Have you ever gone to take your shoes off after a walk in the park to notice that the soles are covered with orange sticky buds? Those are cottonwood buds, and they a medicinal favorite. Incidentally, those are also the trees that release a ridiculous amount of fluff in the spring that accumulates in the gutters to look like snow. The season for harvesting those wonderfully sticky buds is here yet again, and I am currently brimming with enthusiasm for the indispensable medicine they offer.
Finding and Identifying:
Scan the skyline and look for incredibly tall, naked, white barked trees. The bark will have black scars on it. Also, inspect the ground to see if there are large, waxy heart shaped leaves. Finally, the branches should have fat buds. The buds should smell very aromatic. If you pull a bud from the tip of a branch, there should be orange resin inside (note that not ALL buds contain resin, only the leaf buds do).
Cottonwood is a common name which refers to some members of the Populus genus of trees. Aspen and Poplar trees are also in that genus. All members of this family share similar medicinal action, though each species has its own unique twist. Our native poplar is black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), though there are many other species in the Populus genus that are planted in parks and neighborhood green patches. In this article I am referring mostly to black cottonwood, though there is a species in my yard that has been striking my fancy and makes a lovely honey. Find what Populus species grows near you and try it out!
Trees in the Populus genus are most closely related to willows, as they are both in the willow family. They both have fuzzy seeds, and they both have salicylates in the bark (a compound that's like aspirin). They also both adore water. You're most likely to find black cottonwood near water, in wetlands, or in damp lowland areas. Black cottonwoods have a distinctive smell, so you almost don't need to look for them. They are an incredibly tall tree, and they grow quickly. The branches break off easily, and the trees themselves frequently blow down in storms (an excellent harvesting opportunity).
Aspens have a different growth habit (generally found in drier places like Montana and Colorado), and tend to have less resin in the buds. My limited experience with aspens has been that the buds are not as resinous, but that the bark seems to be tastier and higher in salicylates (the anti-inflammatory compound).
The buds near the top of the tree are the fattest and juiciest, so the ideal harvesting situation is to find a downed tree. Always break one open to make sure there is orange, sticky resin inside and smell it. It has a unique piney/ resiny/ musk smell that you won't ever forget. I know some people that make perfume from it. Then, pick off just the bud, making sure to check the base for rot (which will look black). Chuck any that may be rotten inside.
I find it useful to remember medicinal actions in threes. Here are my top three uses of cottonwood.
1. Warming anti-inflammatory for sore muscles and joints
2. Antimicrobial for cuts
3. Lung congestion and deep, phlegmy coughs
Following are a few different preparations. Because of it's high resin content (which is not water soluble), cottonwood likes to be prepared in some particular ways. Tea, for example, is not my first choice. And though a high alcohol tincture is very potent, I haven't found much convenient use for it that honey wasn't a ton better at.
Infused honey for coughs:
Making a plant infused honey is super easy, especially when you're using fresh plant material. Just after you've picked the buds and picked out any moldy or rotten ones, you can fill a jar 2/3 full, and then fill the rest up with honey. If you don't warm the honey first, it may take a while for the honey to seep in among the buds, so you must be patient. Let that sit for several days, turning it every so often to mix it up. The honey will start to pull out the water and medicinal stuff, and the honey should get visibly thinner. After 3-7 days, you can strain it through a fine mesh strainer into another jar. I like to refrigerate honeys I've made with fresh plant material, since the added water makes them more likely to spoil.
If your honey is thicker, or you are working with dried buds, you may have to put the sealed jar in a hot water bath. This could be a crock pot full of water on low, or a pot on the stove full of water on low. Sometimes people leave it for extended periods (easier with the crockpot method), to get a better extraction. I like to taste the honey periodically to see if the strength is enough for me.
I like poplar bud honey best for sore throats and lung congestion. Resinous plants stir up deep phlegm and help get it out of the body. The buds are also antimicrobial, and the honey is antimicrobial and soothing, making it ideal for sore throats. You can eat it by the teaspoonful, or add it to hot water and drink it like tea.
Infused oil for sore joints:
Infused oil is the classic preparation for the resinous buds. I like to make the infused oil by putting the buds and oil in an open jar, and then leaving the crockpot on low for 1-2 days. If you want it quicker, you can put the same jar in a boiling pot of water and let it sit for an hour or two. In general, I don't heat oil directly in the pan, since it can damage the oil and sometimes deep fry the plant material. I have used both olive oil and coconut oil and found them both fantastic.
All the kitchen implements you use for this will end up with sticky resin on it, so be ready to clean it up, or just use the same designated bowls and spoons for it. The resin can be removed with rubbing alcohol.
The salve is useful for a few different things, including as an antimicrobial for cuts, and for sore joints (think carpal tunnel). I like to add pine sap, which makes it more warming and good for cold, still, sore joints. You could also add chili, ginger or willow to play up the joint application. Be aware that because of the resin content, poplar oil can be a little irritating to already irritated skin. It may not be the best choice for rashes, etc. It is not, however, as irritating as pine sap is, in my experience
Using the bark
Some Populus species have very nice, aromatic bark. Black cottonwood is not a favorite of mine, but quaking aspen happens to be delicious. The aroma is a sign that the resin is in the bark, too, which means that you can make an infused honey out of it with similar properties as the bud honey. However, you will find that the bark has more of the painkilling part, and less of the expectorant, anti-microbial part.
The bark is diuretic, anti-inflammatory. It moves stagnation in the kidneys and urinary tract (though perhaps not quite as well as plants such as nettle or red alder). When in Montana, I mixed aspen twigs with a native Potentilla species as a tea, which was actually fairly delicious and effective at counteracting the borderline urinary tract you can get when eating too much processed food and sugar when camping.
Storing extra buds
Generally, I put extra buds directly in the freezer, though you can also dry them and keep them in a glass jar or paper bag (I use the paper bag in case there's still moisture in the middle of the bud). You can only pick them in late winter, so it's nice to have some around the rest of the year.