A 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.
A 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).
Ooey 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.