It is January and the herb garden is sleeping under a thick blanket of snow. The days are cold, the bears are sleeping and the world is peaceful. Nothing to harvest then, at this time of year. But wait, my walk takes me along a snowy trail beside a wetland area near the creek where the Cottonwood trees grow tall and grand. And as any neighbour of a Cottonwood tree knows - they shed their branches in the stormy winter winds and snow. And on those branches….. yes... Cottonwood Buds, resinous and shiny. As the Spring arrives and the buds start to open it is the Cottonwood Buds that fill the air with their sweet balsamic honey perfume. This is the smell of Spring in my world, the smell of hope, new life and joy. But now, the Cottonwood branches that lie beside the path are laden with tight closed buds. The cold snowy weather keeps the resin hard and shiny, not yet softened by warmth. The leaf buds are perfect and rich in resin. So now is the time to get out there and harvest those buds from branches that have been thrown from the tree. Now, while the resin is hard in the cold weather. If you wait till the temperatures rise the resin will warm and soften and the job of harvesting becomes a very sticky affair with hands clothes and hair covered in the sweet smelling eternally sticky gum. But now.... NOW you can harvest with a minimum of stickiness. And the resin that you do get on your fingers is just a sweet smelling hint of the Spring to come.
Before you harvest you must of course identify your tree. Cottonwoods where I live have the latin name Populus balsamifera var trichocarpa. Cottonwood trees are known by many because they release their seeds in late Spring with an abundance of soft white fluff that leaves the ground covered in white snowy cotton, hence the name Cottonwood. You will find the trees in swampy wet areas often alongside Willows, Red Osier Dogwoods, Bigleaf Maples, Alders and Red Cedar. Once you have identified your tree, search beneath it for fallen branches. You can either harvest the buds on the spot or take a branch home with you to harvest at home. Harvest into a bag - not your pocket unless you like your pockets lined with sweet resin! To harvest the buds you just break them off at the nexus where bud meets branch, the bud will break off cleanly. Lay the harvested buds out on a tray covered in parchment paper to dry in a warm, dark, dry place. Once they are dry you can put them in a jar to store them in a dark cool place for later use.
Cottonwood buds are used to make a Balm of Gilead - reminiscent of the Balm of Gilead in the Bible, though the Biblical balm is made from Myrrh (see earlier Black Bear Herbs Facebook post in December). The buds are rich in salicin and, used externally, are a pain relieving anti-inflammatory. The oil made from the buds not only smells heavenly, it is heaven sent when used to rub into aching muscles and joints:) It brings relief not only for arthritis sufferers, but also for hikers, skiers or gardeners who have aching muscles. The oil also lifts the Spirits and gives a feeling of ease and wellbeing, relaxation and joy. I will give you the recipe for the oil in the next post.
The buds can also be added to boiling water for use in steam inhalations to bring sweet relief for those suffering with congested sinuses or lungs.
So, as you wait for the snow to melt and for the soil to warm you can be harvesting some healing medicine ready for evenings later in the Spring and Summer when you come in from the garden with your back and your muscles aching from digging your beautiful garden. Heaven! :)S