Nothing whispers the signs of spring like the scent of the cottonwood tree. Before the tree buds open, they form a red or golden resin that smells divine. I tend to add cottonwood for the scent because I adore it so much. Yet, it is valuable for more than its scent; it is the most medicinal part of the tree. Cottonwood buds have been used in traditional medicine for a variety of purposes and are believed to have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving properties.
One of the most common medicinal uses for cottonwood buds is to alleviate respiratory issues. Cottonwood buds and the inner bark contain natural compounds that help soothe the respiratory system and reduce inflammation. This makes them an effective natural remedy for respiratory issues such as coughs, colds, and congestion.
Cottonwood buds are also known for their pain-relieving properties both internally and externally. Like willow, they contain salicin, a natural compound similar to aspirin. This makes them effective as a natural pain reliever, especially for headaches and muscle aches.
Topically, cottonwood buds can be used for pain-relieving properties and help heal wounds. Cottonwood buds are often infused in oil to make Balm of Gilead, which is one of my favorite infused oils. Cottonwood buds can also be used to create soothing and moisturizing salves that help reduce inflammation, redness, and irritation. I find that is perfect in facial products because it helps soothe acne and is beneficial to the skin.
As you may imagine, cottonwood buds are not easy to collect in huge quantities. The buds are high up in the tree, and collecting too many could kill the branch since each bud turns into a flower or leaf. Without enough leaves on a branch, it cannot photosynthesize, and it will die. In the past, when I wasn’t familiar enough to ID cottonwood trees and was more opportunistic, I collected from low-lying branches and hoped I didn’t damage the tree. This isn’t good for the tree, so don’t be like me!
The best way to harvest them ethically and to get potent medicine is to wait for a windstorm in the late winter through early spring before the leaves open and see if a branch fell to collect from there. Look for areas of stands of cottonwood trees, usually in areas where there are streams, lakes or rivers. Cottonwoods are not sturdy trees, so it is common for branches to break off easily with wind. Usually if I find a stand of cottonwoods, after a little wind I am likely to find at least one branch fall to the ground, or even a whole tree!
If you come back empty-handed, don’t worry! There is another unconventional way to get that beautiful-smelling oil if you are not looking for the medicinal value. When the cottonwood goes to leaf, it releases the bud scale. This is the time when you will smell the cottonwood in the air and notice sticky yellow-brown scales on the ground. You can collect these pieces when they have freshly fallen while they are still sticky and before it rains. Often times, they can get covered in a bit of dirt, so try your best to clean them off. I use cottonwood scales for personal use in infused oils or sometimes make perfume. They still hold a significant scent, but they likely do not have as strong of medicinal properties.
If you are unsure or learning how to ID cottonwood by their bark, you can also use these scales to help you notice trees. I usually find cottonwood during that time of the year because the large quantities of bud scales stick out on the ground.
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