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.