**Disclaimer** The information in this article is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.
Properties: Anti-inflammatory, Anti-spasmodic, Anodyne, Diaphoretic, Expectorant, Astringent, Anti-microbial, Diuretic, Tonic
Energetics: Cool, dry, astringent, bitter, slightly sweet
Parts used: Bark, Leaf buds
“…the Cottonwood suckles like a baby, suckles on the Mother Water running under the ground. A Cottonwood will talk to the Mother Water and tell her what human beings are doing….”
–Yoeme, Almanac of the Dead
The elegant Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) has captured the imagination of myth and folklore all over the United States. One of my friends once declared that she didn’t think she had a “Spirit Animal”– she had a “Spirit Plant,” and it was the Cottonwood. This tree medicine is held sacred, or at the very least important, to many American-Indian cultures. Some folks think that the injury or felling of any Cottonwood, or negative happenings near these trees, have heavy repercussions in the Spirit World. What happens near a Cottonwood grove, tends to stay with the Cottonwood grove. There are some connections between the Cottonwood and the waters, and even connections to “rain magic.” But that’s just the esoteric stuff.
The average herbalist loves Cottonwood for its sticky, resinous leaf buds that drop in springtime, which lend themselves beautifully to oils and salves for topical treatment of inflammation, pain, and soreness in muscles, joints, tendons and the like. Those of you who have experienced a good Cottonwood salve can say it is a very cooling, soothing relief for what is greatly inflamed, coming in like a calm water to put out a nasty fire. The origin of Cottonwood salves comes from its use by Native North American tribes, who used it also as a wash for wounds, skin afflictions, and various pains.
~Cottonwood Salve Recipe~
- 1 cup Cottonwood Buds (this does not need to be exact)
- 3 cups your favorite organic oil (my favorite is sunflower; safflower, olive, and canola can be ok)
- Less than 1 cup beeswax (flakes, strips, blocks, whichever)
-Infuse your oil with the Cottonwood buds by heating oil very low on stove in a pot or pan (clean cast iron ok), placing buds in oil. You know the infusion is happening if the oil starts to change color, and your kitchen begins smelling “resinous.”
-Once infusion is finished, wait for it to cool, then strain out infused oil into different pot or pan, making sure buds are completely removed and no bits of herb are left floating in the oil.
-Heat up oil again, on low once more. Throw in bits of beeswax, a little bit at a time. Start with 1 tablespoon. Wait for it to melt, stirring a bit. At this point you can “test” the consistency of your salve by placing a spoonful of it in the freezer for a minute, where it will cool and harden. You can then add more beeswax if you want it to be thicker. It’s all up to you if you want a “stiff,” waxy salve or one that is more oily.
-If you add more wax, wait for that to melt, stirring that a bit.
-Once it’s all melted and you’ve tested/found a good consistency, pour your mixture into glass jars which you would like to keep your salves in. Glass is best, I’m iffy about metal and plastic. Set jars to cool and harden somewhere for several hours, and make sure they aren’t touched; this causes ripples and encourages cracking in the salve, if you want it to look smooth and nice.
While I am including a recipe for how to craft a very simple but effective Cottonwood salve, there is a lot more to this towering tree, which shares its ancestry with Willows, Poplars, and Aspens– and with whom it also shares some medicinal qualities. We owe today’s widespread use and production of Aspirin to this family and other plants rich in salicylic acids, the original purveyors of the effects Aspirin is responsible for: pain-reliever and fever-reducer. Historically, this family of plants was used even more on the fringes of traditional folk-medicine as a fever, cold, and respiratory remedy.
If one were to come up with a signature for Cottonwood, I would call it “guardian of the waters.” In herbalism, a “signature” hails from the “Doctrine of Signatures,” the idea that a plant’s effects are reflected in its appearance, function, or environment. Seeing a Cottonwood usually signifies that there is a river, creek, oasis, or subterranean water nearby. Groundwater also tends to store up around the Cottonwood’s roots, and in the desert, seeing a Cottonwood is a sure sign you will find water. In a way, this relates to its work as a medicine.
I could categorize it with Matthew Wood’s “Crane Medicines”, which he dubs “bringers of waters.” I call it “Heron Medicine” since I see herons so often near these trees, flying or wading, and I feel a stronger connection to the bird myself. Herons are in fact often known to build their “rookeries” or nests in tall Cottonwoods, near water. Crane, or Heron, Medicines emphasize the balances between wet and dry, just as the bird wades in the balance. They are about striking that right balance between excess moisture, and too little, or bringing in needed moisture throughout the organs of our bodies. If this tree medicine acts as a representative of the waters of nature, it certainly works similarly in human physiology; it brings the waters in or plays an important role for water-transport in the organs, most notably the kidneys, lungs, and skin. Indeed, Cottonwood is a sign of relieving water nearby, water to come, or a way of moving water out of the body.
I should certainly note that these effects are better documented and empirically experienced in other members of the Willow family Salicaceae, like Black Poplar (Populus balsamifera), which also goes by the name of Black Cottonwood. Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and White Willow (Salix alba) are a few others. But it has been found that Cottonwood can be used interchangeably with them, to an extent.
When it comes to “guarding the waters,” Cottonwood is a powerful ally to have in the expelling or modulating of water in excess or deficiency. As a folk medicine, Cottonwood and other Willow family members were used for wet, damp respiratory afflictions. Pneumonia, bronchitis, and asthma are some examples but it may be used to help in any pulmonary condition where the phlegm is stubborn, impedes breathing, and cough is unproductive. Considered a both stimulating and relaxing expectorant in Traditional Hispanic Herbalism, an internal dosing of the bark or buds would urge the lungs to create a thinner, more watery mucus that could be easily coughed up. The same dose encouraged the cough reflex from the lungs. Other Willow/Poplar trees in the California-Hispanic tradition were more favored for this use but the Cottonwood is not necessarily one you want to pass up, if it happens to be the only member of that family available to you.
Additionally, in the Hispanic tradition, it was known that Populus species, when used early enough, would inhibit bacteria growing in the lungs. Today, studies are showing, more and more, that Populus trees including Cottonwood cause 100% cell destruction in bacteria causing both pneumonia and the flu, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilius influenzae.
Cottonwood and its cousins were once one of the most favored medicines against wild fevers. In fact, old herbalists were confident in replacing doses of Quinine bark with the bark of the Cottonwood for malaria, as the tree is an effective diaphoretic or fever-quencher. This is another example of Cottonwood proving to be a useful transporter of fluids, as it allows pores to open, pushing out the sweat and toxins of a fever through the skin, just as the tree in nature pulls water from under the Earth up closer to the surface. What more, the tree was even more help to malarial conditions as a diuretic. Old herbalists and practitioners found that while using the bark to usher out the fever of malaria, it simultaneously brought a cleansing, tonifying action to damaged kidneys, liver, and stomach– organs that are at the complete mercy of such intense fevers.
Yet there is still so much more to this tree. It expels diarrhea, helps recovery from scurvy, and I would recommend having it on hand for periods– a few cups of Cottonwood bark tea has allayed some of my worst cramps. It can also serve to regulate menstrual irregularities. As a tonic, it is excellent for building up and strengthening from the kidneys and on outward. It should be noted that Cottonwood bark should not be used if there is acute irritation or illness in the gastro-intestinal system, uterus, bladder, or prostate.
To this day, I still have my little jar of Cottonwood bark on my shelf, and I save it for only when I’ll really need it. I’ve thought about making it into a nice salve but I’ve thought twice about it. In Iowa, the Cottonwood– along with many other trees– is a pretty marginalized species. I was very lucky to obtain the bark– in other ways, not so lucky. One of the enormous, beautiful Cottonwoods took an unfortunate tumble on the property, dying from some sort of crotch-rot, or other problem. It felt ethical harvesting the bark from a tree that was going to die anyways, but in my opinion, it is unethical to harvest bark from a living tree, especially in Iowa. Cottonwoods are “guardians of the waters” in their own home ecosystems, not just our bodies, and their role in wildlife areas is important and unique. Some Cottonwoods are known indicators of a habitat’s health, and some are even protective of their environments against invasive species. Leaf buds are a different story, as most folks can harvest buds that have dropped or been shaken after high winds or a storm. Tree bark is protective and stripping or harvesting bark from a tree creates an invitation for disease or pests. Keep this in mind, especially in a state where people don’t think twice about removing trees to make more room for corn and soybeans.
If you wish to use Cottonwood as a medicine, I would recommend considering using the buds before the bark. If you wish to use the bark, check around the tree or grove to see if any bark or twigs have fallen that seem fresh, which you could use. Try harvesting bark from fallen limbs instead of from the tree itself. In all attempts to make medicine from plants in the wild– try to think not only about how it benefits you, but how it also benefits the plant and its population. Please, harvest responsibly and with respect!
References: Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko. Charles Garcia/California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism. The American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy, 1919, written by Finley Ellingwood, M.D. PubMed.gov. Henriette’s Herbal Homepage. Matthew Wood. Personal Experience.