Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sharing the Magic of Black Cottonwood Bud Salve

One of my favorite things about foraging and wildcrafting is the culture of sharing that exists between practitioners. Foragers often share their bounty, wildcrafted goods, knowledge and friendship. This past winter, a new foraging friend shared her knowledge and techniques for harvesting and making Black Cottonwood Bud Salve (aka “Balm of Gilead”).

photo credit: Joyce
Black Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera ssp trichocarpa) is a native broadleaf tree that grows in the wet regions of the Western Washington lowlands (including Seattle). The tall tree with its furrowed bark and a yellowish hue is a member of the willow family (Salicaceae), and like other poplars, contains resins and cambium with medicinal, food and material uses. When processed as a salve, cottonwood can be used to relieve pain and is known for its antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Honeybees also use derivatives (propolis) from poplar trees to protect their hives.

The best time to gather Black Cottonwood buds is December to February when leaf buds are beginning to form. Gathering in the winter is a quiet and meditative pleasure and a great excuse to get outdoors for exercise and fresh air. The most recent winter solstice, I went to a few spots in Seattle where I know Cottonwood trees grow. A recent storm had littered the ground with windblown branches of plump leaf buds. I plucked off and collected about two pocketsful of buds from the fallen branches.

At home I processed the buds, wiping off bits of dirt and dried leaves, placing the resinous buds in a clear jar and bathing them in olive oil, covering the opening with a cloth to allow air circulation. I set the jar in a sunny window and let the oil slow-extract the resin from the buds for two months, stirring occasionally with a wooden chopstick. The air and the oils smelled like a delicious walk in the woods. 

After two months, I strained out the leaf buds, leaving the cottonwood infused oil.  To make the balm, I needed beeswax. I offered the cottonwood bud salve in exchange for some locally produced beeswax from Seattle’s beekeeper extraordinaire (Ballard Bee Co). I melted the wax and mixed in the resinous oils then poured the liquid salve into small jars.

Each jar of cottonwood bud salve contains within it the magic of winter poplar, the hard work of bees, and the generosity of a community of foragers who continue to pass down generations of medicinal plant knowledge.

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