Cottonwood – Riparian Healer

I love this time of year, the snow is melting and 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 balms and salves 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.  That’s why Cottonwood infused oil is one of the main ingredients in our MM3 Balm™ – Misty Meadows Muscle & Joint Soothing 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, bees, or bee products should avoid using any preparation made from this tree or other trees in Salicaceae family until they consult a healthcare professional.


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.

Cottonwood buds as they begin to leaf out.

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 soothers 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 traditional herbal medicinals such as St. John’s Wort, Arnica or Comfrey for added benefit.


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 buds begin to leaf 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 warm soapy water.

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.

General Rules for Harvesting

  • Leave the terminal bud on each branch.
  • Take only 1/3 of the buds and alternate along the branch.
  • Don’t harvest from sick, young or already harvest trees as this could further weaken and even kill the tree.
  • 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 cause 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, however, stay away from fabric as the resin will stain and is hard to remove.  I prefer to fill glass jars as 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 is difficult to remove from the sides and bottom of the jar.
  2. A coffee filter to cover the jar.  You can also use cheesecloth, a clean, dry t-shirt or dishrag. Providing a good airflow is important as it will prevent mold.
  3. Mason jar ring or a rubber band to secure the covering 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 that can 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 a bit 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 warm soapy water and a lot of elbow grease to clean the jar 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 found to be a bit 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 warm soapy water and a lot of elbow grease to clean the jar out or you can set it aside to use specifically for Cottonwood buds next year – that’s what we do.

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 amber in color 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.  Cottonwood oil is such an amazing healer, 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, bee stings or bee related products 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 celebrate Spring and as a “Thank You” for being a loyal blog follower, we’d like to offer you 10% off orders $35 or more from our Etsy Shop.  Use code 2019MARCH at checkout (expires 3/31/19).

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: We are not Physicians nor are we Certified Herbalists. 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 our own personal fascination with the natural world around us. 

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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