Medicinal Use of Cottonwood Buds - What is Balm of Gilead?

In the Pacific Northwest, we find our riverbanks lined with Black Cottonwood trees, Latin name Populus trichocarpa, a subspecies of Balsam Poplar, P. balsamifera. Other species within the Populus genus can be found throughout North America. Populus means “of the people,” while Balsam is an aromatic resin, and the resinous buds that can be collected each winter live up to their name as alluringly aromatic medicine for the people. The trees are dioecious, meaning an individual tree produces either male or female flowers. The fluffy white stuff that floats from the trees like summer snow is actually the female flowers sending their seeds into the wind.

resinous cottonwood bud

The sticky resin found in the buds is not just useful to humans. Bees collect it and mix it with their saliva to make propolis, with which they seal their hives and use as a disinfectant.

ACTIONS

  • Analgesic (pain-relieving)
  • Anti-bacterial
  • Anti-fungal
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antimicrobial
  • Antipyretic (fever-reducing)
  • Antiseptic
  • Astringent
  • Diaphoretic (increasing perspiration)
  • Diuretic (increasing urination)
  • Expectorant (loosening and clearing of mucus)
  • Vasodilator (dilates blood vessels)

PROPERTIES

While not a complete list, the following constituents that make up the chemical composition of cottonwood buds help us understand their medicinal significance:

  • Salicin - the precursor to Salicylic Acid, which is the active compound in aspirin. Salicylates act topically as anti-inflammatory agents. When ingested, the body metabolizes salicin into salicylic acid, creating an aspirin-like effect.
  • Terpenes - aromatic compounds such as humulene, a volatile oil with oxygen-reduction potential that protects against premature aging of skin. Antibacterial and anti-inflammatory.
  • Phenolic Compounds - such as gallic acid. Phenolic compounds stabilize free-radicals, having anti-aging, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties
  • Malic acid - humectant, speeds cell turnover, and balances pH.
  • Mannitol - a sugar alcohol that works as humectant and diuretic.

USES

Topically, cottonwood resin is used to heal numerous skin conditions as it stimulates blood flow and cell proliferation. It speeds healing while also relieving pain and discomfort, and is useful for treating sprains, hyperextensions, arthritic joints, swelling, hemorrhoids, bruises, ulcerations,  and burns, while keeping skin’s surface antiseptic.

Properties in the resin protect against premature aging by supporting the healthy production of collagen and stimulating skin regeneration.

Internally*, a tea or tincture made from cottonwood buds is used to treat chest colds, softening mucus while increasing expectoration. It can also be used to treat fevers, headaches, arthritis, inflammation, and asthma.

When the aromatics are secreted from the body, their antimicrobial and antibacterial properties are preventative against worsening infection, making it a good treatment for urinary tract infection and inflammation. Some of the salicylic acid is excreted in the urine, providing pain relief alongside the antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial support.

* Those with aspirin allergies should avoid consuming cottonwood bud extractions. However, those using it as an aspirin substitute find it offers similar relief without the negative side effects associated with aspirin, such as stomach pain.

HARVESTING & PREPARING

Cottonwood buds usually reach the peak of their resinous state between late winter and early spring. Each bud will grow into a new leaf, making this medicine available to harvest for just a short window each year. In the Willamette Valley where I live, I’ve found that early March is the best time to find the juciest buds!

Because cottonwood branches break easily in the wind, they are easy to find on the ground after a windy day. I only harvest buds from downed branches, making this a nearly impactless medicine to collect. The resin will stick to whatever it touches, so having dedicated cottonwood bud containers is key.  

Infused Oil

Spread your buds onto a clean rag to dry out for a day or two, before filling a jar ½ - ¾ full. This will ensure minimal water content gets into the oil. Cover buds with oil of your choice (I prefer organic extra virgin olive oil), gently stir, cover, and let infuse for 4 weeks to a year. For the first couple weeks, open the lid every day or two to let pressure release, and wipe away any moisture that’s evaporated onto the lid. The buds themselves are antioxidant, and will prevent the oil from going rancid. Once your oil is ready, strain into a clean jar. Use liberally as a body oil, or turn into a salve or cream!

Tincture

For tincture making, you don’t need to worry about drying out the buds, and can collect them directly into the jar you’re tincturing them in. Fill a glass jar ¾ full of buds, and cover with the alcohol of your choice. I use 190 proof cane alcohol, as the high alcohol content helps extract resin. Shake dailly, and strain in 4 weeks for a potent, deep red medicine!

BALM OF GILEAD

Gilead is the ancient name of a mountainous place west of the Jordan River, and the term Balm of Gilead is referenced in the Bible. It’s believed the original Balm of Gilead came from a resinous tree in the Middle East, the exact identity of which is unknown. The term has since become used to describe balsam-infused oil.

The word balm comes from Balsam, and is defined as an aromatic, soothing, and healing ointment. Balm of Gilead today broadly refers to oil infused with cottonwood buds. We add nourishing shea butter and PNW beeswax to our take on this historic remedy, creating a creamy, aromatic salve loaded with the healing properties of the resin.

Cottonwoods are fast growing trees, and normally live around 150 years. At 270-years-old, the largest black cottonwood in the United States can be found right here in Oregon, at the Willamette Mission State Park, standing over 155 feet tall!

For those of you who love to nerd out, there’s an excellent article on PubMed analyzing the therapeutic uses of cottonwood buds, and going into their chemical constitution in much more scientific detail.

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