Cottonwood – Riparian Healer

I love this time of year, everything is beginning to bud and bloom. One of my favorite buds are those of the Cottonwood Tree. The Cottonwood (Populus spp.) is a deciduous tree native to North American, Europe and Asia and is related to the Willow, making it part of the Salicaceae family. It’s reported that both trees have anti-inflammatory and fever-reducing salicylates, which make them useful for relieving pain. It is also reported that balm made from the leaf buds (which are the most medicinal part of the plant) of the Cottonwood are analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, astringent, skin-healing, and pain-relieving.  It’s why Cottonwood infused oil is one of the main ingredients in our MM3 Balm.

WARNING: Salicin is found in the leaves, buds, and bark of the Cottonwood Tree.  Salicin is similar to aspirin.  Those with allergies to aspirin or bees should avoid using any preparation made from this tree or other trees in Salicaceae family.


There are several types of Cottonwood Trees:  Black Cottonwood (Populus Trichocarpa) found west of the Rockies, from Southern Alaska to Northern California, are the largest broadleaf tree in the Pacific Northwest; Fremont Cottonwood (Populus fremontii) found from California to Utah and down into New Mexico; and Eastern Cottonwood, also known as Plains Cottonwood (Populus deltoides).

It’s important to be 100% certain of your identification before foraging or harvesting any plant. Since there are several types of Cottonwood Trees, each having similar medicinal benefits, it’s a good idea to do you own research for proper identification and usage.

The gray/brown and deeply furrowed bark of a mature Cottonwood Tree.
Cottonwoods love moisture and are readily found near creeks, rivers, and other riparian areas.  Mature trees are easy to identify by their gray/brown and deeply furrowed bark. Younger stems are thin and gray/yellow in color.  Their leaves are heart-shaped with finely toothed edges which have silvery/white backsides that glisten in the sunlight.  In the late winter and early spring, squeeze the young unopened leaf buds and they will release a sticky orange/red resin that smells strong and medicinal.

On a warm day, the Cottonwood buds will drip resin. Once they begin to do this, the leaf opening isn’t too far behind.

Balm of Gilead

The sticky resin of the cottonwood is actually tree sap which lends itself beautifully to oil infusions that can be made into topical pain & inflammation relievers such as Balm of Gilead (not to be confused with the Biblical Balm of Gilead that was made from Mecca Balsam (Commiphora gileadensis) a small shrub used medicinally and for perfume in ancient times).  It can also be combined with other herbal medicinals such as St. John’s Wort, Arnica or Comfrey for added healing benefits.


Harvest the buds from late winter to early spring.  As the weather warms and the resin begins to flow, you may even catch its delightful fragrance wafting through the breeze. Once the bud leafs out, the harvest season is over. The buds are very sticky so it’s a good idea to wear gloves when harvesting. If you do get some of the resin on your hands, rub a bit of olive oil or rubbing alcohol to break it down and then wash it off with soap and water.

Cottonwood buds as they begin to leaf out.
Cottonwoods Trees are notoriously messy during windy days.  You can take advantage of this and gather windfalls as it does no additional damage to the tree. With windfalls, it’s safe to pick ALL the buds from the branches.  If you are picking straight from the tree, remember the buds will eventually be leaves that provide the tree with nourishment from the sun, so be thoughtful in your harvesting, and always leave the terminal bud, which grows at the tip of the branch and causes the branch to grow longer – so it’s pretty important to the health of the tree.

A few good general rules 

  1. Leave the terminal bud on each branch.
  2. Take only 1/3 of the buds and alternate along the branch.
  3. Don’t harvest from sick, young or already harvest trees as this could further weaken and even kill the tree.
  4. Make sure you have 100% identification.

Buds containing catkins are less suitable for making medicine. Catkin comes from the Dutch word Katteken, meaning Kitten as they resemble kitten tails. They are actually responsible for producing the fluffy, cotton-like material that causes allergy sufferers to sneeze. Kittens are cute. The cottony stuff, not so much!

Cottonwood buds containing catkins.
You can fill a plastic bag or container with buds just stay away from fabric as the resin will stain and is hard to remove.  I prefer to fill glass jars because I will be transferring the buds into the jars to infuse in oil and it’s one less step – work smarter, not harder!

Making an Oil Infusion

What you will need:

  1. A jar.  Choose a jar that has little importance because the resin is VERY sticky and some will stay in the jar.
  2. A coffee filter to cover the jar.  You can also use cheesecloth, a clean, dry t-shirt or dishrag.
  3. Mason jar ring or a rubber band to secure the cover around the top of the jar.
  4. Oil. Olive Oil is a nice all purpose oil. You can use other, light oils such as Avacado, Sunflower, Safflower or Canola.
  5. A chopstick, skewer or even a stick to stir the oil daily.  Don’t use something you don’t want to be ruined, the resin will stick to it and is hard to remove.

There are two types of oil infusions: Cold & Hot

Directions for COLD oil infusion:

  1. Fill jar half full of Cottonwood buds (they will expand once the oil is added)
  2. Pour oil over the top of the buds, filling the jar to a couple of inches below the top.
  3. The buds will not only be releasing resin but they will release moisture, so don’t seal the jar.  Place a coffee filter or rag over the top and if using a Mason type jar, fasten the ring over the covering.  If using an ordinary jar, use a rubber band to secure the cover.
  4. Stir the buds once a day until they sink to the bottom of the jar; because of their moisture content, they may mold if you don’t stir them often enough.
  5. Set the jar in a warm sunny window and allow to infuse for no less than 4-6 weeks, the longer the better.
  6. After 4-6 weeks, strain the oil through cheesecloth or another clean, dry rag, making sure to squeeze all of the oil from the buds.  You will notice quite a bit of resin still at the bottom of the jar.  You can use bleach to clean it out or you can set it aside to use specifically for Cottonwood buds next year – that’s what we do.

The one of the left is several weeks old. Notice the rich color and the buds are no longer floating.
If you’re short on time, you can do a HOT infusion.  Doing so does not affect the efficacy, however, I have found it does alter the scent, which I personally find a little unpleasant. Try a small batch each way and see what you like best.

Directions for HOT oil infusion:

  1. Use the same measurements as used for the cold infusion.
  2. Add the cottonwood buds and oil to a glass bowl and place over a pan of gently boiling water (double boiler method) and heat for approximately 3 hours, stirring occasionally OR place the cottonwood buds and oil in an uncovered mason jar and place the jar in a crockpot (crockpot method) with a couple of inches of water and warm for 12-24 hours, stirring occasionally.
  3. When cooled, strain the oil through cheesecloth or a clean, dry rag, making sure to squeeze all of the oil from the buds. You will notice quite a bit of resin still at the bottom of the jar. You can use bleach to clean it out or you can set it aside to use specifically for cottonwood buds next year.

With each of the above-mentioned methods, the longer you allow the buds to ruminate and infuse, the better your end product will be as it allows for more of the resin to be extracted from the buds.

Store your oil in a clean jar, preferably an amber colored one and place in a cool, dry cupboard.  It should last up to a year.  Add 1/2-1 teaspoon Vitamin E oil as a preservative and it may extend that by an additional year.  This is an amazing healer, so I doubt you’ll have it around that long!

The rich color of oil infused with Cottonwood buds.

Recipe for Balm of Gilead

  • 1 cup cottonwood oil
  • 2 tablespoons beeswax
  • 1/4 teaspoon Vitamine E
  • Essential Oils

On top of a double boiler stir the oil and wax together until the wax has melted.  Remove from heat and add vitamin E as a preservative and any essential oils you would like.  Pour into a clean dry container.  Use when cool.

To test the consistency of your balm, use the spoon trick.  If you make jams or jellies, you may already be familiar with this trick. Place a metal spoon in the freezer for 30-60 minutes.  Dip the frozen spoon into the warm liquid balm.  The balm will harden on the spoon.   If you find the balm is too loose, you can rewarm and add more beeswax. If you find it too hard for your liking, rewarm and add more oil.

Use your balm on sore muscles, stiff joints, scrapes, minor burns, bruises, diaper rash, etc.  Again, if you are allergic to aspirin or bee stings, you should avoid using this preparation.

If you’re someone who would rather purchase Balm of Gilead than make it, you can purchase it through our Etsy Store.  

To “Thank You” for being an amazing part of our WordPress family, we’d like to offer you a coupon code for 10% off orders $10 or More.  That code is: 2017APRWP – We’ll even include some samples of our AMAZING soaps with your package!!

Have you used Cottonwood bud oil or Balm of Gilead?  What is your favorite wild medicinal to harvest in spring?  Leave us a comment below!

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DISCLAIMER: I am not a Physician nor am I Certified Herbalist. The information provided on this site has not been evaluated by the FDA and is not intended to diagnose, treat or prevent conditions, illnesses or diseases, it is purely anecdotal and stem from my own personal fascination with the natural world around me. I use the following for my research: Peterson Field Guides – Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs, The Complete Medicinal Herbal by Penelope Ody, books and videos by Rosemary Gladstar and Susun Weed, as well as various internet posts. I encourage you to do your own research. Before trying any herbal remedy, consult a physician or certified medical professional to make sure it is safe for you to use.

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Our Brush with Fame and the Brush Off

Have you noticed there seems to have been an explosion of reality tv programs revolving around homesteading &/or living off-grid?  I don’t know about you, but we really enjoy these shows, learning many things at the expense of the trials and tribulations of others.

…and it makes us feel less alone in our own trials and tribulations, which only seem to be mounting, but I’ll explain a bit more about that in a moment.

Last fall, we were contacted by a production company casting an upcoming reality-based tv program related to homesteading.  We were intrigued – how in the world did we get on their radar?  That encounter felt so random and they wanted so much personal information without providing us with enough of the same to make us feel comfortable, we decided to pass on the “opportunity”.

Fast forward to late February. A different production company contacted us looking to cast for another reality-based, homesteading series for TLC/Discovery.  This time the encounter felt more personal and legit, so we began the process of applying.

The Series called, “Homestead Rescue” is a home improvement show, profiling several struggling homesteaders who are put in contact with an “expert” who teaches them the skills necessary to create a self-sustaining lifestyle. It’s actually one of our favorite series as we’ve learned quite a few tips and tricks. If one could deal with all the hoops and the pure invasiveness of it all, it really sounded like a great opportunity for our family.

Being Handled

The process of applying was interesting and gave a unique view into “reality” tv.  The casting producer who initially contacted us quickly shifted us over to her assistant, a lovely young lady I began affectionately referring to as our “Handler”.  Our Handler was very engaging, excited and effusive with praise, often telling us, in her southern twang, we were “perfect” and our story was “compelling”, “just what they were looking for” –  seemingly trying to make her enthusiasm contagious. These interactions began to feel forced and slightly manufactured, making me feel rather uncomfortable…and I say this as someone who spent 20 years in Santa Barbara, where people make a living serving up “reality”.

But, I have to admit, the idea of having a homestead expert help us reach our seemingly unreachable goals was more than enough encouragement to continue jumping through their numerous hoops.

Broll & Hoops

We began the laborious task of taking what seemed like a million photographs of our homestead, along with “B-Roll” or “Broll”, which is secondary footage that would be used to highlight the problems we have with our well and our inability to drink the water due the high iron content, the beavers doing their best to destroy our pond and eating the fish in it, the barn destroyed by a fallen tree that unless we can fix, we can’t safeguard our livestock from predators, and about the many predators we’ve encountered from bears, bobcats, raccoons and possums, which may sound small and cute but they are well known for their egg sucking appetites, and various other dilemmas homesteading has presented us with.

This Raccoon was caught in our Chicken pen.

Iron staining just a few days after cleaning with “Barkeepers Friend”, which has become my bew “best friend”!
Once we began submitting Broll, they asked us to reshoot the videos, directing us to not only speak to the camera but to show more character and enthusiasm “because the audience wants to see a person they can connect with”, and asking us to pan away from our faces to the issue we were speaking about. Our Handler: “Talk to the video like it was your girlfriend and you were telling her about the orange water coming from y’alls faucet…”

Our barn after a tree came crashing down on it during a storm.

A closer view of our destroyed barn.
Hoops, I tell you… hoops!  But ones we were willing to jump through for the opportunity of a lifetime!

Manufactured Drama

We even had a skype interview with one of the supervising casting directors, who seemed to want to capitalize on certain aspects of our needs. He attempted to get us to say we were in over our heads because we were inept city folk and would perish if they didn’t come and help us. While it may be true that we are in over our heads, the majority is due to the fact we have limited finances and limits to our physical capacities because of injuries and illnesses. When we bought our homestead, we knew there would be challenges, they just stacked up differently than anticipated making it much harder than originally expected.

He seemed myopic in his attempted to try and get us to say we were “terrified” of predators and being so far from the life we had previously known. He would rephrase our statements in an attempt to get us to repeat them, “So, if the beavers eat all the fish in your pond, you won’t have any food to get through the winter, right?” Uhm… no, we already explained we hunt, have chickens, want to run a few heads of cattle.  Starve?  Probably not, but the truth doesn’t make for “compelling” television, now does it?  Ha!

Some of the damage the Beavers have done to our pond’s outlet.

One of SEVERAL Beaver holes built into the sides of our pond.
They even spoke with our neighbors by skype, trying to get a better understanding of who we were and how “desperate” our plight was.

Medical Emergency

Our Handler mentioned a few times they needed us to complete our BRoll, photos, applications, etc. “soon” as they were creating a “package” to present to folks at the Discovery Channel.  Unfortunately, before this “deadline”, I had to have an emergency appendectomy and was transferred from our tiny country hospital to a larger hospital over an hour away.  We informed our Handler that I might be down for a few days.  Less than a week later, when I contacted her to let her know we were ready to go, she informed us we had missed the “deadline”.  Rather than connect with Mr. Misty while I was recovering from surgery and rather than give us a more concrete “deadline”, they allowed us to miss this “ethereal” deadline, which was a HUGE disappointment to our family.

The fact they found us worth looking at in the first place, is kind of a kick and more exposure to reality TV than I ever expected to see in my lifetime. Mr. Misty and I have spoken at length and have agreed should the opportunity arise again, we’d be game.

And, who knows? Maybe the third time will be the charm! Marty Raney… we’ll be waiting!

Now, what are we going to do about those Beavers and that barn?  If you have any suggestions, we’d love to hear them.  Leave them in the comments below.

They had us take a group photo – which was long overdue. Misty Nana, Mrs. Misty, Super D.O.G. and Mr. Misty

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This year’s filled tag – my first!!

“Omg! Omg!! Omg!!!”

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2015 Pre-season scouting


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