Cottonwood and Willow: Nature's Pain Relievers

Cottonwood, Populus balsamifera, is the largest broadleaf tree in the Pacific Northwest. It is a member of the Salicacea family, which makes it willow’s cousin. Cottonwood trees exist where there is abundant fresh water. On the west side of the Cascade Range, we can find cottonwood along rivers and lakes. It’s the tallest deciduous tree among its neighbors, towering above the others. You’ll also find alder and willow growing among the cottonwoods. Alder grows about 2/3s the height of the cottonwood, which helps with identification.

The resin from the leaf bud (Balm of Gilead) of the cottonwood tree has a celestial scent like no other. One of my favorite activities is walking along river banks, taking in the scent of the cottonwood.

Cottonwood contains tannins, as well as anti-inflammatory and fever-reducing salicylates. It also possesses anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties. An oil or salve made from this resin can bring relief to pain caused by swelling, arthritis, strains, and general muscle pains.

Cottonwood resin can also be applied directly from the bud onto a cold (herpes) sore. It doesn’t look pretty, and stings a little at first, but man, does it ever bring relief from the itch. It also does a great job with speedy healing of the lesions. If you are worried about people staring at the yellow glob on your face, you can use the medicinal oil extraction full strength. It works just as well (perhaps a bit more slowly) but with lesser visual impact.

For a hot dry cough with a lot of hacking but little relief plus feverishness, Balm of Gilead resin works well to cool the lungs and bring up the mucous. The resin is not water-soluble, so making a tea or infusion would not work. How do we get the resin to the lungs? Cottonwood bud resin dissolves well in honey, which can be stirred into hot water or tea for sipping.

To make cottonwood honey, place fresh buds in a jar about halfway up the jar. Fill the jar completely with honey, let sit for 4 weeks to 6 months, then strain. The longer the extraction, the stronger the medicine.

Cottonwood resin can also be dissolved in a fixed oil such as extra virgin olive oil, using a mild heat method. Simply place the cottonwood buds in a crock pot, add olive oil to just cover the plant material, turn on low, and with the lid off, let the heat do its work for about 5 days. Strain and use as is or make into a salve.

Incidentally, the lungs sit on the back of the ribcage (the first chicken I butchered taught me this), so when rubbing on medicinal oils or salves for congestion relief, don’t forget to rub some on the back as well as the chest, neck, and behind the ears. Many women find relief from menstrual cramps with a nice rubbing of balm of gilead oil on the belly and lower back.

Cottonwood buds can be harvested in September when the leaves begin to turn, to just before the buds bust open in the early spring. I go on cottonwood bud forays after wind storms in the winter months. Cottonwood is a brittle wood, and breaks easily when the branches smack up against each other during storms. It’s an easy task to break off buds from the downed branches. The best buds come from the tops of the trees. They are the biggest buds with lots of healing resin. Just a couple weeks ago, I went with a friend to harvest Balm of Gilead buds, and we were able to pick 5 pounds from fallen branches in just a half hour. Incidentally, the first inch or so of the branches behind the buds also contain the salicylates, so don’t leave out that opportunity for medicine.

willowhandbigWillowSalix spp. There are 91 species of Salix here in the Pacific Northwest, and all work the same as far as their medicinal content goes. Willow works so well to relieve the pain and inflammation of toothaches, spasming muscles, tension headaches, strains, sprains, arthritis, and back pain, and a veritable plethora of aches and pains. In response to injury, prostaglandins signal the body to feel pain and to inflame. Willow bark contains the same salicylates as cottonwood, which inhibits the body’s production of prostaglandins.

Salicin is converted into salicylic acid in the intestines and the liver. The salicin in willow and cottonwood metabolizes differently, but is similar to aspirin. It seems to have a longer effect than aspirin because of this difference in metabolization.

Did you know that willow has been shown to exert anti-proliferative effects, and to induce apoptosis in colon, lung, stomach, and prostate cancer cells? Apoptosis means cell self destruction. Good to know!

I make a willow honey in the fall and spring, and ingest about ½ teaspoon several times a week for cancer protection. Willow needs steeping for only 3 weeks in the honey. If, after steeping, the honey becomes too thick to strain, simply place the lidded jar in a sauce pan, fill with water, and gently heat for about 10 minutes. This will render the honey liquid enough to easily strain from the willow.

Externally, willow helps heal and relieve the discomfort of sores, cuts, and burns. Use as a wash or compress with cooled decoction. To make a decoction, put read more at 2 cups of water in a saucepan, add about ¾ oz of dried willow bark, bring to a boil, turn down to medium simmer, and let simmer 10-15 minutes. Strain and let cool. A washcloth can be dipped into the willow decoction, wrung out, and placed on the affected area. Let sit for up to 20 minutes at a time, and repeat as necessary. This is called a compress.      

Willow bark is best harvested when the medicine is in the stems, working its way up to the leaf buds. This means now! Simply cut branches from the willow bush. The bark is easily peeled away and cut into small pieces for drying or medicine making.

A word regarding wild harvesting plants on your own: It’s important to be 100% certain of your identification before doing ANY harvesting. Cedar Mountain Herb School offers a Willow harvesting intensive in May. Check out our calendar for more information.