Cottonwood: Winter Wild-Harvesting
By Sarah Jaroskye
If you have an innate sense of curiosity about the natural world, as I do, you may have noticed the white cottony fluff blowing through the summer air near a grove of cottonwood trees. Like me, you may have marveled at how trees could produce “cotton.” The fluff carries cottonwood seeds and a lucky few (for us and them) germinate and in about 10 years they will send off their own cotton-like seed pods. The seeds take root on bare ground. They favor growing in moist places and are often found along rivers and streams in Canada and the United States.
Yakima Area Arboretum
I have been fascinated by the rich, earthy, balsamic-scented resin the leaf buds exude as they prepare to open up into leaves in spring. The name often used to describe them, “Balm of Gilead,” gave me an even greater sense of wonder about this aromatic medicine.
Sarah Jaroskye /Terra Flora Herbals
Here is a very brief bit of history on this alluring plant medicine: many call it “Balm of Gilead,” a name stemming from biblical references to a balm made from a plant with similar healing resin, although it was a different species of plant growing in another part of the world. The sticky sap was also used as glue by Native Americans.
From the salicaceae family (or willow, know for pain relieving among other properties), balsam poplar (populus balsamifera) and western balsam poplar (populus trichocarpa) (also known as black cottonwood) are native to western North America. (Map from: http://plants.findthedata.org/l/1310/Populus-balsamifera-ssp-trichocarpa)
Eastern cottonwood (populus deltoides) is a cottonwood native to North America, growing throughout the eastern, central, and southwestern United States, the southernmost part of eastern Canada and into northeastern Mexico. (Map from: http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=pode3)
Herbal actions of this fragrant treasure include:
- analgesic (pain relieving)
The resin extracts best in oil or alcohol. I am currently infusing oil for skincare recipes.
I am using a simple infused oil method: I have filled a mason jar halfway with my harvested buds and added olive oil to fill the jar almost to the top (shaking it several times each day and ensuring that the buds are submerged in the oil to prevent mold). Next, I will let that sit on a plate (or paper towel) to catch leaking oil. It should sit for a minimum of 6-8 weeks, unless I use the gentle heat from my crock pot to speed up the process. They have been in the oil for 12 hours so far and I can already smell the fragrance of the buds and see little red dots of resin coming out of them.
Sarah Jaroskye/Terra Flora Herbals
It seems there is more time left in the season, so I plan to harvest more soon. My first trip, I ended up with one cup of buds and I would like to create more of this medicine. If you do go harvest, be respectful of the trees, ask permission, and sit with them a moment before you start to take their buds. I harvested half of my buds from fallen branches and was careful to take less than half of the buds from any branch. Harvesting after a windy storm is a wonderful thing. Also, harvest buds when they are dry to avoid getting water in your oil, which will spoil it. I thanked the trees by sharing my white tea with them; leaving a thank you gift when you are harvesting can be a respectful and loving practice.
I will post a tutorial for the salve or ‘Balm of Gilead’ on my blog after my infused oil is ready and may have a limited supply of the salve on my Terra Flora Herbals Etsy Shop.