Cottonwoods, depending on whom you consult, are generally drying, warming trees. Although they’re chock full of potent plant medicine, they’re often overlooked in herbal literature. Willow and meadowsweet generally get the spotlight, and with good reason. They, like Cottonwood, offer pain relief and antimicrobial action, both of which are sorely needed in our times, but they also grow quickly and readily, making them a terrific sustainable source of herbal pain relief.
Traditional Herbal literature, meaning TCM, Ayurveda, and Western Herbalism, offers little on the energetics of Cottonwood and Poplar. We have references to a variety of Folk uses of these trees, which were most likely rooted in a solid understanding of the energetics and medicine they offer, but we don’t know necessarily have documentation of the energetic logic for those uses. What we do have is literature mentioning Folk uses of Cottonwood and Poplar.
Folk use of plants as medicine are generally passed down through word-of-mouth teachings. The energetic language for how or why the plant works within the human body as it does isn’t necessarily connected to one of the three primary energetic herbal systems we recognize today as Traditional Herbal Practice…or it may have been lost long ago.
The important part, from the Folk use perspective, is that the remedy works and it has been working reliably across many people and many ages. That’s true evidence-based herbal practice, in that the evidence is in the experience of the herbalist and herbal teachers, sweeping across generations and often continents. In the case of Cottonwood and Poplar, modern herbalists have scientific study that backs those Folk uses. And, we have some references to herbal properties that align with both the Folk uses and scientific studies. From that, we can extrapolate how Cottonwood and Poplar energetics can be described in the context of Traditional Herbal Practice.
Traditional Western Herbalism and Cottonwood, Poplar
Herbalists who aim to use local herbs as often as possible can turn to Cottonwood his cousins in the Poplar family for their ability to manage watery conditions effectively. Traditional Western Herbalists would describe Cottonwood’s action as drying, toning, and gently warming. Just as Cottonwood soaks in and manages excess water along rivers, creeks, and other waterways, Cottonwood herbal remedies are effective at helping the body firm tissues that have become sodden and lax. The warming and drying action of Cottonwood encourages the body to increase circulation, thereby moving the excess water into the proper channels and allowing the area to dry and recover. Cottonwood’s herbal actions include antimicrobial, anti-fungal, antibacterial, circulating or improving circulation, and toning. The taste is slightly sweet and strongly astringent with a little spice or fire.
Traditional Chinese Medicine and Cottonwood, Poplar
From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, Cottonwood’s action would be described as warming, drying, and somewhat diaphoretic. Cottonwood trees contain potent antimicrobial constituents designed to protect the tree in an exceedingly damp and potentially cold environment. The action is one of driving the invading forces away while firming up and balancing the inner tissues, hence the diaphoretic action coupled with warming and drying properties. Cottonwood is commonly used to treat sore throats and respiratory derangement related to colds and flus, making it a good potential herb for calming conditions resulting from invading wind. It’s also used topically for rheumatoid arthritic conditions as well as sore muscles and joints, making it a potential remedy for bi conditions.
Ayurveda and Cottonwood, Poplar
Ayurvedic practitioners would likely consider Cottonwood to be dominantly a Kapha balancer or reducer with Vata-increasing and neutral Pitta properties. When taken internally or topically, Cottonwood encourages the body’s circulation to move, carrying away excessive moisture and tonifying the tissues. It is commonly used in cold and flu remedies because it helps calm Vata, allowing the body to strengthen it’s boundaries and drive out invading energies. Topically, Cottonwood helps to strengthen Kapha while drawing on Pitta to drive out infection, manage inflamed conditions, and prevent infection from moving deeper into the body.
Common and Folk Uses for Cottonwood and Poplar
By all accounts, Cottonwood is antibacterial and anti-fungal as well as diaphoretic and diuretic, driving excess water and microbials to the surface and out. According to Adrian White, Cottonwood has been included in many folk remedies to reduce pain and inflammation related to colds, flus, and similar respiratory infections and conditions. We also have scientific research connecting Cottonwood with the ability to stop infectious activity in the body. Although Cottonwood’s affinity may appear to be for the respiratory system, the Kidneys, bladder, and related tissues are more likely Cottonwood’s true affinity. Use of Cottonwood by traditional cultures connects it to water management within the body, including for wet, cold respiratory conditions, diarrhea and related digestive problems, and diseases like malaria.
Topically, Cottonwood has been used in folk medicine to prevent infection and assist in healing wounds as well as ease pain in sore, swollen, or otherwise damaged muscles and joints. I’ve seen it pair well with Solomon’s seal to ease pain and tension in ligaments and muscles, particularly those that have been overworked or have a history of chronic tension. As a topical for wounds, Cottonwood’s antimicrobial action is as protective as it is preservative. Rosalee de la Foret recommends using a little Cottonwood oil or Balm of Gilead in topical herbal creams, lotions, oils and salves to prevent spoilage because it is such an amazing preservative.
Aromatherapy and Cottonwood, Poplar
Cottonwood buds are powerfully sweet, floral, and fragrant. They hint of the renewal of spring, with earthy undertones and that wonderful riverside damp scent anyone who’s strolled alongside a wooded creek or river in spring will recognize in an instant. They activate the inner fires needed to move stagnant emotion to the surface, just as they drive infection to the surface and help drain excess water from the body.
Folks who struggle with deep, stuck emotional pain can turn to Cottonwood for help finding the courage or heart to stir those waters. Cottonwood flower essence can help draw forth the stuck pain, sorrow, and grief that’s stagnated, creating excess tension, depression, a sense of cold or heaviness about life. Just as Cottonwood manages the waters in its home by the river, it can helps those who suffer from a seeming excess of emotion as well. Drama, states of over reaction or reactionary thinking rooted in emotional responses to the situation at hand, and generalized weepiness or emotion that seems excessive or never-ending call for Cottonwood’s direction in helping one’s emotional body to clear the excess and re-balance into a healthy state of ebb and flow.
Using Cottonwood for Mental Health, Emotional Health
To use Cottonwood as an emotional remedy, try using Flower essence, or try Balm of Gilead, liniment or tincture, and fresh buds of cottonwood in light or homeopathic-style doses. This light-handed approach allows the body to yield to the energetic patterning Cottonwood offers. Alternatively, you can create a room-spray or simmered potpourri using tincture, liniment, or fresh buds to help clear your space to manage excessive or stuck emotions or you can powder the fresh buds and add them to incense. Cottonwood bark and leaves are also suitable for incense, although the scent won’t be the lovely spring-like scent you get from the buds and the energy they’ll impart to your blend will be more subtle and potentially more structured or firmly supportive of your magickal intent.