Cottonwood as a Remedy for Coughs, Colds, and Pain Relief

As I write this, it is warm and unseasonably dry, on the eve of the Spring Equinox in Ashland. The forsythia, plums, and daffodils are all flowering in their glory. There's much goose activity overhead, and the cottonwood buds are at their peak - not quite open, oozing with their yellow-orange resin that some call Balm of Gilead. I can smell its aromatic, heavy scent in the air, And vague memories of another time in life spent by high mountain streams come flooding in how fragrances can transport us!

The cottonwood tree, like others in the Populus genus (aspens and poplars), has been used medicinally for hundreds of years by many different peoples. The Cree Indians shredded the bark to obtain a liquid extract used for coughs; the Blackfoot used the inner bark in smoking mixtures.

Cottonwood's most well-known use, is probably that of an analgesic, resulting from its constituent salicin, the active ingredient in aspirin. The salicin is usually obtained by decocting (simmering) the bark. This substance is also found in other members of the Salicaceae family (e.g. willow), the birches, the alders, spirea, and meadowsweet (Filapendula). The cottonwood buds that I am collecting today produce a resin that contains a myriad of other constituents as well as salicin, and is considered by some as the most medicinally potent part of the plant. The resin has been used for centuries as a broad-spectrum anti-inflammatory and vulnerary that aids in the healing of wounds.

As I travel from tree to tree collecting the buds, I include some of the new growth twigs, as they also contain resin. It isn't too long before my fingers are covered by the brownish goo, and so STICKY(!) that the buds will no longer follow the ways of gravity, preferring my finger tips over the collection bag. This resiny goop is usually extracted in oil to use topically for all variety of skin sores (including those with resistant infection), inflammation states, and painful conditions. No vitamin E oil or gum benzoin need be added as the buds themselves are antioxidant and will prevent rancidity in the oil.

When extracted with grain alcohol, the buds have many uses internally. As a chest cold remedy the extraction is excellent, acting as both a demulcent and expectorant. Additionally, its anti-microbial aromatics (like those of the conifers) are exhaled as volatile gases, effecting a kind of antiseptic swabbing of the lungs. This results in fewer secondary infections, which are often more serious than initial infections. It is also beneficial for many inflammatory conditions including arthritis, rheumatism, bronchitis, and asthma.

There are many exciting, exotic, not-so-easy-to-find plants that, upon their discovery can literally make one's heart leap and give a real sense of adventure to the practice of wildcrafting. Then there are those - oft-times considered "weedy" found in our everyday landscape that are readily available and often overlooked. The Poplar clan falls into this latter group of plants, offering shade, shelter, medicine, companionship and much more to those who take the time and care to learn its ways.

Written by Karen Wennland, Clinical Herbalist


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