Here in the West, we harvest Cottonwood buds from primarily the Black Cottonwood, Populus balsamifera, to make Balm of Gilead. In the East look for Eastern Cottonwood, P. deltoids, and farther north, Balsam Poplar, P. balsamifera, is more common. Populus candicans and P. nigra buds are also commonly harvested for medicine, according to Maude Greive in A Modern Herbal, although the original Balm of Gilead tree was likely the Commiphora Opobalsamum, which grows from Saudi Arabia to Egypt.
Balm of Gilead is made from the sweet, sticky, resinous spring buds from the Cottonwood or Poplar tree in North America and many other temperate to colder climates. The scent is distinctive, both sweet and green like the muddy banks of a spring creek just awakening from a long winter’s nap. Once you’ve smelled then, you’ll recognize the scent immediately even years later. Cottonwoods and Poplars that produce these magnificent herbal medicinal treasures generally like damp climates, like what you’ll find near a river, stream, creek, or potentially near inland lakes. As they awaken in spring, their sap flows upward, filling their buds with the energy needed to burst form into leaf. That resinous sap is filled with anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and warming constituents or energy that feeds the young leaves as they develop, protecting them from disease and giving them the nutrition and energy they need to become the tree’s powerhouse through summer.
Where to find Cottonwood and Poplar Tree Medicine
Black Cottonwood, like many of its Poplar cousins, prefers warm, moist soil. In the Pacific Northwest, that means near streams, rivers, sloughs, and creeks. In the Midwest, it’s more often near lakes and in areas where the land tends toward wetlands rather than dry prairie. Cottonwood trees can withstand the cold of a Minnesota or Alaskan winter and can also be at home in the heat of a Northern Californian summer. So long as they have regular access to water for their roots, they’re surprisngly tolerant.
Landscaping with Cottonwood and Poplar
Cottonwoods and Poplars are popular landscaping trees because they provide ample dappled shade in summer and the grow quite quickly. Under the rigth conditions, you may see as much as 8 feet (2.5 m) or more growth in a single season. Most will top out around 100 feet (30.5 m) with a diameter at the trunk of about 6 feet (2 m) and a shade zone of about 75 feet (23 m). Expect the Cottonwood you started from seed to be with you for around 70-100 years, although Cottonwoods have been known to live as long as 200 years or more in the wild.
The downside to landscaping with Cottonwoods and related Poplars is that they tend to shed loads of seeds on light, fluffy tufts that some folks find bothersome on the lawn…and more importantly they also shed loads of pollen in the spring. The allergy sufferers in your neighborhood may not thank you for planting a row of Cottonwoods, even if they are doing a superb job of stabilizing a creek bank or pond’s edge or are offering a lovely windbreak or privacy screen between your yards.
You may find that you’re not entirely pleased with your choice eventually, too. Cottonwoods and Poplars are in the Willow family, which means they share Willow’s tenacity and supreme capacity for regeneration. Cottonwoods and Poplars reproduce by seeds…and also by tenacious runners and shoots. Even Cottonwood trees that have been logged or cut down have the capacity to send up new shoots and start life anew, just like their Willow cousins. Be sure that you’re prepared for potential expansion of your Cottonwood or Poplar grove before you fully commit to the planting of it!
Gathering Cottonwood or Poplar Buds
If you’re planning to gather Cottonwood or Poplar buds to make Balm of Gilead or for tincturing, Spring is the time to do it. Cottonwoods and Poplars are known as self-pruners. That means that the branches that are already weaker or less desirable from the tree’s perspective are shed. Cottonwoods and Poplars have an inherent capacity to recognize which branches they wish to shed and to slow resin or sap flowing as strongly to them. This weakens the branch somewhat, making it more susceptible to breaking during early spring wind, snow, or rain storms. For herbalists, every such bout of sharp weather offers up opportunity. Although the tree may not have fed that particular budding branch as well as the rest, it’s still plumped up those buds aplenty.
When setting out to gather Cottonwood or Poplar buds, be sure to bring a bag or container you don’t mind potentially recycling…or tucking away to serve as your dedicated Cottonwood or Poplar bud vessel year after year. The resin from the buds will stick good and tight to whatever the buds touch, including your fingers. You may want to tuck a pair of disposable gloves into your gear bag, too.
As you’re hiking about, look for Cottonwood or Poplar branches that have fallen under the drip line of the tree. The branches are often almost knobby at the joints near each bud, although they can be pretty smooth, too. The buds are generally somewhat long with pointed tips. You can do a search on the internet to find a wealth of good pictures to help you identify both the Cottonwood or Poplar trees in your area and their buds. Truly, though, you’ll know you’ve found the right branches when you smell the buds. They should be somewhat sticky and resinous with a scent like the bank of a creek or river in early spring, green, somewhat floral with undertones of freshly turned earth. After having smelled that scent once, you’ll be able to recognize it for years to come, so asking your local herablist or botanist to help you on your first Cottonwood or Poplar foray may be the perfect way to get started.
Balm of Gilead is by far the most popular herbal remedy for which modern herbalists, homesteaders, and primitive living specialists gather Cottonwood and Poplar buds. It’s essentially an infused oil made with fresh, sticky spring buds. I’ve made it using both the hot-infused method and the cold-infused method, both with excellent results.
Patti Leahy of World Energy Healing taught both Sue and I that if you use the cold-infusion method, you can keep it infusing for longer, thereby creating more oil in the end. To do so, begin with your standard cold infusion and let it stand until you like the scent, usually a couple of months or more. Strain off as much as you desire off the top then top it off and let the buds work further. Continue straining off and topping off with more oil until the oil no longer picks up a good, strong scent after a couple of months…potentially several years after you started that first infusion with those buds.
Beyond Balm of Gilead, Cottonwood or Poplar buds make a lovely anti-microbial and analgesic tincture. You’ll need a higher proof alcohol to effectively extract the resinous properties from the buds. A grain alcohol with a proof of at least 150 should suffice. I generally aim for a 1:5 ratio.
Once spring has passed, Cottonwood and Poplar medicine doesn’t have to be completely done. Native peoples decocted the bark of the Cottonwood for use to soothe sore throats and fight off cold and flu symptoms. It’s also quite useful for menstrual cramps, according to Adrian White of Deer Nation Apothecary and Jupiter Ridge Farm in Iowa. As she rightly suggests, the best bark to harvest from Cottonwood or Poplar is from a tree that’s already fallen, preferably a freshly fallen tree. If you’re gifted with an abundance of Cottonwood trees in your area, you can most certainly seek freshly fallen branches or harvest suckers or shoots from those in more landscaped areas.
Be sure to harvest from areas where you are certain no pesticides or similar chemicals have been sprayed…and be sure to ask permission before harvesting any part of a living tree no matter where it is growing.