Common Names: Cottonwood, Poplar, Aspen
Botanical Name: Populus spp.
Taste: aromatic, bitter
I often spend part of the the mid-winter harvesting copious amounts of Cottonwood bark from abandoned beaver cut trees since this is when they tend to be most active here. Although I prefer to gather this particular bark in Spring while I’m also harvesting the sticky resinous buds, the opportunity is far too good to pass up. I like to use a sturdy draw knife to harvest the bark. Now, usually I don’t even take bark this way, because I don’t like to cut a whole tree in order to get some bark. My normal practice is to gather twigs and use them, this makes for great medicine and does little harm to the tree. In this case, the trees were already downed so I went for the actual body bark.
After harvesting from the tee I cut the five foot long strips of bark into reasonable lengths for drying and storage. I then choose premium pieces for liniment, salve, vinegar and tincture. Next, I roughly chop it and fill the various bottles before filling again with the chosen menstruums.
One of my favorite uses for Cottonwood is a salve made from the January buds, this is a great pain reliever for arthritic joints, injuries, tendinitis and other similar sore body parts. It also makes a good chest rub all by itself. Michael Moore says to think about it as a replacement for Wintergreen oil without the chance of toxicity that the latter has. The buds are the strongest part of the plant, and a tincture of them makes a great expectorant for congested chest colds. The buds are not very soluble in water, so I mostly make oil and alcohol based preparations of them. The bark and leaf are more available in water, so I use the bark every which way and use the leaves in teas. All parts of the tree are pain relieving (as most members of the Willow family are) and can be used internally for the same kind of pain you might take an aspirin for, and can also be used to help bring down fevers when that’s appropriate. The amount of pain relieving constituents in each stand of trees seem to vary somewhat so it’s helpful to get to know your local trees and gather from them consistently so you can judge your doses more accurately. Personally, I try not to use herbs based on their constituents and I also avoid using pain suppressing methods and instead try to get to know the whole plant and address the underlying problem. For this reason, I almost never use Cottonwood internally simply to reduce pain, and really, it doesn’t work nearly so well that way as NSAIDS so I either deal with the actual issue or grab some ibuprofen if it’s needed (yes, there are a few instances in which they are appropriate in my opinion, especially acute situations).
Cottonwood is also an effective bitter stomach tonic, and I use it many of my bitters mixes, along with Wild Licorice, Oregon Grape Root, Wild Cherry and Orange Peel. The bark macerated in Apple Cider Vinegar makes a great general stomach tonic, and works well for appeasing a sour stomach with rotten egg burps, an unpleasant but useful detail.
Another similarity with other Willow family trees is it’s gentle, persistent effect on the kidneys and bladder. It seems to be most useful in chronic, slow to heal infections rather than acute, scalding infections. It has a tendency to make the urine more acid, and to help tone up the mucus membranes. I like it with Bidens for chronic UTIs and prostate enlargement and it also is quite useful to tone the uterus and vaginal muscles. The medicine as a whole is most useful in cases where tonification and warmth is needed, however, it can also be helpful in certain cases of chronic inflammation when accompanied by weakness. It’s less warranted where there’s excessive irritation or great heat.
A salve made of any part of the plant is incredibly useful in a general wound salve, reducing inflammation, encouraging healing, eradicating bacteria and tightening surrounding tissue. Nearly every salve I make has at least a portion of Cottonwood in it, what part of the tree I use is dependent on season and availability. I especially love the rich, river-in-the-spring scent of the bud resin oil, which I use very similarly to how most use propolis. It’s also a very useful antioxidant and I add it to other oils to keep them from going rancid. It’s possible to make a really nice butter salve with the buds waterbath infused in ghee.
My favorite pain liniment has Cottonwood as a primary ingredient and its ability to reduce local inflammation, swelling and pain is remarkable. It has a very broad range of application and can be used in almost any instance of sprain, strain, muscle or joint injury, contusion, bruise or wound with some level of noticeable improvement.
Cottonwood is one of my top ten most valuable herbs that I can’t live without. I also love that it’s abundant and common throughout the West, making for easy and sustainable harvest. All of the Populus spp. including Aspen, Balsam Poplar and Cottonwood can be used fairly interchangeably, and those with the most and smelliest resin make the best salves. They make great beaver food too. 😉
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West by Michael Moore
Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West by Michael Moore
Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest by Charles Kane
Discovering Wild Plants by Janice Schofield
The Herbal Home Remedy Book by Joyce Wardwell
Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rocky Mountains and Neighbouring Territories by Terry Willard
The Physiomedical Dispensatory