Cottonwood Salve

From the time I was a teen, I begged my Gran to write down her stories - the ones she told of living on the farm, and riding on horse-drawn carts in the time before every house had a telephone.  At one point, I even bought her a mini-recorder so that she could record her history.  She was the person I adored most in the world, and I knew I'd want that everlasting thread to her.  I'm not good with details, and feared I'd never remember her stories well enough to pass them on.

To my knowledge, she never did write down those stories.  Her little recording machine remained in its original packaging.  When she died last week, she took those stories with her.

But grandmothers are infinitely wise, aren't they?  I'm a conduit for sensation, an emotional sink.  She knew better than to leave me with details.  I'm the keeper of a different aspect of her history.  This is what I know about the world because of Gran:

* When presented with the opportunity, always take off your socks, roll up your pants, and hold your feet in the icy waters of a mountain stream for exactly one minute

* Try to sample every dish at all-you-can-eat buffets, even if this means filling up four plates

* Adventure as often as possible, nap whenever that isn't an option

* Making gravy out of fish is a bad idea

* Laugh until you cry until you laugh again

In the end, what else do you really need to know?


Some wounds are much easier to salve than the loss of a loved one.  Take, for example, everyday aches, pains, bumps, and bruises.  They are easily addressed with a simply-made balm, one made with resin-rich cottonwood buds.

I'm not an herbalist, but I have many friends who are.  And as you already know, I spend a lot of time outside.  So I've picked up a few lessons about healing with plants over the years.  Cottonwood salve is a staple in my medicine chest.

Resin drop on a cottonwood bud
If you have cottonwood (Populus spp.) nearby, you will certainly recognize their shimmering leaves and rich springtime scent.  Any time that cottonwood have buds (late fall through spring), wait until after a windstorm, then search for downed limbs.  You should be able to find more buds than you'll ever need to make cottonwood salve (I supply everyone I know with only a pint per year).  Look for the plumpest buds that have drops of resin on the outside.

Select a jar that you will use for making cottonwood salve every year, or a jar for which you don't have great affection.  Cottonwood resin is nearly impossible to remove from the bottom of the jar when this process is done.  Fill the jar 3/4 of the way with sticky resinous cottonwood buds.  Cover the buds with beef tallow.  I use beef tallow because it has little scent and stays solid even at a fairly high room temperature, and absorbs nicely into skin.  If you don't have access to high-quality beef fat (clarified drippings from a good organic roast work) or don't eat beef, use olive, coconut, or almond oil, and add a little grated beeswax at the end of the process to help the oil set up. 

The next step is to give the buds and tallow some gentle heat for a few days.  I use a small electric coffee warming plate, turning it on for an hour or two at a time, then turning it off until the tallow returns to solid, repeating many times.  When the tallow takes on a yellow color and becomes very fragrant, it is ready.  Strain out the spent buds, and pour the cottonwood salve into small jars, tins, or chapstick tubes.  A little cottonwood salve goes a long way.  As far as I can tell, it keeps indefinitely.

Here's the awesome part.  Cottonwood salve is an outstanding all-purpose boo-boo fixer.  It is anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and analgesic.  You can use it on small cuts and scrapes, bumps and bruises, aches, pains, strains, and more.  You can even rub it on your chest when you have a cold, because it functions as an expectorant.

I always keep a small container of cottonwood salve in my backpack when I'm foraging, and it has saved me from more mishaps than I can count.  I also use it on my knuckle, which tends to get sore and achy ahead of stormy weather.  I just rub the knuckle with cottonwood salve, and ten minutes later, the pain and stiffness is gone!

To find out more about cottonwood medicine, have a look at what herbalist Kiva Rose wrote about it here.

To learn more about some of the herbal medicine I use day in and day out, read my article A Forager's First Aid Kit.  This post also includes a picture of finished cottonwood salve.

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