Black Cottonwood Wildcraft

balsam poplar Santa Ynez River Los Padres hikesA dribble of resin oozing from the leaf bud of a black cottonwood tree (Populus trichocarpa) growing along the Santa Ynez River.

Black cottonwood buds may hold the finest natural fragrance found in the Los Padres National Forest. The gooey resin smells similar to jasmine. It’s potent, sweet, and heady. Huff worthy. Like fine perfume or essential oil. I daub it all over a few fingers just to smell it over and over again.

As a superb wild fragrance alone it’s a remarkable plant, but the resin can also be used medicinally. “Balsam Poplar is a simple, reliable, and predictable pain and swelling treatment,” herbalist Michael Moore writes in “Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West.” Moore discusses its many uses and he gives instructions for making infused oil, salve and tinctures from leaf buds.

black cottonwood Santa Ynez River balsam trichocarpa poplarA bud post-pop, the leaves sticky and redolent of the fragrant resin.

“Poplar was named after the local poplar trees which are actually cottonwoods.”

Robert A. Burtness, “A Camper’s Guide to the Tri-county Area: Santa Barbara County and Western Ventura County” (1963)

A backpacking campsite in the Dick Smith Wilderness of Santa Barbara County takes its name from poplar trees, which are also known as cottonwoods. The Burtness guide doesn’t mention if Poplar Camp was named after the Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii) or the black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa).

Black Cottonwood bud resin jasmine Los Padres Santa Ynez Santa BarbaraOoey gooey fragrant bud resin.

The bud resin of black cottonwood or balsam poplar trees contains pain relieving substances akin to aspirin, Moore advises, and the prepared oil or salve can be applied topically as an anti-inflammatory agent for pain relief. It’s a prime source for a wildcrafted, naturally soothing balm for pummeled hiker’s feet after the long walk or for sore hands or joints.

“The aromatic resins act as vasodilators, antimicrobials, and stimulants to skin proliferation,” Moore writes. “The salve has been used for burns by Native Americans and Europeans for millenia. It lessens pain, keeps the surface antiseptic, and also stimulates skin regeneration.” It’s great medicine to help heal a blister.

The resin or healing compound derived from the leaf buds is sometimes called Balm of Gilead, a name taken from a fragrant medicinal plant product mentioned in the Bible.

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3 Responses to Black Cottonwood Wildcraft

  1. Lila Henry says:

    Thank you for this! I didn’t know Moore had written an herbal for the Pacific Coast. I have his Rocky Mountain one and consulted it continuously when I lived in Colorado. This balm sure sounds like a winner!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Black cotton wood trees are also fast growing deciduous trees. As cottonwoods age and show obvious signs of senescence and decay, they become important wildlife habitat. They may harbor more wildlife than when they were young and robust. When branches snap off and expose cambium, they are usually attacked by a variety of fungal species. They are susceptible to heart-rot and other decay issues as a result. This renders them highly valuable to a large variety of cavity-dependent birds and mammals. Several species of woodpeckers feed on the insects that the tree supports and excavate nest cavities in them. More than 40 other species of birds and mammals use the abandoned woodpecker cavities for their nesting and roosting activities.

  3. When I lived in the area I was not aware of cottonwoods. After I move to the Pacific Northwest, I learned about them and what they’re good for. Since then, I’ve been tinctures and balms with cottonwood buds. You would be amazed how well balm of Gilead (what the resin is called) heals!

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