Cottonwood (Populus spp)
by Gabby Allen
The majestic Populus spp, commonly known as cottonwood, Black Cottonwood, Balm of Gilead, and Western Balsam Poplar, is a fast growing tree in the Salicaceae family, of which some species grow up to 100 ft tall. 1) It’s rather prolific, and any of them, or group of them, are commonly kept company by many fledglings bursting beneath its canopy. The buds contain a sticky, highly aromatic resin containing soothing medicinal properties.
In the early spring, the buds open up and release their seed. For a handful of days, mobs of the seed of some varieties of cottonwood can be viewed skipping across the ground. Many species of cottonwood have seeds that resemble its namesake. They are commonly blamed for people’s sustained sneezing and other allergic irritations. I’m sure the allergy is true, at least for people with tree allergies. I can’t help but wonder though, if perhaps the plume of cottony fertility is simply a visible neck of which a noose of justification can be hung.
With gratitude I find that cottonwood seeds are not on my personal list of spring time nose irritants, and I quite enjoy the blizzard of fluff, whirling about the world. It’s entertaining to watch the next generation of seed dance about, a promise of the tree’s tenacious lineage. For me, this spring snow is a thoroughly enjoyable part of early spring. The gang of cottonwood seeds skipping across the ground to me contains the sound absorbing, peaceful qualities of the snow that it resembles, but also the playful joy of spring. A delightful, tangible contradiction that illustrations the undoubtedly active process its goes through in the winter, when many others are sleeping, so that it may be first amongst the springtime dancers. The first spied drop of glowing resin, the starting step of the dance has become to me a welcome mark of the end of winter.
The leaves are full form late spring and early summer. This feels like its most mellow time, not in regards to movement, but to growth. The flexible limbs move and sway for a delightful summer wind symphony. My sons gift me many cottonwood leaves throughout the warm months. The scent is much more mild in the summer, but the leaves make music.
Not uniquely the leaves shed and tumble in the fall. This action creates a truly wonderful aromatic experience of walking across a bed of what’s essentially potpourri. The dry leaves crunch underfoot and the scent wafts up right into your being. A smile is an irresistible expression during this moment.
My encounters with cottonwood, collectively and individually, feel very serendipitous, to say it lightly. Throughout my studies of herbalism, it seems that there has always been a single herb I was particularly fixated on. I’d read and would actively use others; but lemon balm, rose, nettle, have all held the bulk of my attention in turn. Chiefly amongst them stands cottonwood, responsible for fostering the most fulfilling and persistent relationship that I’ve had with a plant so far.
Before getting too excited about the multidimensional functionality and fascination of plants, it must first be acknowledge that many botanically based websites function seasonally. That means that if calendula graces your social media feed with its presence during the height of summer, that’s sort of a given. My encounters with cottonwood were different. It did indeed grace the feed of a frequented herb site in late winter, when the buds are ripe for harvesting. That was all...normal. The part that was different happened before, and after.
My first time hearing of cottonwood in any capacity other than that of complaint, was a somewhat dramatic event. I lived in Enterprise, Oregon as a teen, a lovely place, with many very large, very blue mountains. My father had a shop there that I, naturally, spent a lot of time at. It was a saddle shop, and in addition to being a place of business, it was the hangout spot for the sort that enjoy hanging out in a saddle shop (which is a vastly eclectic group of people).
One such individual was a man named Kenneth Hunt, an artist and herbalist from Imnaha, Oregon. At that time of our meeting, I had no prior capacity to comprehend his plant knowledge, and was more fixated on him as an artist. He was experienced in many things and knowledge flowed from him freely.
After one pleasant afternoon period of chitchat Kenneth said his goodbyes and walked out the door to continue about his day. Only a few moments had passed before he walked right back in, as many had in the past to collect abandoned keys, or hat, or wild rag. The manner he was hoping to address however was the largish cut he had on his hand.
There’s no recollection of what precisely he had done to earn himself such a wound, but I certainly won’t forget his calm request for duct tape. My dad, with at least basic first aid skills and a kit handy, offered his services. However, Kenneth insisted all he needed was the tape. With confidence he assured us that upon his return home he would slather the wound in cottonwood salve, and would be fit as rain after that. It was a rare moment in which my dad was absolutely polite and diplomatic about his disagreement, and I think that was simply because he was flabbergasted.
Cottonwood salve. The gusto and passion with which he described cottonwood to us was certainly intriguing, but I was skeptical. My father and I ate garlic during illness and harvested rosehips in the late winter, so I wasn’t completely alien to the practical usefulness of botanicals. To me though, young, know it all-y, and inexperienced, what he was claiming seemed unlikely at best. He offered to have us at his home to witness and help with the making of cottonwood salve during a coming weekend. We accepted.
I had not previously been to the Imnaha portion of the Wallowa Oregon area. Imnaha feels as though it’s right inside one of those blue mountains I mentioned. I guess because, it pretty much is. Part of our visit was at sunset, burning time as he called it, where the surrounding tall hills quite clearly resemble a raging forest fire.
Looking back, I wish in a way that I could recall everything that he had said, and everything that he had shown me. There were so many new things I was being introduced to that I suppose it was impossiblefor my brain the grasp onto the details of what I was being shown. It was an enlightening show of his various passions despite my botanically ignorant mind.
I watched the exchange between him and my father mostly silent. I found myself unfairly skeptical when he told us his wife uses cottonwood salve to retain some of the tautness of her skin. A decade later my skepticism was humbled shortly after the birth of my second child, and I’d certainly think twice before raising my brow to an experienced herbalist’s account ever again, no matter how it goes against what I think I know.
He gave us the full experience, start to finish. Picking the buds and making them into salve. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to make use of it, as the world moved to fast for me at the time. Regardless, the experience was nourishing.
And one that I completely forgot about. In the bombardment of insanity of my reaming teen years, and the focus shifting of my early twenties, I gave no additional thought to that day until nearly a decade later.
For that time, the only association I had with cottonwood was mild amusement at its yearly seed shedding. A long time later, I checked in on a frequented herb site while bored at work. It was a welcome reprieve and I passively clicked on and read a cottonwood monograph that graced the front page. At this point I had fallen in love with and studied herbalism on my own for a few years.
Also during that time, my family and I were searching frantically for a suitable rental in the middle of winter. Our small town Oregon location did not offer a whole lot of acceptable living structures at the time. My husband and I were both working full time, so when something suitable finally did come along, we had to pounce on it before scheduling allowed me to view it. I was only a tiny bit nervous about this, because at that point I would have settled for something that was simply clean and structurally sound.
Much to my delight, it was perfect. Clean, structurally sound, and then some. We got the keys in the evening and stayed the night there. The next morning I strolled outside to view my new yard in the daylight, and I received a grand welcome from two towering cottonwood trees. There was a moments pause, like when you see a childhood friend after many years.
The moment passed when the scent found me. The unmistakable aroma traveled through my nose and busted down the door that was holding back a flood of memories that I’d brushed aside for matters that seemed more pressing at the time. A very short time after reading that monograph on cottonwood, I found myself face to face with two mature trees, and in my own space no less. Even an attempt at not appreciating the serendipitous timing would be impossible.
Naturally I reached out to every resource I had at the time for information on this plant. To my delight, my suspicion was confirmed and the buds were ready to pick (when they are resinous and sticky). This was why the scent was so easily detectable in the air at the time of our reuniting.
We got to work outside on a garden and fire pit, putting us in need of wood. Wood for fires, of course, as well as for a hugelkuture garden I was building. My husband had made a habit of checking the free section of Craiglist for this and other new home needs, and told me one day, about two weeks after moving in, that there was a tree that had fallen on someone’s property that they wanted removed. To my delight, it was a cottonwood tree.
I harvested many, many cottonwood buds that year. The recent windfall held hundreds (thousands?) of easily accessible buds. I had the pleasure of viewing its partner who’d survived the storm. This great tree and its fallen comrade towered proudly at somewhere around 100 feet.
The wood was used for spring fires and in part, went into the huglebed. Amongst other things I’d read at that time, I learned that cottonwood is a thirsty tree, and I thought perhaps the extra water holding capabilities would be good for the huglebed, who in theory will eventually not have to be watered. I placed the branches in the hole I’d dug, along with a few rotten logs to make up for the greenness of the recently fallen limbs.
I also have given thought to the high silica content, an important mineral for strong plants that are resistant to pests and disease. I have no idea if any of my mild musings holds true, but a year later my huglebed is doing very well, and gives many promises for this growing season. It would probably be much the same if I’d placed nearly any other type of wood there, but the fact that those branches are underneath the roots of my herbs, vegetables, and berries, brings me much delight and that in and of itself is beneficial. 5)
Cottonwood is one of those that has become a part of my everyday life. The only preparation I have made so far with cottonwood is infused oil, of which I make salve and body butter. Rather, booty butter, as a good friend of mine insists I call it due to it’s undeniable luxuriousness. It truly is the most lovely thing I’ve ever slathered on the hardworking skin of a mother.
This was the moment when my skepticism of Kenneth’s wife’s experiences with cottonwood were proven woefully unfair. My second pregnancy found me more consciously trying to prevent some of the usual discomforts associated with the rapid growth of mother and babe, and I used cottonwood body butter with religious gusto. Two breastfed children later, cottonwood salve and body butter have done my autonomy a real solid. There’s a lot to be said for wearing the scars we have earned through our bearing, birthing and nurturing, but so too is something to be said for making use of our very available herbal allies in hope of extending our vitality.
Continuing on my praise of cottonwood for the skin; as a moderately modified individual, I value cottonwood as a tattoo healer. Now I know that intentionally stabbing ink into your skin that is undoubtedly full of all manner of unnatural things may not be considered the most healthy thing a person can do to their body. But you know, we do how we do, and when we do that, I’ve found it to be a trusted antibacterial, ultra healing salve to slather all over my new (and old) artwork. I’ve heard tattooed people say that the wildly annoying, itchy phase of a healing tattoo is part of the process, you must earn your ink. However, I just really don’t think those poor souls have ever experienced the soothing nature of liberal amounts of cottonwood salve applied to fresh ink. I also have used Hypericum and Calendula salve for healing tattoos, both of which were also was wonderfully soothing. In this situation though, I do prefer making use of cottonwood.
There was this one time an associate of mine found themselves working an insane amount of hours per week. An unfortunate situation found a usually conscious whole foods and water consumer relying heavily on energy drinks and fast food. Some unfortunate combination of what this person was using to stay on their feet with almost no sleep rewarded them with a terrible round of hemorrhoids. If the passionate words and truly frightening comparisons are to be trusted, it was an incredibly painful experience for this person.
“Having hemorrhoids is not unlike having a hot poker shoved up ones ass. Quaint butt cream commercials would describe an ‘itching burning sensation.’ I longed for simple itching and burning. Instead, the 'sensation' I got was more akin to shitting glass dipped in Tabasco. You don’t know fear until you’re afraid to POOP. It truly felt like my anus was so offended it was going to turn itself inside out and vacate residence.”
This is but one of the viciously vivid descriptions I received regarding the horrors of hemorrhoids. Apparently it’s a wholly unpleasant experience. It was accounted that application of cottonwood salve, followed by a witch hazel soaked pad, made a thumb sized hemorrhoid shrink to a pinky sized hemorrhoid over night.
We use it literally everyday thanks to it’s versatility. Dry irritated skin, especially from winter cold, acne, scrapes, bruises, bumps, and it lifts and replenishes skin that’s scared, wrinkled, stretched or otherwise marked by life’s journey, as told by the scar that isn’t on my youngest son’s face.
It’s my go to for sore, worn out nipples from suckling babes, and is a cozy drink of nourishment for tired, toddler abused breast tissue. My first son was I suppose what you would call a mellow nurser. We latched easily, he cluster fed only during growth spurts, and he weaned himself at fourteen months, regardless of my opinion on the matter. My second son, a strapping lad of larger stature, greater physical strength, and a more ravenous appetite did a number on all parts of my body, and out of pure exhaustion I encouraged weaning at 20 months.
All throughout my second pregnancy and nursing journey I had been applying cottonwood salve or body butter to my breasts. This was done once, often twice per day. Once my skin wasn’t constantly agitated and stimulated from a nursing babe or toddler, I started dry brushing. Obviously clear documentation isn’t a possibility in this case, but I feel as though it’s more than appropriate to say that cottonwood vastly exceeded any hopes or expectations I had.
While I’d never make light of the significant results that came from my use of cottonwood, it’s worth noting that I am not a large breasted woman, and I theorize results would be different, but still positive, for individuals possessing greater endowment.
I applied it multiple times per day when my two year old climber fell and earned himself an impressive head wound. A similar treatment came when he did a truly superb job of twisting his ankle because of a shoe mix up. On that occasion I alternated application of cottonwood salve with as many comfy poultices as I could find a way to get on him, so not that many.
Cottonwood salve weaned my elder son off of his woefully unsustainable bandage addiction.
I look forward to partaking in use of cottonwood in other forms. Neither I or anyone in my care has experienced a wound matching or or exceeding the one I witnessed, and part of me is really looking forward to that day.
So enamored have I been with cottonwood’s topical use, I until recently didn’t give consideration to it’s internal use. Since I have absolutely no personal experience to draw on, here is an informative bit on the herb’s internal uses from Michael Moore’s Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West.
“Finally, the tincture is a very effective therapy for chest colds, increasing protective mucus secretions in the beginning, when the tissues are hot, dry, and painful. Later, it increases the softening expectorant secretions when the mucus is hard and impacted on the bronchial walls, and coughing is painful. Further, the aromatics are secreted as volatile gases in expiration. This helps to inhibit microorganisms and lessen the likelihood of secondary, often more serious, infections.” (4)
I look forward to making use of it to combat chest colds and congestion, a common ailment amongst most members of my family.
Previously mention herbalist Kenneth Hunt, who first introduced me to cottonwood, was generous enough to highlight his experience with the herb. He accounted that the buds from mature tress make for stronger medicine than their younger neighbors. Containing salicylates, it’s great for pain and he prepares a liniment with vinegar tincture. Respiratory ailments are treated with a strong oil, applied to the chest and around the nose to make use of it’s aromatic properties. Kenneth refers to it as “topical aspirin” and uses it for all manner of painful ailments. (3)
One of the arts that Kenneth participates in is saddle making (which is how he ended up in my father’s shop in the first place) and reports that the wood from a cottonwood makes the best saddle tree once it’s covered with raw hide. Other uses of it’s wood include a low heat, long burning fire, pleasant for spring and fall. Although, cutting tools are dulled fast because of it’s high silica content. He informed me that it is the tree used for the Lakota Sundance. A very generous tree, he calls it. (3)
I was particularly intrigued by cottonwood’s roll in the Sun Dance and not only confirmed this with further reading, but found that cottonwood also burns in the fire for the Sun Dance, and plays a heavy roll in Lakota spirituality. (2)
Indigenous people have a vast knowledge of the flora and fauna surrounding the areas in which they travel, and it seems significant to me that of all of the trees, they chose cottonwood for an abundantly sacred ceremony. Generous, to be sure.
At the very height of my fanciful hopes and daydreams, the indigenous of America are right on point, and cottonwood has an invested interest in sticking along side us through the twists and turns of our physical and spiritual journeys. At the other end of my consciousness where strict practicality and logic reside, I’m reminded that it all could be very happenchance. Even then, I’ve developed a relationship with this plant that began at a vulnerable time and the kinship and joy I feel is cherishable.
Gabby Allen is a student herbalist, writer, artist, and work-at-home mother currently residing in Roseburg, Oregon. She has spent the last four or so years on mostly self-study, and aspires towards higher education, and a career focused on holistic support of women's health. As a mother of two adventurous boys, she frequently finds uses for the plethora of medicine and nourishment around her, and continually seeks out methods and wisdom she may apply to her family's wellness, as well as ways to aid in the support of plant allies. She attempts steps everyday towards balance and integration between and among her passions. Gabby is also completely enamored with fermentation, is an organic gardening enthusiast, and budding seeker of wild foods. For more from Gabby you can visit her at GabbyLynnAllen.com.
1) herbworld.com - accessed March 26, 2017
2) The sun dance and other ceremonies of the Oglala division of the Teton Dakota by James R. Walker
3) Consultation with herbalist, Kenneth Hunt
4) Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West by Michael Moore