Plant Speak: Cottonwood Bud (Populus trichocarpa)


When I moved all the way to Seattle (ha) from the Portland area, and would journey home, the first glimpse of all the giant cottonwood trees along the Columbia made my heart leap and I knew that I was close to home. Of all the botanical infused oils we have made here at our farm, nothing pleases like the smell of cottonwood. It is fascinating to me that folks from all over the country all have some deep connection with the smell and it often will take them back to a distant memory of a riverbank, a hike, going fishing, a favorite draw, and the sweet arrival of Spring.

While harvesting cottonwood buds in February, I was struck by the magnitude of these trees. They are the tallest broad leaf tree in the NW and can reach over 100 feet tall. Not only are they mammoth and the bark very rough, but I realized that just weeks before these trees were totally submerged by the rising river. These trees can be quite invasive, which is a good thing for a river bank, as they help to stabilize and improve habitat for wildlife. The largest black cottonwood in North America, pictured here, is North of Salem at Willamette Mission State Park. We have journeyed many times to see this tree and love the ride across the Willamette on the Wheatland Ferry.

Also known as Balm of Gilead, cottonwood buds are a native remedy and known for working on a deep level. Many tribes regard them as a kind of spirit conductor, which conveys messages of the spirit world through their rustling leaves. Sacred objects, like the Hopi Kachinas, were fashioned from Cottonwood. Cottonwoods were associated with fertility. A member of the willow family, they contain salicin, an analgesic similar to aspirin. Traditionally used to help with sore muscles and with sore joints, they are also anti-bacterial, soothing and reduce inflammation. I have many older clients back in the midwest that swear by cottonwood for their arthritis. Our sore muscle salve (cottonwood and birch version) has copious amounts of this precious oil. We also use it for its sunscreen properties in our Sun Salutation serum. It is a plant-based sunscreen that offers an alternative to mineral formulas.

Harvest the sticky buds of cottonwood in the late winter or early spring. Cold clear days that follow windy days are perfect for collecting the brittle, blow down branches. Be prepared to have sticky hands. I always carry some wipes with me so that I can at least drive home without ruining my steering wheel. The buds should still be tightly closed, with a little drop of resinous sap on the ends of them. Infuse the buds when completely dry in olive oil. I heat the oil for many days in a double boiler on very low heat. I have special cookware dedicated just to cottonwood bud as the sticky resin will stick to your cookware too. It can be removed with alcohol and a lot of elbow grease. Some have a dedicated cottonwood blender and whir the cottonwood buds and oil to release more of the resin. Strain the plant material and store the precious oil in dark glass. You can use this oils neat or use for making salve. I find the oil has a very long shelf life. I love to use it as perfume.