Mention cottonwood benefits to a room of herbalists and I bet you’ll find more than a few people swooning.
Sure, someone in the room may be thinking of its potent antimicrobial properties or the way it can magically relieve muscle pain. But most will be dreaming of that memorable heady scent that is unmistakably cottonwood. Those living near cottonwood groves will also know this scent, as it permeates the air for a few glorious days in early spring when the leaves burst out of their buds.
Important note: If you’ve never been saturated in cottonwood aromatics, I suggest you stop reading this now and do whatever it takes to experience it in person. This article will still be here when you get back.
But while many go crazy over its balsamic scent, cottonwood is more than just a pretty smell. For thousands of years it has been used as medicine and to make a variety of tools.
To explore the medicinal and utilitarian uses of cottonwood, I’ve broken this article into three sections: how it is being used today, how it was used traditionally, and what science is validating or illuminating about this beloved and ubiquitous tree.
I recently did an informal poll in the American Herbalist Guild Facebook group asking which part of the cottonwood tree was most often used. Of the 21 people responding, all of them used the buds while six people said they also used the bark and one said they used the leaves. So, while herbalists are using various parts of cottonwood, by far the most commonly used part is the buds.
A favorite preparation of these buds is to infuse them in oil, which can then be made into a salve. This not only smells heavenly, but can also be used to relieve sore muscles, strained muscles, rheumatic pain, and bruises. Plants work in a variety of ways and it’s assumed that cottonwood both modulates inflammation and directly relieves pain.
Actually, cottonwood oil or salve has many uses and it is often my favorite for a variety of complaints, including minor scrapes or cuts, miscellaneous rashes, and bug bites.
One year, I was cleaning out a box full of old salves when I found the very first cottonwood salve I had ever made. At the time it was at least 6 years old. Every other salve from the same time period had gone rancid, but the cottonwood smelled as divine as the day I had made it.
I learned two things from this experience:
1. Make less salve so I don’t end up throwing the excess away.
2. Cottonwood is an amazing preservative.
Since then I’ve included cottonwood oil or cottonwood tincture into most of my salves and creams. Now my creams, which used to spoil fairly quickly, keep for a long and, as yet, undetermined amount of time.
Besides modulating inflammation, decreasing pain, and having preservative qualities, cottonwood is also known for being strongly antimicrobial.
It’s unlikely that humans were the first to discover this property of cottonwood. Indeed, bees have been capitalizing on cottonwood’s gifts for time immemorial.
In my northern latitude, honey bees hunker down for the winter, finally emerging with the first warm days of spring. Their first trips out of the hive are to the riverside to gather resins from the cottonwoods. They mix these resins with their own enzymes and then use this highly antimicrobial glue to line their hive. We call this thick sticky glue propolis.
Scientists in Turkey did an interesting study comparing propolis from 6 different locations. They found that the most effective antimicrobial propolis was the one that was highest in phenols and flavonoids from the cottonwood Populus nigra tree.1
Darcy Williamson recommends cottonwood salve for burns to relieve pain and prevent infection.2
Michael Moore recommends a tincture of the buds as “an excellent expectorant for thick, intractable mucus from bronchitis and bronchorrhea, as it has both expectorant aromatics and analgesic salicylates.”3
Moore also recommends the bitter bark as part of an old-fashioned bitters recipe:
“Make an excellent, old-fashioned bitters by steeping an ounce of the dried bark, one-fourth Licorice root, and a teaspoon of cloves in a fifth of brandy. After a month the bitters have ’matured’ and can be sipped for poor appetite, indigestion and feverishness. (Though no fault of the herbs, excess ’sipping’ can lead to undesirable side effects.)”4
- Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West
While most herbalists are using cottonwood buds to relieve inflammation, pain, and as an antimicrobial, there are many additional uses for cottonwood in the ethnobotanical literature. The following are some brief extracts from Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany.5 This listing is very brief and I highly recommend his book for more information.
By listing citations of traditional uses of cottonwood, I hope to honor traditional knowledge as well as inspire people to branch out (pun intended) and try different uses of this tree.
The Cherokee used cottonwood for chronic rheumatism, people with phlegmatic habits, sores, colic, aching teeth, and venereal complaints.
The Iroquois used cottonwood to kill worms in adults, arthritis, skin eruptions and scabs and a decoction of bark taken as a laxative.
The Menominee put the resinous buds in fat which was then used in the nostrils for a head cold, and they used a decoction of resinous buds in fat as a salve for wounds.
Traditional healers are still using cottonwood today. As one example, in an interview of two Salishan native elders of Southeast Vancouver Island, Canada, they describe using Populus tremuloides (aspen, which is a close relative of cottonwood) for digestive tract ailments and gynecological problems.6
Besides being important medicine, cottonwood trees also provide important resources for tools. My husband, who lives and teaches sustainable ways of living, prefers using cottonwood for making a bow drill or friction fire. He also uses the shredded inner bark as a tinder bundle. The long sturdy trunks of cottonwoods were made into canoes as well as providing structure for homes.
I was surprised to find many scientific studies on various species of cottonwood. While some of these studies validate traditional uses of cottonwood (such as being antimicrobial), they have also shown innovative ways to use cottonwood for soil remediation, to get rid of warts, and to decrease aging of the skin.
Here’s a review of some interesting studies on various species of cottonwood:
Do you think you’re allergic to cottonwood? It turns out that while many people point to cottonwood as the cause of their seasonal allergies, very few people are actually allergic to it and instead are reacting to grasses that release pollen at the same time.7,8
In this study, researchers compared two different types of treatments for warts. One group had their warts treated with smoke from burnt leaves of the Populus euphratica tree. The other group had their warts treated with cryotherapy (freezing). Those who received the smoke treatment had better cure rates (66.7% vs. 46.4%) and a dramatically reduced recurrence rate (4.2% vs. 32.2%).9
Numerous studies have been done to determine various Populus species’ ability to clean contaminated soil as well as to increase CO2 sequestration (reducing excess atmospheric carbon that contributes to climate change). It turns out that, not only does cottonwood remove many contaminates from the soil, it continues to metabolize them into less toxic compounds within the tree.10
I admittedly feel a little weird whenever I share information about the “anti-aging” ability of plants. Our culture tends to worship the young and pity the old with their wrinkles. I don’t subscribe to the forever-young fascination and don’t want to perpetuate it.
The fact remains, however, that the sun can damage the skin and many botanicals can help protect the skin and keep it healthy.
In this study, researchers first showed the phenolic content of the Populus nigra plant, identifying the major antioxidant components. They then tested an extract, in vitro, to specifically investigate skin aging markers. They concluded that, “Among the detected genes, poplar bud extract significantly regulated genes involved in antioxidant defenses, inflammatory response and cell renewal.” They continue with, “[The] effect of this extract suggests potential antiaging properties which could be utilized in cosmetic and nutraceutical formulations.”11
Instead of waiting for a cosmetic formula to be released at your local drug store, I recommend making your own cream.
Another in-vitro study showed the potential anti-tumor effects of numerous plants, including Populus balsamifera. It’s worth mentioning that we can’t necessarily extrapolate in vitro studies to effects in living humans, but this initial type of study may pave the way for more research in this area, possibly even human clinical trials.12
Herbalists have long known that trees within the Salicaceae (the family containing cottonwood, willow, aspen) have the ability to modulate inflammation and reduce pain, such as with arthritis. This study looked at a patented blend of extracts of aspen (Populus tremula), common ash bark (Fraxinus excelsior), and goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) for reducing rheumatic pain. The review concludes, “Open clinical studies and randomised, placebo- or verum-controlled double-blind trials, performed in different subtypes of rheumatic diseases, confirm the pharmacological evidence of efficacy, such as by reducing the intake of non-steroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).”13
Cottonwoods are deciduous trees that are often found growing near water and can easily survive flooding. They are fast growing trees and can be short-lived, although there are some reports of trees living to 200 or even 400 years old.
Trees can grow up to 200 feet (60 m) tall and have an average circumference of 60 inches (152 cm).14
Modern taxonomists tell us that there are three main species in the “Aigeiros” (cottonwood) section of the Poplar genus: P. nigra, P. deltoides, P. fremontii. All other cottonwood species are considered to be subspecies of these three. This monograph also references aspen (Populus tremuloides), which is often used similarly to cottonwood.
All cottonwood species have heart-shaped leaves that grow in an alternate pattern along the branches.
The older bark is quite wrinkled and of varying shades of grey.
The buds are covered in a sticky resin that is highly antimicrobial, which protects the tree from infection. The buds continue to grow through the winter months and then erupt into catkins and leaves in the beginning of spring. The catkins then grow into green fruits that grow in drupes.
Sometime around May these fruits erupt, creating a “cottonwood snow storm.” The seeds are covered in a white fluff that helps them to travel on the wind for many miles. This is how the tree got its common name of cottonwood.
Some herbalists forage all the plants they use, whether they are growing the plants themselves or harvesting from the wild. Others may order fresh or dried herbs from herbal farmers like Ancestree Herbals or online apothecaries like Mountain Rose Herbs. But because cottonwood buds aren’t easily found in commerce, finding and harvesting them yourself is an herbal right of passage. To locate a Populus tree near you, head to the nearest river, hardwood swamp, or drainage ditch. Cottonwoods love to grow on river banks or other water drainages.
The buds are best harvested at the end of winter or beginning of spring. The harvest time will come as early as January in the South or as late as March in the far North. You want them to be thick with resin but still tightly closed and firm. When you find some, give them a little squeeze. If they exude a sticky aromatic resin, start filling your bag.
Cottonwood generously gives up its branches and, as a result, I haven’t harvested buds directly from a living tree in many years. It’s easy to find wind-fallen branches loaded with buds. One year I found a beaver-downed tree and harvested cottonwood buds for hours. That supply lasted me for several years. Other years I head to the open irrigation ditches. Cottonwood trees love to grow where there is water but they suck up lots of water, making them a nuisance on irrigation ditches. Every spring, the county comes through and mows down the cottonwood trees, leaving a treasure of buds in their wake.
Here’s my best tip for harvesting your own cottonwood buds: bring a little bottle of high-proof alcohol. No, this isn’t for the after party. If you are harvesting ideal buds, they are going to be resinous and sticky. The resin will get all over your hands, which will then get all over your steering wheel, your bike handlebars, your clothes, or whatever else you touch. The only way to easily get the resin off is by using high proof alcohol to dissolve it. It’s nice if you have a partner who can pour just a tiny bit in your hands. Then rub your hand together well and repeat. Once you are skilled in this method, you should be able to get most of the resin off using very little alcohol.
Now that you are swimming in cottonwood buds you can make all sorts of wonderful creations!
By far my favorite is to infuse the buds into oil. To do this, I dry out the buds for a few days to a week. (Go on the longer side if you live in a damp climate.) Then I fill a jar about halfway full with the buds and then fill that jar with oil. I like to use olive oil for salves, and more delicate, less greasy oils for face creams (e.g., jojoba, apricot, grapeseed oils). I put this jar by the wood stove or in another warm location for a couple weeks, then let it continue to infuse in a dark cool place for several more weeks, up to a year. I generally don’t strain my buds until I need the oil. I’ve had jars of cottonwood oil for years and I’ve never seen it spoil.
Alcohol also extracts cottonwood resins nicely. Using 75-95% alcohol will give you the best results. Again, I dry the buds a bit, fill a jar halfway with the buds, then fill it the rest of the way with alcohol. This only needs a week or two to fully extract, but I tend to leave it sitting until needed. This can be taken as a mouth wash (diluted), as a resinous band-aid for wounds, or internally for a variety of infections (I admittedly have less experience with this, but I have included dosage and preparation suggestions from Michael Moore below). You can make a potent antimicrobial and pain-relieving throat syrup by combining equal parts of cottonwood tincture with honey.
Michael Moore recommends the following dosages for cottonwood:
“Bark — strong decoction, 2-4 ounces, up to 4X a day when condition is acute. Leaves —standard infusion, 2-4 ounces to 5X a day when condition is acute. Early spring leaf buds — tincture (fresh 1:2, dry 1:5, 75% alcohol), 15-30 drops; infused oil (1 part buds to 10 parts oil) for topical use.”15
The evocative smell of cottonwood resin endears this plant to many herbalists. It is frequently made into medicine through infused oils or salves and is also used in perfumery. Practically every part of the cottonwood tree was historically used, whether it was the wood for building, the bark as fiber, or the buds as medicine. Today, these water sentinels continue to be cherished for their beauty and their resinous medicine. They form an important part of the ecosystem by cleaning the air and soils, providing habitat for animals, and even supplying winter forage for deer. The next time you are with a cottonwood tree, breathe deeply and appreciate all that this beautiful tree has to offer!
Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Heal and co-author of the bestselling book Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Craft Your Own Herbal Medicine. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and has taught thousands of students through her online courses. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.