As I type, the wind howls, the trees sway, and the ravens perform acrobatic feats in the cloud-studded sky. March is showing itself to be a lion today, but I can only smile as I read a balmy 39 degrees Fahrenheit on the thermometer.
Spring brings to mind pussy willows, the sight of dirt, and the scent of cottonwood buds.
I love the coming of spring. All this new life and potential — a small taste of what is to come: more dirt, more sun, more warmth, more smells and tastes and colors!
The wind is especially pleasing to me today because I’ve been preparing this post to go along with my Balm of Gilead (poplar salve made from cottonwood buds). There are some days mid-winter when I rub it on my hands just to bring in the scent of spring.
It might be -10 degrees outside with shades of white and gray all around, but for that moment, in my kitchen, I feel the sun’s warmth, hear the bird’s song, and smell the flower’s perfume.
Have you ever captured spring in a jar? Would you like to give it a try? Read on, friend!
The “Do It All” Salve: Poplar
This wonder oil soothes skin irritations such as eczema, cuts, rashes, burns, psoriasis, insect bites and stings, sunburn, athlete’s foot, dry and scaly skin, chapped hands or cheeks, and prevents or heals diaper rash.
Thanks to its anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anti-rheumatic nature, poplar salve helps to relieve the aches and pains of sore muscles, bruises, and arthritis.
It’s also a mild sedative. Many have found a better night’s sleep after rubbing a bit of balm under their nose at bedtime.
Try massaging a bit on your chest or placing a dab around your nose if you are suffering from a cold and have blown your nose one too many times.
My neighbor recently applied some to a wart and found it gone within a few days!
The cottonwood buds can be steeped as a tea for respiratory congestion. If you find yourself out in the wilderness, terribly hungry, and without provisions, try munching on a cottonwood catkin. They are high in vitamin C and can be eaten raw or added to soups and stews.
If anything, the smell of the oil reminds of spring, brings a smile, and makes for a wonderful “this will make it all better” boo-boo balm!
Have an ache, a pain, an itch, or stress? Apply, breath deep, say a prayer, and you might just find yourself pleasantly surprised!
If you come across a large area of downed cottonwood trees and are not able to use all you harvest, freeze the buds for later use! Be mindful of how much you gather if you pick from live trees. Pick some, but leave more. Gather from many trees, not just one.
Gathering cottonwood buds on a cooler day will make things much less sticky. My favorite resources for wild plant gathering information and inspiration are The Boreal Herbal by Beverly Gray and Discovering Wild Plants by Janice Schofield Eaton.
People with aspirin sensitivities or tree allergies may not want to use this salve.
Below I’ll show you how to make it! You’ll begin with cottonwood infused oil and then turn that into your Balm of Gilead.
Cottonwood Infused Oil
Begin with this cottonwood infused oil and then turn the oil into your Balm of Gilead.
- 1 part cottonwood buds
- 2 parts extra virgin olive oil
Fill a glass jar half full with cottonwood buds.
Pour olive oil over the buds and to within 1 inch of the top of the jar.
Cover with a napkin or coffee filter and a rubber band.
Allow to sit and steep for 6 weeks or up to a year or more. The richer the better!
Make sure your buds are always covered with oil. This prevents them from molding.
The buds may float at first, but they will eventually sink.
Stir or shake the jar every few days for the first few weeks.
Use as an oil or make into a balm or salve (see below).
To use as an oil, decant through a cheesecloth and put oil in an easily-accessible bottle or jar.
For a quicker infusion, place cottonwood buds and olive oil in a double broiler.
Warm slowly and allow to simmer for an hour.
Stir every now and again.
Consider doing this before bed and letting the buds steep through the night.
Strain in the morning.
The longer the steeping time, the better.
Balm of Gilead (aka Poplar Salve)
So handy! Store in your purse, medicine cabinet, garage niche, coat pocket, tool box, gardening nook, glove compartment, junk drawer, bedside table, diaper bag, first aid kit... anywhere you'd like!
- 1 ounce beeswax pastilles 2 tablespoons
- 1 cup cottonwood infused oil see recipe above
- 1/4 teaspoon vitamin E oil 2 capsules (optional)
Slowly melt beeswax in pot.
Use more or less to obtain a harder or softer salve.
Add infused oil. Stir and allow beeswax to melt again if necessary.
Stir in vitamin E oil.
Pour into a clean glass jar or tin.
- Have an ache, a pain, an itch, or stress? Apply, breath deep, say a prayer, and you might just find yourself pleasantly surprised!
Enjoy! Be sure to share what this spring in a jar does for you and your loved ones!
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I was wondering around what time you go out to pick the cottonwood buds? We are up in Talkeetna and I would love to start picking as soon as they are ready. Also do you ever pick the alder buds. They smell very good too (Or is that really the cottonwood???)
Erin VL says
Hi Tasja~ You may start right NOW! As spring progresses, the buds will turn into catkins. And, I must say, haven’t we been having some wonderful out-and-about harvesting weather?!
The cottonwood tree is different than the alder. Alder trees, especially up by you (and also by me) are more bushy and they have those classic little cones. Alder also has several healing properties, but this post focuses on the cottonwood. I HIGHLY recommend the book The Boreal Herbal. I think you’d find it fascinating! Let me know how it goes for you! (At the moment I’ve got a little bag in my freezer going. Each time I’m out walking with my boys I’ll harvest a handful and add it to my bag. Once I have enough for 1/2 a jar, I’ll begin making the oil infusion!)
Yes ne too, I also live in Alaska. My great great grandma was called a medicine woman so I learned a lot from her as a kid on how to use the earth to m as ke natural med.
Your so lucky! Can you teach us too? Message me if you can please.
I picked up two big bags of windfall buds this spring after a wind storm. Steeped three months stirring a lot until they all sank, and now the oil smells amazing! About to try making salve!
I made my first batch last winter and gave a tin to my daughter in law who passed it on to her daughter who says it works great for her psoriasis. Great to hear. Hope you get same results. I use it as a whole body moisturizer as well as healing salve. I love it! ??
There is a rather short window of time to harvest the buds! Once they start to open (to form the catkin), it’s too late! When making the infused oil with freshly picked buds, it is suggested to pick late in the morning/early in the afternoon and spread the buds out on a drying screen (a window screen works fine!) for a day to allow any water moisture to evaporate. This is important to prevent molding. I made about a gallon of the oil going on 3 years now and it’s still very fragrant and vital. Love this oil!!
Hey Was wondering if you could please post the Latin name for Cotton wood?
I live in New Zealand and would like to know if it grows here and where/if i can find it =)
Erin VL says
Hi Sacha~ You may find it somewhere as an introduced species. The latin name is Populus balsamifera. Happy hunting!
Lorna Penner says
Can it be found growing in Canada? Do you know? Or can it be purchased in the Health store?
I have psoriasis and its very itchy,,can`t sleep some nights because of the uncomfortable itching.
Have tried many products and some of them keep it down but not enough,,it might heal up in one area and then break out in another area. Very annoying.
I have a giant specimen in my front yard, can’t wait to make this!
Hello, in Canada it’s known as Black Poplar or Cottonwood. It’s the tree we get the fuzz that covers the ground and blows in the air. What part of Canada are you in?
I collected buds and am infused the oil and ready to make the salve.
Perfect thank you. I was going to post this exact same question
Erin VL says
Hi Lorna~ I am sorry to hear about your psoriasis. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this balm brought you relief?! It’s worth a try! Yes, you do have cottonwood trees in Canada. I’d do a little searching on the computer or maybe ask a some tree knowledgeable folk in your area for more information. I did a search to see about purchasing it on-line, and it definitely looks like it’s out there. Good luck, and let me know if there is anything more I can do to help!
Nancy Wagner says
Just saw this! I would love to make some! We have an abundance of Cottonwood trees here in Arizona. By “cottonwood bud” – do you mean the bud that comes out on the branch before the leaf? or new growth of the branch itself? By the picture, it looks like branch growth and not a leaf bud.
Erin VL says
Hi Nancy~ You gather the buds that come before the leaves and the catkins. The buds are actually on the branch during the winter, and the resinous coating that protects the leaf bud is sticky and very fragrant. I just followed our city tree cutter and gathered a bunch off the branches on the ground. Perfect! Let me know how it goes! 🙂
Avis Peterson says
I just finished collecting from branches fallen by a heavy wind! On a younger tree, the gorgeous deep red catkins were just flowering and ever so fragrant. So, only the buds (with or without stem piece?), and no catkins in the oil correct? Or, does it matter?
Erin VL says
Hi Avis~ Yeah for downed tree limbs! Excellent! Yes, you go ahead and pic off every bud you find. I like to get just the bud (removing as much of the branch bit as I can), and no catkins. You could try munching on a catkin for fun. Look for one that hasn’t flowered yet. Let me know what you think! 🙂
I just picked some buds yesterday:). My question is, though, would you recommend any other type of oil to use as the base? There’s been much ado about the quality of olive oil lately. I have avocado oil, grapeseed, and almond oils. Would one be better than another? Thanks for your comments.
Erin VL says
Hi Nance~ If you already have all three oils, I’d say it boils down to your own personal preference. Mine would be almond, avocado, and then grapeseed, but I haven’t done the research to know all the yeas and neas, pros and cons of each. I realize I’m not being much help here. 🙂 Maybe someone else would like to chime in?
Regarding the cottonwood salve, Can I make it w just the casings? My neighbor has a huge tree next to us that dropped piles of the sticky casings, Everything is leaved out now thus the bud casings dropping. Could I use just the casings or does the bud itself have any significance for the salve? also could/should I add some catkins to it since it has a high vitamin c property? Thank you for your time and information on this site!!!
Erin VL says
Hi Zane~ I’d leave out the catkins. If they aren’t too far along, you could try munching on one or throwing a handful into a stew! 🙂 And if the casings are sticky, I’d say give it a try. If you can gather enough and they are sticky enough, they might just do the trick. Great idea!
Vickie Harmon says
I was excited until I read it was cottonwood. I’m allergic to cottonwood. 🙁
I use to be allergic to cottonwood (fuzz in the air), but no itchy eyes or runny nose since I started using salve from the buds as part of my skin care.
Theresa Alksnis says
In brackets once or twice, the reference was to ‘poplar’ trees…..would that include the common black poplar that grows in Manitoba?
Erin VL says
hi theresa! yes, i believe that is a type of balsam poplar. look for the sticky sweet smelling buds come spring… should be unmistakeable!
Kirsty Sutherland says
Not sure why you are saying balm of Gilead in this post? That is a completely different thing to Poplar…..
This is balm of Gilead and contains the same healing properties. It has a strong menthol smell.
Erin VL says
Hi Kristy~ I am referring to the balm that is made from the cottonwood buds, not the name of the plant. Thanks!
Melissa presti says
Can you please help me. I recently ordered cottonwood buds. One from Oregon and they were sweet, plump and resinous. The batch I ordered from Colorado are the size of pine nuts, really sticky and don’t really have a smell. Do you know why this is. I am really confused about it. Thanks in advance.
Erin VL says
I’d need to know a little more information. When you put in the order, did they include the scientific? Why did some come from Colorado and some from Oregon? I’ve never thought of ordering buds…
I don’t think these grow in North Carolina, but would like to plant one if they do! What would I look for when inquiring about them ? The name ?
I am wondering if the types of cottonwood or poplar are all useful as a salve. We have cottonwood trees here but what is called by that name here in the east is Populus deltoides while the one you refer to is Populus balsamifera. It sounds like your variety might be a lot more aromatic and therefor better for the salve.
Where can I order the buds?
Becky F says
Realise this is a reply to an old post, but try Etsy is a good source. They seller gives background on products and I like that you can ask questions prior to buying. Generally any good wild-craft herbal supplier.
Colleen Courtney says
Do you know if the grow in Massachusettes? I would love to make this. And by the way, thank you for all your incredible info.
Tootie Welker says
I use this balm regularly for burns….I seem to have burn karma haha….and it is the best! Immediately takes away the pain and will often prevent blisters. I had a couple burns on my harm from the oven making my organic wheat-free dog biscuits and they were pretty nasty. Used my balm immediately and then kept using regularly while they healed. Can now barely see the red scars from them! Also works great on blisters from raking or yard work, those ones we get on our thumbs from holding the tool…..use right away and won’t even blister…..truly one of nature’s miracles.
Janet Kuykendall says
I picked some but the leaves were starting to develop about an inch to an inch and a half. Are they still good to process for salve ? Thank you
If the buds are still sticky and in bus form, you can use them. They should look similar to the buds in the photos.
Dianice Roberts says
Hi do you have to use olive oil , is there some other oil I can use…
Hi Dianice- Any nourishing oil will work here. Feel free to use your favorite or whatever is available to you. Have fun!
How big of a container is needed for this recipe? What ia the approximate shelf life once made?
Would you wash the buds before covering in oil? I collected them after a windfall and some are a bit muddy.
Hi Erin~I would just brush them off as best you can. You don’t want to introduce any water to the jar. When you strain the oil from the buds, you will also catch other unwanted bits and pieces. Enjoy your salve!
This spring I saw those huge buds on the ground by the river where I walk my dog. Cottonwood buds. I recently started making and selling home remedies (since my husband became a beekeeper) and here is one lying on the ground. I have 12 quart jars in the freezer ready to be infused as needed. I use fractionated coconut oil since it lasts forever and is great for the skin. Before I used olive oil but one has to add vitamin E to extend shelf life, which is not cheap. I also added some propolis tincture to it which dramatically enhances the skin healing properties and makes it awesome for nerve pains.
judy dunn says
Hi. I live these home made things!! Question: In Tennessee we have tulip popular trees which have a tulip like bloom in early spring. Could I use these buds. In not sure what a cottonwood tree looks like
Hi Judy! I’m afraid your tree is not part of the poplar family but the magnolia family… Maybe do a search of trees in your area using the words willow, cottonwood, and poplar? Good luck! If you can’t find the tree, maybe make a balm using yarrow and plantain! The possibilities for soothing, healing, homemade salves are endless. Have fun!
I absolutely love to read the questions and answers.I have a friend that has a skin disease called Hailey_Hailey Disease that causes pain and blisters, could this salve help,it would be a miracle.
Do the buds need to be harvested in the spring or can they be harvested in the late fall when all the leaves have fallen? I just checked and the buds are sticky right now.
So, what is the window of harvest ?
Is it all right to harvest in the middle of winter ?
Or better to wait the bud just start to open ?
But not too much open, right ?
Thank you !
I’m also wondering if populous tremuloides can be substituted for this recipe?
The infused oil the parts are oil and cottonwood buds-
When measuring do I measure by volume?
Jessica Horecki says
Hi there! I was wondering if it is okay to open the jar while the cottonwood buds are sitting for the 6 weeks? I opened it twice not thinking about it, did I spoil my batch?
No problem! Opening the jar to breathe deep the springtime smell, make sure the buds are submerged, and try a little sample on a dry patch or owie will not cause it do go bad.
Enjoy your balm!
Love the infused oil. Am using for hair conditioner . Don’t need much . Run oil thru hair with hands then brush a bit to spread evenly then shampoo as usual. Does the oil need sunlight to infuse?
Hi Anneita. The oil does not need sunlight to infuse. The warmth and the light will not hurt it, however. And, I must say, the jar sure does look pretty with the rays shining on it! Enjoy!
Is there a way to know if the buds have steeped long enough? I don’t want to mix up the salve to find out it wasn’t ready! They have steeped for 6 weeks, just don’t want to get ahead of myself!.
Hi Marissa! Wonderful!
6 weeks is great! Feel free to make your salve any time. Doesn’t it smell delicious?!?
My cotton buds have been soaking for 11 weeks now and I was wondering if you’ve ever had your buds mold? There is a layer of grayish stuff sitting on top of the buds on the bottom. Wondering if that is just stuff that has fallen of the buds or broke down when i occasionally give my jar a shake.
Ruth Caspell says
harvested poplar buds over a month ago. After infusing for a month I strained and squeezed the oil thru a muslin cloth. There is a brown liquid at the bottom. Should I stir this into the salve like balm on top or strain it off somehow ? Or use it differently? My husband is using it on his arthritic wrist.
Thank you for your consideration