Tree Medicine: Poplar Bud Harvest and Medicine Making
Harvesting poplar tree buds every March is one of my absolute favorite annual rituals. Along with spring nettle harvest and herring runs, when the sweet smell of poplar buds enters the air it feels like spring has really begun here on Vancouver Island.
Poplar trees are also commonly referred to as cottonwood trees due to their prolific fluffy white seeds that emerge later in the season. Our native poplar's latin name is Populus trichocarpa and it is commonly found near water ways (or other damp and disturbed areas). I always search it out for harvesting along creek and river banks because you will most often find entire down trees and larger limbs that succumbed to the winter flooding and strong winds. While I will occasionally do selective harvesting from alive/rooted trees, it is best to harvest the vast majority of your buds from downed branches or fallen trees. This harvesting method is easier, more fruitful, and more thoughtful for the tree.
The buds contain a very fragrant golden-reddish-brown resin that is one of the most used medicines in my clinic. Each spring I make infused oil and tinctures with wild harvested cottonwood buds for use with my patients. I use the oil as a base for many of my massage oils and salve blends. It is an excellent anti-inflammatory and helps to warm and soothe sore and aching joints and muscles. The tincture I use mostly for wound care - treating active infections or to prevent infections.
I also use it (oil or tincture) as a preservative in many other products (creams, lotions, salves, oils) because it is naturally highly anti-microbial and prevents rancidity in oils. Honey bees even gather the resin to use in the making of propolis; a protective waxy-resiny substance they use to fill cracks in their hive to keep infections and rot at bay.
Though very rare, some individuals who are sensitive to asprin (salicylic acid, which is present in poplar trees) may experience a skin/body reaction to topical applications.
Harvesting and Storage
Timing: generally December - March. I usually wait til March and try to wait until the buds are at thier most resinous. Sometimes you will even see a small drip of resin form on certain buds.
When harvesting the buds I put them directly in to a mason jar. The resin will coat everything - including your fingers - so it is best to keep them in a glass or metal container that you can clean easily. You can remove the resin with alcohol if necessary. If you harvest in to a bag you will lose some of the medicinal resin to the cloth or plastic. You will also have a very sticky bag. It will at least smell nice, though.
Drying buds for later use is not recommended. I have done it successfully, but will often result in rotten and potentially moldy buds. The resins tend to trap the moisture in the middle of the bud making it difficult to fully dry.
Making Infused Oil
To make a cottonwood bud infused oil you can use an approximately 1:3 volume based ratio (1 part by volume of buds to 3 parts by volume of oil). I recommend doing a warm method over a double boiler and infusing for 2-4 days on a very low heat. The warmth helps to melt the resin and mix it with the oil and also helps to remove unwanted water that will be inside the buds.
When the oil is done infusing it should be a golden color and smell delicious. Strain the buds out of the oil but do not press the buds as this may result in some water entering the strained oil. just let them drip the oil off for a little while. Store in a clean, dry glass jar in a cool and dark place.
For tincture making I recommend using a high percentage alcohol. I use 95% alcohol and will generally do a 1:3 extraction method (100g of buds : 300ml alcohol). 95% alcohol is not necessarily easy to get where I live, so if you can not access it you can use a 75% alcohol. Many liquor stores in BC carry 151 rum (75%). Use a clean glass jar. Keep it in a warm area. Shake it regularly. I generally let it infuse for minimum a week. Strain it when you need it or after 4 weeks and store in an appropriate glass bottle (generally a dark glass bottle with a non dropper top for long term storage).
Another nice way to use cottonwood buds is to infuse them in honey for a fragrant sweet treat. This product can be used medicinally as well, but... let's be honest - when I have it around I usually just make delicious treats with it instead. Because this is a personal thing that I make for snacking purposes I just eye ball my infusion ratio. It still helps to warm up the honey and buds in a double boiler.
A couple of other things that my husband and I use cottonwood trees for include harvesting cambium in the Spring time for food and also harvesting sheets/strips of bark which you can use for making baskets.
The buds are still good right now at low elevation on Vancouver Island (well, atleast the mid island) so get out there and pick a few to make yourself some delicious concoctions! Enjoy!