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Cottonwood, Populus balsamifera, is the largest broadleaf deciduous tree in the Pacific Northwest. It is a member of the Salicaceae family, which makes it willow’s cousin. Cottonwood trees exist near rivers and lakes. They grow to be very tall and are on the narrow side. I’m not talking about Lombardy poplars, Populus nigra, the super skinny trees you’ll find in prairies and open ranges used as windscreens on farms and ranches. I’m talking the majestic cottonwood. It’s silhouette is narrower than, say, a maple or elm. It’s the tallest deciduous tree among its neighbors, towering above the others at over 100 feet. You’ll find alder growing among the cottonwoods. Alder grows about 2/3s the height of the cottonwood, which helps with identification. Willow and dogwood follow underneath, with shrubbery such as snowberry, wild raspberry, salmonberry and low plants such as herb Robert, Oregon grape – Mahonia nervosa, saxifrages, wood violet, and bleeding heart round out the plant community in Western Washington. In Eastern Washington and Idaho, you may also see aspen, larch, arnica, and Oregon grape – Mahonia repens, growing near some cottonwood trees.

The resin from the leaf bud (Balm of Gilead) of the cottonwood tree has a celestial scent like no other. One of my favorite activities is walking along river banks, taking in the scent of the cottonwood. It’s the leaf buds we gather from fallen branches after a windstorm that we use for medicine. Cottonwood leaf buds contain tannins, as well as anti-inflammatory and fever-reducing salicylates. The resins from the buds also possess antifungal and antimicrobial properties in the form of flavones. An oil or salve made from this resin can bring relief to pain caused by swelling, arthritis, strains, and general muscle pains. You’ll notice that the tips of the branches look like gnarled witches fingers. Or my grandma’s poor arthritic fingers. Or mine, as they are starting to look like Grandma’s. A bit of the old doctrine of signatures is happening there – plants sometimes resemble the part of the body they affect. A little cottonwood bud oil on my poor gnarled fingies sure ease the pain of the arthritis that’s setting in. Cool, hey?

Cottonwood resin can also be applied directly from the bud onto a cold (herpes) sore. It doesn’t look pretty, and stings a little at first, but man, does it ever bring relief from the itch. It also does a great job with speedy healing of the lesions. If you are worried about people staring at the yellow glob on your face, you can use the medicinal oil extraction full strength. It works just as well (perhaps a bit more slowly), but with lesser visual impact.

For a hot dry cough with a lot of hacking but little relief plus feverishness, Balm of Gilead resin works well to cool the lungs and bring up the mucous. The resin is not water-soluble, so making a tea or infusion would not work. How do we get the resin to the lungs? Cottonwood bud resin dissolves well in honey, which can be stirred into hot water or tea for sipping.To make cottonwood honey, place fresh buds in a jar about halfway up the jar. Fill the jar completely with honey, let sit for 4 weeks to 6 months, then strain. The longer the extraction, the stronger the medicine.

Cottonwood resin can also be dissolved in a fixed oil such as extra virgin olive oil, using a mild heat method. Simply place the cottonwood buds in a crock pot, add olive oil to just cover the plant material, turn on low, and with the lid off, let the heat do its work for 2-3 days. Strain and use as is or make into a salve. Alternatively, fill a jar to the bottom of the ring with fresh cottonwood buds, then fill the jar to the top with evoo or sesame oil (my favorite). Top with a cloth or paper towel and secure it with a ring or rubber band. Let the moisture that may be on the buds dissipate in the air for about a week, then put on the regular lid. The buds can stay in the oil for up to six months before straining. Heavenly!

Incidentally, the lungs sit on the back of the ribcage (the first chicken I butchered taught me this), so when rubbing on medicinal oils or salves for congestion relief, don’t forget to rub some on the back as well as the chest, neck, and behind the ears. Many women find relief from menstrual cramps with a nice rubbing of balm of gilead oil on the belly and lower back.

The resin can also be dissolved in 151 proof alcohol such as vodka or rum. Yes, rum. Don’t judge. Fill your jar 2/3rds up a jar with cottonwood buds. Fill the jar to the top with 151 proof alcohol of choice. Cover, label, let steep for 2-3 weeks, then strain. Have you ever heard of bee propolis? Bee propolis isolates and kills viruses and bacteria. You can get it in liquid form, which is made with the propolis resin steeped in alcohol. Guess where the bees get the propolis? From the resin of the cottonwood leaf bud. Ta da! You can drip your cottonwood tincture down your throat to ease soreness. Put it on cuts, herpes lesions, use it at the first sign of a viral attack.

Cottonwood buds can be harvested from September when the leaves begin to turn, to just before the buds burst open in the early spring. I go on cottonwood bud forays after wind storms in the fall and winter months. Cottonwood is a brittle wood, and breaks easily when the branches smack up against each other during storms. It’s an easy task to break off buds from the downed branches. The best buds come from the tops of the trees as they are the biggest buds with lots of healing resin. Motherload!  After one wind storm, I went with a friend to harvest Balm of Gilead buds, and we were able to pick 5 pounds from fallen branches in just a half hour. Incidentally, the first inch or so of the branches behind the buds also contain the salicylates, so don’t leave out that opportunity for medicine. Be prepared to have sticky yellow fingers. You can clean them off with coconut oil or alcohol. Another perfect usage for rum! *insert cheesy smile here.

willowhandbigWillowSalix spp. There are 91 species of Salix here in the Pacific Northwest and Inland West, and all work the same as far as their medicinal content goes. Willow works so well to relieve the pain and inflammation of toothaches, spasming muscles, tension headaches, strains, sprains, arthritis, and back pain, and a veritable plethora of aches and pains. In response to injury, prostaglandin hormones signal the body to feel pain and to become inflamed. Willow bark contains the same salicylates as cottonwood, which inhibits the body’s production of prostaglandins.

The salicin compounds in willow and cottonwood metabolize differently, but are similar to aspirin in their pain relief. Aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid and begins its metabolization in the stomach. Salicylic acid is metabolized in the intestines and the liver. It takes longer to take effect and seems to have a longer duration of pain relieving influence than aspirin, because of this difference in metabolization. Incidentally, contrary to popular belief, aspirin was not originally made from willow, but meadowsweet. Interesting factoid, yet we’re happy we have willow and cottonwood to help us with our aches and pains, yes?

Did you know that willow has been shown to exert anti-proliferative effects, and to induce apoptosis in a variety of cancer cells? Apoptosis means cell self destruction. 2 of the constituents in willow that contributes to the anticancer properties are apigenin and isoquercitrin. Both are antioxidants. Apigenin is a type of antioxidant called a polyphenol. Polyphenols improve the function of the inner lining of blood vessels. They add bite to food, i.e. bitterness. They give plants color and help the plant to defend against harmful bacteria, fungi, and insect invasion. Seems as if cancer is a type of invasion of sorts, hey? It’s been suggested in scientific studies that apigenin may be protective in other diseases that are affected by the oxidative process such as cardiovascular and neurological disorders. Isoquercitrin is a scavenger. It has antiproliferative effects on cancer cells such as in the liver. It also is anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic, and may help to reduce blood pressure. The isoquercitrin in plants is more easily bioavailable than a capsule that you’ll find online or in a store. Isoquercitrin and apigenin are water soluble. Epidemiologic studies suggest that diets rich in these and other antioxidants, aka flavonoids, help to reduce chronic inflammation, protect cells from damage, kill bacteria, and reduce risks of certain cancers of the breast, digestive tract, skin, prostate, and certain hematological malignancies.

To harvest willow, simply cut branches from the willow bush with stout clippers. Harvest tip: Bend the branch and cut at the bend. It will break very easily. The bark is easily peeled away and cut into small pieces for medicine making. I make a willow honey in the fall and spring, and ingest about ½  to 1 teaspoon several times a week for cancer protection. Willow needs steeping for 6 weeks in the honey. If, after steeping, the honey becomes too thick to strain, simply place the lidded jar in a saucepan, fill with water, and gently heat for about 10 minutes. This will render the honey liquid enough to easily strain from the willow. Depending on the time of year and water content in the willow bark, the honey may get runny, which makes for easier straining. I use the leftover bark this way: While the bark is still in the strainer, set it in a bowl of warm, not hot, water for several minutes. The water will dissolve the rest of the honey from the bark. Use this water in your teas or to make willow honey lemonade. Yum!

Externally, willow helps heal and relieve the discomfort of sores, cuts, and burns. Use as a wash or compress with cooled decoction. To make a decoction, put read more at 2 cups of water in a saucepan, add about 3/4 oz of dried willow bark, bring to a boil, turn down to medium simmer, and let simmer 10-15 minutes. Strain and let cool. A washcloth can be dipped into the willow decoction, wrung out, and placed on the affected area. Let sit for up to 20 minutes at a time, and repeat as necessary. This is called a compress. You can also use willow tincture directly on the skin, or on a piece of cloth or paper towel, and applied to an achy place. A pain relieving tincture used externally is called a liniment.

A word regarding wild harvesting plants on your own: It’s important to be 100% certain of your identification before doing ANY harvesting. Feel free to contact me for help with long distance identification. I’ll need to see pictures. Email me at More information on willow.

Suzanne "Queen Bee" Tabert 🐝

Suzanne Tabert, bioregional herbalist, speaker, and author, is director of herbal education and herbal mentor at the Cedar Mountain Herb School. An herbal medicine instructor for 35+ years, Suzanne teaches with great passion and excitement, bringing her wealth of herbal knowledge to students in an engaging and vibrant manner. She is the primary instructor at CMHS and an adjunct faculty at Bastyr University. Taking students to wild places and giving them tools to engage and connect with flora, fauna, and the exquisite beauty of nature is the icing on the cake of life, and one way that Suzanne is making a difference in the world, one person, one group at a time. Cedar Mountain Herb School is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, Partnership in Education with United Plant Savers, and the American Herb Association.