I am unusually drawn to Cottonwood. The smell of the sticky golden resin that can be found on its buds, petioles, and sometimes leaves is one of my favorites that exist in our world. This love is so great that I wear a perfume made with Cottonwood resin as a base. I rub the salves I make from this plant on my skin and face just to feel what I feel when I smell it. Its a scent, like all scents, that ignites the bypassing of language and goes directly to that primal place of ancestral connection beyond just our human kin. Maybe I love it for that, for that immediate place it takes me, that kind of forget the small talk and the everyday menial sense of things and be in this feeling that our bodies are one part of a greater whole in time and space.
There is something deeply ancient and grounding about Cottonwood's scent.
Being in our world as a highly sensitive person, the air is filled with information and stimulus. We need scents that bring us as sensitive humans back down to the old, back down to ourselves when our heads are filled with details, tasks, news, social nuances. It carries us to a safe place inside, usually. Personally, Cottonwood makes me feel comfortable in my skin again. Scents like Cottonwoods' invoke a feeling of laying at ease in wet soft moss inside my own body, under the very trees themselves that live in their own dark forest groves. Or, laying by a river, cool and quiet, with the soft breezes fluttering through, sending me wafts of the tree's scent, or noticing puffs of the tree's cotton-like seeds in Spring.
I didn't grow up with this tree around me. I barely even grew up with Willows (Salix spp.), a Cottonwood cousin, which has similar ecological preferences, medicine but a slightly different scent. Cottonwoods appear here and there in parts of the South (Populus deltoides), but it appears more abundantly in areas like the Great Plains, the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest (Populus trichocarpa, Populus balsamifera) and into Canada (Populus balsamifera, Populus tremuloides, Populus trichocarpa on the West coast) where various species of the tree grows in great abundance. In the Southwest, Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides var. wislizeni) follow the waterways or grows on the land above water. Or the Aspens (Populus tremuloides) find themselves established at higher elevations scattered across the continent.
I wrote about Cottonwood in a blog post last year. I did so in a post where I told a few stories about plants in the 'Sagebrush Salve, or Desert Wound Salve' which includes Cottonwood buds as an ingredient. (This salve, by the way, which includes all the plants mentioned in that post, I'll be making again in a month and featuring in my land capsules a few months from now).
An excerpt from that post, "Plant Stories from the Sagebrush Salve":
"I thought my first experience of Cottonwood was on the west coast. But, now that I have been thinking on it all winter, really reflecting on my first experiences with certain plants, I now remember vividly first encountering it while camping for a few weeks in the Finger Lakes region of New York in 2011. [...] I had some time while I was there to look at the plants as well as visit my friend Mario who was studying with 7song at the time. In a wooded grove on the land, there was a big towering tree in an opening by a creek. It was one of those picturesque kind of forest grove openings, where the area around the tree was clear as if I could set my sleeping bag down right there on the soft ground and stare up at the giant limbs without any obtrusion from mid story trees. I thought the tree was a White Birch at first, as the upper limbs were white and gray and Birch species did grow around the area. But, as my eyes wandered down the massive trunk, I realized the bark was ropey and twisted, turning a muted gray at the bottom. I was astounded by it's size. I asked the landowner [...] and he told me it was a Cottonwood! That same summer was the first time I attended the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference when it was at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, and here too I started to see the Cottonwoods or cousins thereof.
I know we have a Populus species in North Carolina, where I lived for years. Populus [is] the genus of Cottonwood species and Quaking Aspen. [We also] keyed Populus out on an herb school field trip at Thom and Renata's wild land in southern Kentucky. I read about the local southern Appalachian use of the sticky buds. I found a self published book written by an old resident of Sugar Creek Rd on the way of life in his holler when he was growing up. It was called "Sugar in the Gourd" by Ben Garrison. I lived in that same Appalachian holler for four years and still migrate back there, just outside of Asheville, North Carolina. The author wrote about the task they had as kids to collect the buds early spring for selling just like their Ginseng and Black Cohosh harvests. I never sought the buds out back then. In Ohio, when I worked with the United Plant Savers, Paul Strauss had also talked about "Balm of Gilead" which he used in his Golden Salve and I think his cough syrup. At the time, I didn't quite understand which plant this really was. He also used the propolis from his beehives in his medicine, and I was confused because they smelled and felt like the same medicine.
I encountered Cottonwood again while traveling in the Pacific Northwest where they grow in abundance. I was visiting friends and stopped to see Ted, who at the time was apprenticing at the Wilderness Awareness School near Seattle. I was at the school's campus with him for a weekend teacher training, and he told me I should take walks in the forest and harvest Cottonwood buds because they were perfect for harvesting at that time. The trees towered above Salal and Huckleberry, intermixed with thick groves of Western Red Cedar and other conifers. I had never quite experienced such thick wet woods. It was cold and damp in February, yet we were all warm covered in our woolens. [...]
During the winter, I found groves of squat small Black Cottonwoods. This was while wandering around on the Sierra Hot Springs property and the national forest beyond. Their crowns were broken off a million times sending up shoots from the base of their trunks. They grew along a dried out creek bed, one that seemed to stay dry for a few years during the recent drought in California. But this year, it is running strong. The grove was a journey to get to with the mud and snow mounds and even on my cross country skis it was difficult not to sink into the ground spots. The buds were small but easy to reach. I didn't realize they were Cottonwoods when first discovering the grove in the leafless time of the winter. Something told me to sit down, as it usually goes. After awhile of watching, I was thinking they maybe were Willows, as they also grow on the same wet corridor. Examining closer, I smushed and smelled some buds. I noticed the dead leaves on the ground all around were round and heart shaped. They were not long and narrow like most Willow. These were indeed Cottonwoods. And the leaf scars! So pronounced. Next to the lodge at the Sierra Hot Springs is the Fremont Cottonwood, big and towering like the one I met in New York, with giant fat buds out of reach. Traveling [nearby] on crazy dirt roads skirted by Manzanita, Redroot, Sagebrush, Black Cottonwood, and Juniper, you reach higher elevations and meet the uni-organism Quaking Aspens, another Populus [species.}
I noticed them dominating the valleys hugging the waterways traveling through the heart of hot springs country in central Idaho, one of the most beautiful places I have ever spent time.
I've noticed them traveling up the Missouri River, following [the river] from St. Louis to Standing Rock. I've noticed them in the Tetons up high and low and Yellowstone. One version grew in the Great Basin on the way up to meet the Bristlecone Pines, fluttering their gold coin-like leaves in fall.
The species I use the most is the Black Cottonwood. Just because it is what I have encountered the most at the time of year they are ready to harvest (late winter and early spring before leafing out). The earthy resinous smell is one of my favorites. I don't mind the orange sticky fingers that come with harvesting them one by one, only taking a small portion from each tree. "
Since this post, I have traveled to Colorado and through Utah, into Montana and Idaho more, Oregon and Washington. I have a visceral memory of this past summer after the Good Medicine Confluence: sitting in a hot springs near Durango, CO and watching the cotton-like seed puffs blow in the wind coming off of the trees that grew there and landing in the hot springs water.
Populus genus - an introduction
There are many species of what collectively are called Cottonwood. Officially, certain species are grouped together as 'Cottonwoods' and some are called Poplar, Balsam Poplars, or Black Balsams, but as common names go, this can sometimes get confusing, as there are trees called Poplar that aren't even related (ie. Tulip Poplar or Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, on the east coast).
Another group of trees in the Populus genus that aren't usually called 'Cottonwoods' are the Aspens.
The 'Cottonwood Group' within the genus consists of closely related Cottonwood species. These include the Fremont (Populus fremontii) and the Eastern Cottonwood (Poplus deltoides) as well as the Black Poplars (Populus nigra) which are found across Europe and have been heavily cultivated and bred (sometimes with invasive results).
There's also the Plains Cottonwood (Populus sargentii) found in the Great Plains states and into Canada. It is disputed as to whether it is subspecies of the Eastern Cottonwood.
Trees in the Populus genus have a fluffy reproductive display. Their catkins ('atcho, according to the Navajo) are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers occur on different trees. As I have mentioned a few times already, the seeds are shrouded in magical cotton-puff like hairs that float in the air, cover the ground, waterways and walkways in the Spring and into the Summer.
The trees of this genus have prominent leaf scars that form a triangle-like shape. You can ID Populus easily in the winter from these tangible leaf scars in addition to their aromatic, swollen, burnt colored, & multi-scaled buds. (I'll add detailed pictures of this at some point!) The species can sometimes be gleaned by noting the leaf litter on the ground from the past fall. The bark can be gray, white or a tint of brown and vary in texture depending on the species and age of the plant. Trees in this genus can have invasive tendencies, which in some instances is helpful and welcomed. In other instances though, especially in the occasions where humans have bred the tree for economic reasons or for ornamental garden plantings, the invasive tendency of this genus can become problematic.
Cottonwoods need plenty of water and sun, and without those things, they don't thrive. When they have those things together, they are a keynote species of their ecological zone providing shade for plants and animals that need it. They provide rich leaf mulch for the land surrounding them, important nutrients for other plants to survive. They also shade and keep waters cool, especially important in hot summers. They provide habitat for birds and other critters that take refuge in their stands.
Cottonwood has several reproductive strategies. It can reproduce easily in ways other than just the puffy fairy-like seeds in the wind. A tree can sprout anew from a fallen and buried branch in a flood or via underground roots. This also accounts for the fact that trees like Quaking Aspen are often many acres of the exact same tree genetically.
Since Cottonwoods are sometimes the only trees around and often were the best shade during hot summer days, they have historically been places of meeting, locations of settlements, and a source of sustenance as their wood was used for building homes and keeping warm, and they tended to be near water. And water is essential to life.
I recently visited the Big Morongo Preserve near Joshua Tree, CA, which featured a diverse array of riparian ecologies. Plant lists for the preserve which include Cottonwood forests paired with Alder, Yerba Mansa (just leafing out!), Mesquite, Desert Willow (not actually a Willow), true Willow (the Salix) and more can be found on their website here.
I also attended a workshop with Dara Saville last summer at the Good Medicine Confluence on the future of plants in the Southwest due to global warming. She discussed the changes that could happen in the desert with over-consumption of water especially in new track home developments that aren't designed with water sustainability in mind. Her Yerba Mansa Project on restoring and educating about the Rio Grande Bosque ecology which includes Cottonwood in its mix is located in Albuquerque, NM and can be found here.
Historically, Cottonwood bark has been used in some instances by native folks for making pouches and baskets for carrying food and other goods. It was used to make looms, prayer sticks, for friction fire making, tinder and for games by the Navajo.
The Salicaceae or Willow plant family comprises mainly of the Cottonwoods, Willows and other members.
Willow (K'ai', or K'ai'lipAh - Navajo) is the most recognizable member of the Salicaceae family besides Cottonwood which is the focus here. Willow is the Salix genus and encompasses a number of beautiful and variable species. All members are dioecious and have catkin flower structures, as I mention throughout this article, which designates male and female flowers on different plants. I still am not very good at keying out different Willow species. Some are very different looking and some look pretty similar. And of course, some hybridize. It just takes some time, focus and attention to cue in on them.
Most members including Cottonwood/Aspens (Populus spp.) and Willow (Salix spp.) contain salicin and methyl salicylates. Salicin is a key pain-relieving component of both Cottonwood and Willow, so its no surprise that that common aspirin that we know today is derived from that compound. When my wisdom teeth were coming in and I had achey jaw pain that would keep me up at night, I took capsules of Willow which were extremely helpful for managing the pain. Methyl salicylates are also found in Birch, Meadowsweet, Wintergreen and other plants. It is the compound that gives them their winter-green like scent, flavor and is also extremely anti-inflammatory.
Willow contain tannins and I have been told they would make a good bark tanned leather. I have not tried it! I would like to.
Willows also love the water and riparian zones, providing habitat for wildlife and soil stabilization. Basketweaving traditions exist practically anywhere Willow grew, and this fall I found myself wandering the Trinity River in northern California with a friend harvesting Willow that was self-coppiced from winter floods. Some folks strip the outer skin off of the Willow to weave baskets that look almost white. Melody Croft does this, who I stayed with this summer during the medieval bookbinding class I did with her partner, Jim Croft, in northern Idaho. Several of my friends including Charity Cimarron of The Log Red Thread in North Carolina, Aganaq Kostenborder & Erin Fahey from Oregon, Annie Ziljstra and Zac Fittipaldi from Wisconsin/Minnesota, just to name a few, weave beautiful baskets made of harvested and cured Willow. I've dipped my hands in it over the years and love the magic and meditation that weaving brings. Basket weavers do not get paid enough for their work. Also, side note: Did you know that every basket you see anywhere was hand made by a human? Think about that one.
A few Willow photos from my collection:
nekw’nikw’az, according to the St’át’imc & Splitrock environmental, a native owned herb company out of Canada
or T'iis (Navajo)
(There are many other native names for Cottonwood)
Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) has an elongated leaf and gently crenate margins. Sometimes the leaves are sticky and glossy, glowing in the sun. The leaves can be large and wide, and on other occasions they are small and narrow. The top surface of the leaves tend to be a darker green, and the underside a lighter green. It has long, narrow and small sticky buds. It's bark is gray with prominent lenticels- a gas exchange mechanism of the tree. It is generally dioecious like other Cottonwoods and Willows, with male and female catkins occurring on different trees.
Black Cottonwood is sometimes referred to as 'Balsam Poplar' or put as a subspecies of the common Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera) which grows mostly in the north across Canada into Michigan and northern New England.
It is not the same as the Black Poplar (Populus nigra) in Europe, which is the source of many cultivars in the states, including the short lived and easily toppled Lombardy Poplar that my dad has planted throughout his life as a mainstream horticulturist.
Like other Populus species and mentioned before, Black Cottonwood can sprout vegetatively from root or from buried branches, or even pieces of the plant that have broken off and gone downstream. It has a diverse number of phenotype expressions. It is a strong tree for its light wood. It easily hybridizes with Narrowleaf Cottonwood (Populus angustifolia) which grows in in the Great Basin desert according to Wikipedia. According to Stuart and Sawyer's 'Trees and Shrubs of California,' it also hybridizes with Fremont Cottonwood (Populus fremontii).
This is my favorite Cottonwood for medicine like I mentioned in the Sagebrush Salve stories above. I have traveled up along the Yuba River in the California Sierra foothills and found it colonizing the waterways exponentially, the higher I go. I have seen them in instances looking really gnarled and practically dead from flooding damage but having fresh new sprouts from the still living parts of the tree come alive. Also in these instances, I tend to see new sprouts come up along the ground in the seasonal stream beds or flood zones.
Some folks feel like Black Cottonwood is in major decline due to development in certain areas. This is especially the case around riparian zones since these areas tend to be flat and easy to build on.
Fremont Cottonwood was named after the controversial U.S. military general and independently funded western 'explorer' John C. Frémont, who pushed as many 'discovered' things as he could to be named after himself. I wish there was a way we could rename things like this rather than keep the designations of common and latin names that are most always named after white male botanists, mappers or 'explorers.' Though I am interested in botany as a universal language for speaking about the ways that plants are genetically and morphologically similar, and how their similarities change according to place and habitat, I am also interested in a kind of 'undoing' of the colonial aspects of these namings and categories. I am constantly acknowledging how botany has its place for correct identification of plants in an age of 'unnoticing,' as a way to prompt folks to pay more attention and see the relationships between things. It is useful for talking about plants with folks who don't speak the same language, or looking at books in other languages. It has been incredibly useful for me to navigate a nomadic life: I can orient myself in a place by looking at plants and knowing what things are or are related to simply by their leaf structure or number of petals. I am impressed by how these categorizations and relationships work. But, I am equally at awe with how plants bypass our wants for 'gridding' and imposing order on a seemingly wild and chaotic map of 'nature' by not fitting easily in our classifications (hint: hybrids). FYI, A good book that discusses the politics of Fremont, mapping and our need to 'grid' can be found in a favorite book of mine, 'The Void, The Grid and The Sign,' cited at the bottom of the article.
In some instances, as colonizers encouraged by a manifest destiny informed system many generations into a relationship of taking from native peoples and place, using the names that native folks use for plants is appropriate. Despite this, I still question what place folks whose ancestors are transplants onto this land have in using a language formed by other peoples on these places over many hundreds and thousands of years? We shouldn't 'not' touch, feel and take into our bodies places simply because are ancestors aren't native to them, yet our sensitivity to the context of place should always be in our consciousness'. We owe it to ourselves, the native peoples still living on their native lands or who have been forcibly displaced, the land and the plants to form our own connections and carry on the inherent respect and humility the plants impart on us when we really listen. The best practices for naming, harvesting, talking about and using plants for food and medicine is an ongoing topic I have been thinking about, especially since spending more time out west. In the southeast U.S. where I am from, questions around if we should even harvest plants from the wild is narrowed down to conversations organizations like the United Plant Savers initiate especially around woodland medicinal plants that are not super abundant and are highly useful medicinally (like Black Cohosh, for example). But there are SO many plants that ARE abundant, it makes a lot of sense to harvest in the wild.
I also question how we define what 'wild' is when talking about the politics of wildcrafting and wild harvesting, the topic for a larger and more in-depth write-up. Every step you take in the South, there could be 20 or more different edible or medicinal plants, and with year round rain and humidity, things only rest for a couple months in the winter. Gardening is a constant battle of pulling out weeds and plants, many of them useful for food and medicine. It's a weekly activity if you're a gardener in the South, parts of the Midwest and the Northeast, to be 'pushing back the green' from your cultivated plants. So wildcrafting is almost a given, because all the Burdock, Yellow Dock, and Dandelion I pulled up in one weeding session (among many dozen instances like this that happen in a season) is either going in the compost, being processed for dinner, made into medicine or given to the goats to eat.
Colonization also has been happening about 200 years longer in the eastern part of the U.S., and unfortunately, the living connection of native peoples to plants is quieter (but not gone). Many native 'names' are forgotten or only recorded in some instances by white scientists, priests, or diplomats of the past. I still will never forget Susan Leopold, the executive director of the United Plant Saver's dissertation on the matter of traditions of use being in rest rather than an irreversibly forgotten place. She presented it to our group when I was an intern at the United Plant Savers Goldenseal Sanctuary in 2012.
Fremont Cottonwood has wide heart shaped simple leaves with roughly scalloped or crenate leaf margins. Like Black Cottonwood, its leaves are often covered in splashes of resin and are a vibrant yellow-green color. It has exaggerated leaf scars and large pointy resinous buds.
It grows in the Southwest, southern and central Rockies, and scattered across California. When looking at maps of its range, it is fascinating to see its snake-like lines which follow the rivers and riparian areas. Like other Cottonwoods, Fremont Cottonwood groves indicate the presence of groundwater. In some places in the Southwest, Cottonwood is one the only trees around that provide substantial shade. It also is a reliable source of decent firewood in the winter.
The Rio Grande or Alamo Cottonwood (Populus wislizeni) of the southwest was originally considered a subspecies of Fremont Cottonwood, but it has bee decided that it is more genetically similar to the Eastern Cottonwood.
A picture of the dramatically scalloped Cottonwood leaf is pictured near the beginning of the article next to Quaking Aspen and Black Cottonwood leaves.
Quaking Aspen / The most ancient Tree
T'iispaih / T'iispèlh (Navajo)
Quaking Aspens are some of the oldest trees on earth, forming dense cloned stands sometimes acres in size. Their leaves have a gold-coin like shape and flutter magically in the wind, seemingly in cadence. Some stands in the Great Basin, where some of these photos below are shot, are up to 8,000 years old, just under elevation from the Bristlecone Pines which are also some of the oldest trees on earth. There are other groves that are aged at over 80,000 years old, officially the oldest on earth. I recommend reading the incredibly fascinating Wikipedia article on Pando, the ancient grove in Utah and the troubles its faces here. These trees fool you because when you are walking through a forest of them, their trunks don't seem big or especially old, which is not an indicator of age. This is also the case for the Bristlecone Pine, which seems rough and tumble but not dramatically large or tall (See my blog post on the Bristlecones here). The individual trees can live to be about 100 years or so but when they die back, their roots still live, and another tree can sprout back in its place.
Newcomers will confuse the tree with Birch, given its similar smoothish gray to white bark, and sometimes these trees do intermingle like in some New England States. But, Quaking Aspen, as noted, is in the Salicaceae or Willow family, where Birch is in the Betulaceae or Birch family, another group entirely.
Aspens prefer to grow at higher elevation, compared to their Cottonwood cousins that like the low and wet riparian zones. They reproduce mostly from root sprouts and less so from seeds given that stands are usually male or female and the seeds are not viable for long. According to the various books I have looked through, the Aspen groves in New England reproduce from seeds easily, but the groves in the West have had a harder time reproducing that way and rely almost solely on vegetative reproduction. This is due to change in climate and fire suppression. It maybe has been thousands of years since Aspen groves in the west have reproduced successfully via seed. Holy cow. The groves are incredibly responsive to fire, of which they are evolved to survive and thrive from, but because of fire suppression, some groves have suddenly died off or get taken over by conifers. These trees are incredibly magical and deserve our respect and wonder. They have seen more than pretty much any other organism on earth, if this isn't wisdom, I don't know what is.
Balsam Poplar or Balsam Cottonwood is the Populus species of the great north. It grows in Canada and into the northern Great Plains and Midwest, dipping some into New England. It is likely the species that grows at Windblown Cross Country Skiing in southern New Hampshire, where I worked for several winters, and a land I love dearly. I remember Andy, who has lived there his whole life, telling me that it popped up all over the place on the land and had 'invasive' tendencies despite being a native species.
Balsam Poplar from the north and the Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) will readily hybridize where they co-mingle and form the Populus × jackii, which is the official scientific name of the famed 'Balm of Gilead' that Paul Strauss so swears by in his medicine making. The 'x' signifies that it is a hybrid that cannot a breed a true version of itself. It seems like Balm of Gilead is a name used to describe all Cottonwood resins commonly. The name is based off of an aromatic plant that is unrelated to Cottonwood.
Medicine of / Harvesting Cottonwood
The buds, leaves and bark of Cottonwood are its medicinal components. The buds are usually best to collect in late winter before the leaves come out. Be aware that your hands will get sticky and whatever you put the buds in will get sticky too. Even if it is a cold day and the buds aren't super tacky, they will become so when you bring them into your warm house. I have also seen storms knock big branches down and beavers fell Cottonwood trees, making the buds easy to harvest. Sometimes they are high up and unreachable. On other occasions, the trees were small enough to reach the buds, living on dry creek beds or riversides. If you miss them at low elevation, and you're in the mountains, move up higher, they've probably not leafed out yet. Sometimes the buds will be so thick with resin that they will literally 'slow drip' an amber-orange color down the bud. If you squeeze them, especially when it is warm out, you will get your fingers covered in sticky resin, and increase its already potent aroma wafting in the air.
Given their high resin content, infusing them in strong alcohol or oil is best. I honestly have harvested them in late fall and they have seemed just as potent as late winter. It was a matter of opportunity since the limbs had fallen and I noticed the buds were full of resin, even in December. I would only collect a handful of buds per plant and try to avoid the terminal buds at the end of the tree's limbs as a best practice harvesting.
Aging the oil will increase the complexity and flavor of its scent, if you can wait!
The leaves can be harvested in the summer and made into a tea for light drinking. The bark can be harvested for medicine in fall or spring, but I usually hear that harvesting from Aspen is best. I haven't done it. To harvest the bark from an Aspen, I would recommend only harvest a limb or two from each tree, though Aspen groves tend to be massive and one big uni-organism clone, rarely phased from disturbance. In actuality, it maybe increases their growth because it doesn't actually kill the plant who's roots persist underground. Cut the outer bark off of the woody core with a sharp knife on a tarp into strips. I leave the outer bark, others say to remove it. If you're harvesting a Cottonwood's bark, this will be a harder job and removing the outer bark is recommended. Dry the bark pieces in a paper bag with plenty of room and moving frequently or lay out as strips. Try to avoid drying in the direct sun. Cut up the bark into smaller pieces if you can for easy tea, oil or tincture.
I mentioned above when talking about Willow and Cottonwood medicine, that the plant contains anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving compounds. An oil or salve of the buds rubbed onto sore joints, sprained areas, swollen or bruised injuries or achey muscles can provide mild relief. The medicine is also amazing for irritated skin and burns. It can also be included in a tea for UTI's as pain relief, though the taste of strong tea made from the leaves or buds is not as flavorful as it smells. A tea of the leaves or bark is also helpful for mild headaches, diarrhea and even fevers. It is helpful included in immune formulas for it's anti-microbial effects, though this is not its core medicine. It lasts a long time as an oil, even two years after one harvest. It would be a good addition to an oil or salve formula as a preservative.
Michael Moore cites a curious sounding pain relief bitters recipe in his Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West that includes Aspen bark, Licorice root, cloves and brandy. I wonder what other recipes could be put together? I will be experimenting this year.
The Cottonwood buds or bark tinctured in alcohol is helpful as a mild expectorant for stuck thick mucous and I have seen it used in throat and cough formulas by various herbalists across the country.
I cited in the beginning of this piece, the 'feeling' I get from Cottonwood's scent that is 'beyond language.' This plant is incredible for moving emotional funk and nurturing self through depression, especially seasonal depression. Sometimes when my heart feels heavy, I put on a perfume made from the resin of this plant, and it uplifts my spirit, and as I said before, reminds me of 'what really matters' and where my place is in the bigger picture of things.
The issue of whether it is appropriate to harvest a wild plant is dependent on place, purpose and intention. As I mention above in my discussion of 'naming' in regards to the Fremont Cottonwood, the conversation about when and where this is okay or not is ongoing and not static. A plant like Cottonwood, and the other members of the Populus genus are incredibly abundant and propagate really easily from their roots. It's never okay to harvest so much from an area that the plants have to take time to recover, especially if others might want to come and harvest some buds for their own aches and pains, so be aware of that.
Some plants thrive and reproduce MORE from human interaction, as they have evolved in an ecology that INCLUDED humans.
At the same time, check out the spot. If it feels like an riparian area that is drying out due to water stealing upstream, maybe leave the Cottonwoods alone. If you're in a massive grove of Aspens there is little harm in taking some bark for medicine, especially if it is from fallen limbs. I would recommend favoring fallen limbs whenever possible. Aspens are abundant where they live and have often weathered variables over incredible lengths of time. But, they are vulnerable because of fire suppression and climate change.
Use common sense. Respect the place, which was likely a meeting spot, encampment or space of rest and reflection for humans and other animals long into the past. Don't take all the buds from a single tree. There's a middle ground between wildcrafting and not. Plant medicine works. But in this day and age where lots of people are looking into a 'career change' and turn to herbal product making without a real understanding of the ecology, ethnobotany or bigger picture of the plants being used, a cautious mentality is a good one to promote in the crowds.
Our genetics HAVE evolved with plant medicines, and know how to receive them. They are powerful. But using them in the traditional capitalist business model to 'get rich quick' is not going to serve any singular person, the plants, or our society as a whole in the long term.
GROUND SHOTS LAND CAPSULES : Cottonwood
For our April Land Capsules, we are sending out #15 1/2 oz Cottonwood salves for skin and joint inflammations, made from last year's harvest. We carefully harvested last year during late winter in the High Sierras of California, some on cross country skis! This month's capsule will also include a handmade wooden button made by me and a limited edition chapbook. You can find out more information here.
Here's a couple shots from last month's land capsules which included a Yerba Santa elixir, unique cyanotype of Yerba Santa or a polaroid from the road, and a chapbook.
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I spend sometimes over 20 hours or more putting each of these profiles together, which I release to patrons first and then free to the public. They are an ongoing documentation of my personal research into plants while traveling to meet them over and over and going further along ecological webs to expand my understanding first hand in the field. They are also influenced by my time staying put in my avid family tradition of farming and tending plants in one place, which seems to be juxtaposed by extreme periods of travel. I am not claiming to be an expert and welcome any noted additions needed or alterations to be made. I release these profiles first to all patrons $1 / up on Patreon, and your support will help alleviate the personal money I've put into prioritizing this research over the past many years. It will also help me continue the work that I feel like gives a unique perspective to the broader communities that this can affect. I am a perpetual student to the land and desire to understand it as deeply as possible (which means the more you know, the more you realize you don't know) and share that reflection with others, especially in this age where so much takes our attention and distracts us from this reflection.
Bowers, Janice Emily. Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Deserts. Western National Parks Association. Tuscon: 1993.
Stuart, John D. and Sawyer, John O. Trees and Shrubs of California. The University of California Press. Berkeley: 2001.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Museum of New Mexico Press. Santa Fe: 2003.
Elpel, Thomas J. Botany in a Day. The Patterns Method of Plant Identification. HOPS press. Pony, Montana: 2013. 6th Edition.
Fox, William L. The Void, The Grid and the Sign: Traversing the Great Basin. University of Nevada Press. Reno: 2000.
Website. The Yerba Mansa Project. Web. April 1, 2018.
Elmore, Francis H. Ethnobotany of the Navajo. University of New Mexico Press. Santa Fe: 1944.
***Navajo names and uses in this article came from Francis H. Elmore's 'Ethnobotany of the Navajo' publication from 1944 which you can read through here. This publication is a great resource but also has its own issues that anthropological research can tend to have. I don't claim to be an expert on the uses of Cottonwood, Aspen or Willow in the ways that the wide range of native groups that had access to these plants used them. I am learning and trying to understand the context of their importance in different places by different people and not wanting to diffuse their uses into 'what all native peoples did' because that erases their individual identities. But, I admit my naivety. I attempt to cite their native names here and there, but also feel conflicted about how I as a non-native should or should not use these plants' native names. I may update this piece and others as I learn the native names (just like these complex latin names) for them by the different groups of people who lived with and used them. ***