Sunday, January 5, 2014

January: Time for Poplar Buds

On these chilly weekends in January is the time to harvest the sweet smelling, resinous cottonwood buds. You may also know them as poplar buds. There are many different varieties of this awesome tree. In my area, it is the black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), which is a super-tall, wet-soil-loving tree that causes lots of seasonal allergies with its cottony seed buds that come down like snow in the spring. You've probably smelled the tree on a walk in the park at some point. I also saw poplars in Montana, though they had yellow buds and whiter bark. The buds were just as potent, however.

Identification and harvest (Populus trichocarpa):

Black cottonwoods LOVE wetlands, rives, lakes, streams, and generally boggy areas. Think mosquitos, grasses, blackberries and smelly mud. You can find it in many parks, which is where I usually harvest. This year, I went to the Sandy River Delta, which is 30 minutes outside of Portland, Oregon. Last year, I harvested from Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington.

Scan the skyline and look for incredibly tall, naked, white barked trees. The bark will have black scars on it. Also, inspect the ground to see if there are large, waxy heart shaped leaves. Finally, the branches should have fat buds. The buds should smell very aromatic. If you pull a bud from the tip of a branch, there should be orange resin inside (note that not ALL buds contain resin, only the leaf buds do).

The best way to harvest the buds is to find a downed branch or whole tree (if you're really lucky). Sometimes you can find branches low enough to harvest from, but the buds higher up on the tree are fatter.

Be aware that only half the buds contain the resin that  you want, and those ones are leaf buds. The other half are flower buds, which are quite dry inside. The one on the very tip is always a leaf bud. Another way to ensure the viability of the buds is to give them a squeeze. If it's squidgy and sticky- it's good. If it's dry and crinkly, then it's a flower bud.

Harvest as many as you can manage using a jar or plastic bag. Be ready to have fingers covered in sticky resin.

Medicinal Uses and Preparation

Poplar tree buds of many species have been used by most cultures who had them. Nicholas Culpeper mentions uses of bark, leaves, seeds, catkins and buds of both Black and White Poplar in his Complete Herbal. Native Americans all around America also used poplar bark, buds and leaves for various medical complaints. Nowadays, only the buds are popular to use. They contain salicylic acid, which is the active component in Aspirin, making them effective for reducing inflammation and relieving the related pain. They also have antimicrobial properties, making them useful for preventing infection in cuts and other external prone areas.

The buds are best prepared as an infused oil, and used externally on sore joints, as well as cuts and abrasions. The infused oil can be made into a salve. The best results for arthritis will be seen if the salve is used consistently over time.

A tincture can be made in 95% alcohol, and cough drops and syrup are also made from the buds. The buds are used internally for certain types of coughs. I'm not including a recipe for these things in here, but feel free to do your own research.

Cottonwood bud infused oil:

enough coconut oil or olive oil to cover the buds
fresh poplar buds

Put the buds into a sturdy glass jar that you don't intend to use ever again. pour the oil over the top until the buds are covered. Fill your crock pot up with water and put the jar inside. If possible, the water level should equal the level of oil in the jar. Put cheesecloth or fabric on the top of the jar with a rubber band. This will catch condensation, but prevent things from getting inside. It's important to make sure that water can escape from your oil, because it will cause it to mold later. Turn it on low and let sit for about 12-16 hours.

When finished, strain the buds from the oil using two layers of cheesecloth. Throw away the cheesecloth, and the spend buds when you're finished. Keep the oil in a sealed glass jar (amber is ideal).

Store the oil in the refrigerator, or in a cool, dark place.

WARNING: The resin of the buds, as I'm sure you've already discovered from your harvest, is incredibly sticky, and only adheres more intensely when you put water on it. The best way to remove the resin is with rubbing alcohol or oil on a cotton swab. Avoid water altogether. Be sure to use cookware that you don't care about at all.

Cottonwood Bud Salve

200 ml coconut oil
30 g beeswax
small metal or glass containers

Melt the oil and beeswax together in a metal or glass bowl over a pot of almost boiling water (a double boiler). Again, be sure to use a bowl that you don't mind ruining. When the wax is completely melted, pour the salve into small containers, using a funnel if needed. Leave the jars open and undisturbed until they harden. When dry, put the lids on. Keep extra jars in the fridge until you're ready to start using them.

To clean up, first wipe the excess salve off with a dry paper towel. If there are orange splotches, use alcohol on a swab to remove it. Then, wash in hot water and soap.

Salve Ratios:
100 mL coconut oil:15 g beeswax
100mL olive oil: 17 g beeswax


  1. This is great! Love the photos with blue sky. How long does the salve last in the fridge?

    1. The salve will last for a year or longer, even outside the fridge. Poplar resin is a preservative, so this salve will last longer than most other oil-based medicines.