Cottonwood: Wild Antiseptic Salve

Photo by Darren Hartman/

Before people bought tubes of Bacitracin (TM), Neosporin (TM), and generic imitations thereof, we had cottonwood salve. The cottonwood tree, Populus balsamifera, also called Balsam Poplar or Balm of Gilead, grows in wet meadows and along rivers and lakes, ranging from Alaska to Southern California and east across the top half of North America as far south as Virginia. For a range map, click here. In the Portland area, you’ll find tons of them at the Sandy River delta, as well as growing along the Columbia and Willamette at local parks. Harvest time is late winter and early spring, when the bright orange-red buds are sticky with resin and have a distinctive scent that reminds me of laundry detergent.

The resin contains medicinal compounds with antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and vasodilating properties that, when infused into an oil or salve, can be applied topically to treat sprains, hyperextension, arthritic joints, hemorrhoids, and burns, according to author Michael Moore. The buds can also be tinctured in alcohol and taken internally for chest colds. This is only a brief summary — there are many more uses!

Cottonwood leaves are deciduous, alternate, and oval. Their bark is gray and deeply fissured. The name “cottonwood” comes from the the white cotton-like fluff attached to their seeds that float on the wind and blanket everything they touch in the late summer or early fall. The “cotton” is good tinder material for starting fires.

In February, a friend gave me a gift of cottonwood buds he had clipped from a park, along with some olive oil to pour over them. I combined the buds and the oil in a glass jar and set it in my living room, next to a heating vent to infuse. I left the jar there for over a month. The next step was to turn the infused oil into a salve. Doing that is fairly straightforward: you just heat some beeswax and stir the infused oil into it. But because it was my first time making a salve, I watched this how-to video first.

Note: When making salves, herbalists sometimes like to include Vitamin E as a preservative, or as in the video above, lavender oil, but because cottonwood is naturally antimicrobial, this ingredient is not necessary.

Edited to add: Tincture recipe is one part plant matter to two parts alcohol; if buds are dried first, tincture recipe is one part plant matter to five parts alcohol using 70% alcohol (You can use Everclear and dilute it with water to make the solution).

Share this post and tell your friends how to make a natural antiseptic salve — a fun gift and useful addition to any wild herbal first aid kit. 

Then explore many more wild plants on the Search Plants! page.

16 thoughts on “Cottonwood: Wild Antiseptic Salve

  1. Populus fremontii, the Fremont cottonwood or Alamo cottonwood, is a cottonwood (and thus a poplar) native to riparian zones of the Southwestern United States and far northern Mexico. Would it have the same medicinal properties of the Cottonwood you are refering to here?

  2. Pingback: Cottonwood: Wild Antiseptic Salve » The Homestead Survival

  3. please, oh please, people–make sure any alcohol you ingest–swallow–is the Everclear, or vodka, type, and not the isopropyl type, which will destroy liver and kidneys of anyone who drinks it. the “70%” phrase used above makes me shudder to think it–you see 70% (and 91%) in the pharmacy, also called “rubbing alcohol”–that is not the alcohol you want to take internally!

  4. D Tuck: AZ has two native cottonwood species, the Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii) and the narrowleaf cottonwood (P. angustifolia). Unfortunately, not the species used for this salve. :(

  5. This is exciting! I have a couple cottonwoods in our back woods, but they are huge. I did some exploring to find some dropped branches from wind storms and they have flowers on them. Time to gather some flowers and make some oil! Thank you for posting this

  6. So many cottonwood trees in our area, I always swear when the dogs bring them in on their feet and I have to get down on hands and knees and SCRUB the resin off the floor. Ha ha, now I will thank them. Thanks for the great tip :)

  7. What a co-inky-dink. I was just melting some beeswax in a double boiler yesterday for a wood finishing project. Now I’ll have to try making a salve.

  8. I recently made an astringent and antimocrobial healing salve out of common “weeds” most people make faces at before pulling out of their gardens. Using Yarrow, Comfrey, Plantain, bit of pine pitch, and some dried goldenseal in an oil suspension, I substituted a couple drops of jojoba for vitamin E, and mixed in beeswax. The salve is magical, able to close wounds, smooth scrapes, soothe burns and cure bug bite poison. It warms the skin slightly where it’s applied. Careful, too much use and it’ll dry you out!
    Try using brown glass containers if you can find any, as sunlight can degrade volatile medicinal compounds. Also straining as much of the organic matter as you can out of the product before adding beeswax will help it keep. Strain, let it sit for a day or two to settle, and silt will settle on the bottom. Carefully pour off the top oil, leaving the silt, which is the organic matter that can decay and ruin a good salve. I use cheesecloth for the straining job, and small mason jars.

  9. I really like this post! We have so many cottonwoods here in Montana where I live! I have a cottonwood salve that seems to keep really well and not go rancid, even though it has no essential oils in it. I guess it is due to the antimicrobial properties! Thank you for helping to solve this question! ~hannah

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