high of a temperature, you risk destroying some of the medicinal compounds. Some crock pots have a thermostat and can be used for this purpose but generally even the “low” setting is too hot. I have a tiny crock pot called a “dipper” that is used to keep dips warm which is perfect for the purpose of making oil. You can also use a yogurt maker or even large dehydrator. If you don’t have any these, an easy option is to put the oil jar on a cooking sheet and place it in the oven. If you have a gas oven, the pilot light should keep it at a warm enough temperature. If you have an electric oven, just switch on the oven light which will give off enough heat to gently warm the oil.
You’ll want to make sure the jar is uncovered, as you’ll want the water to be able to evaporate out. Heat the oil for at least 4 hours. I tend to let mine heat for 12-24 hours since my mini crock makes it convenient, but really the main goal is to give enough time for the herbs to infuse and for the water to evaporate.
Once your oil has been heated long enough, use a strainer lined with a cheese cloth and decant the oil into a new jar. Try to squeeze as much oil out as you can as the most saturated stuff tends to be at the very bottom.
Making the Salve
Salves are fun to play with as they are easy to make and not as complicated as other topicals. To make a salve, the generally recipe is 1 ounce of beeswax to 1 cup of oil. You’ll also need a double boiler or set up a water bath over low heat.
Weigh out your desired amount of beeswax. Let’s say we are using 1 cup of oil for this recipe, so you’ll want to measure or weigh 1 ounce of beeswax. If your beeswax is in large chunks, you’ll want to break up the chunks to make it easier for them to melt. I usually use a grater to grate the blocks or put the block in a couple of plastic bags and hit it with a hammer to create smaller chunks.
Add the beeswax to the oil and using either a double boiler or water bath (pictured above) heat over low heat. Stir occasionally until the beeswax is fully melted. Once melted, just pour the mixture into your desired salve containers. The salve should harden over the next 5-10 minutes. Add lids to your container and you are all set! The salves should last about 1-2 years as long as they are kept away from heat.
Using the Salve
Cottonwood bud salve is great for topical pains and mild surface wounds. Generally, you never want to use a salve on a deep wound like a puncture wound because you don’t want to heal the surface of the skin more quickly than the deeper layers as this could lead to an abscess. For this reason, salves are better for things like abrasions, muscle soreness, and sprains and strains. When offering this salve to others make sure to mention that it contains salicyclic acid as a warning in case people have known sensitivities. Application should be avoided in these cases.