We're drawing near to the Spring Equinox, the days are growing lighter measurably, and the sap is rising in the plants around us. The catkins are bursting forth from the buds on the aspen tree out my bedroom window, just today. The cottonwood buds are swelling and oozing with medicinal resin,
the alder trees are putting out dangling male catkins and baby flowers which will mature into this years cones.
The motherwort and hollyhocks are putting up new baby leaves, and I've even seen the feathery green welcome of the yarrow plants in the community planting space across the street. Spring is the time to gather many of the first medicines of the year.
I've been collecting slippery slimy bark from the budding elms. They are everywhere, in every other yard, growing along the banks of the creek and they are easily spotted by the buds lining the branches in little pom poms opposite each other along the branch.
I've also been hard at work collecting the swelling buds and resin of the cottonwood trees. Unlike the elm bark which you could probably harvest all summer long and still get good medicine, (though I always prefer spring barks in most cases.), the cottonwood bud season is short. If you miss the few weeks in late winter when the buds are growing and coated in the yellow aromatic resin, you're kind of out of luck for the year. Of course you can always use the bark and leaves of the cottonwoods too, but if you are after the resin coated buds, now is the time. It's often very easy to collect plenty of buds from little branchlets that have fallen to the ground in the strong winds of winter storms. Just make sure they are relatively fresh and have lots of resin on them still. If you are lucky enough to find a entire downed branch or even a tree you'll have more buds and bark that you'll know what to do with. Buds can be collected from the lower branches of the tree, but always with care and respect. Never strip an entire branch of all the buds. I usually limit myself to two buds from a branch, so as not to harm the future flowering and leafing out of the tree.
My favorite way to use the buds is as an infused oil. The buds go into a canning jar and I pour warm oil (not too hot , don't want to fry those babies!) to cover the buds. Then I let the whole mess sit in a warm water bath for 24-48 hrs, or in a warm spot by the heater or stove, or even in a warm sunny window. I've found the warmth is important when making a poplar bud oil. It helps to melt the resin on the buds into the oil. You'll want to strain off the buds from the oil while warm as well.
This fragrant oil is a favorite for all sorts of painful afflictions. It contains salicin and other compounds related to the painkilling properties of willow and other plants. It's an excellent analgesic and mild antiinflamatory. I find it superior for burns of all types, including from a hot stove or a sunburn. It's an excellent sore muscle rub, and wonderful on any sort of bruise, sprain or painful swelling and inflammation, like arthritis. It's also a mild antiseptic and can be used to dress minor wounds and help prevent infection.
I also like to use the oil as a base for an expectorant and aromatic decongestant chest rub, with other expectorant and decongestant herbs like eucalyptus, ginger, myrrh, pine and peppermint.
The buds can also be tinctured in a high proof alcohol for similar uses internally. It is especially good as a stimulating, warming expectorant in moist, chronic or stagnant and cold respiratory conditions. I'd be careful using it during acute respiratory infections with a fever, as populus species can have a tendency to reduce fever.
In most cases fever is a beneficial and healing reaction by the body and supressing a fever is very rarely helpful in reducing the length of illness. There may be cases where reducing an extremely high fever is appropriate for children or elders, and it could be used in those cases, but as a general rule, a vitalist will not supress a healthy fever, and will usually encourage it as a natural part of the body's healing intelligence. More on that in our surviving the flu post ( coming soon to a blog near you!)
Populus tincture can also be used a urinary tract disinfectant and stimulating diuretic, and a mild pain reliever in inflammatory conditions with pain. Osteoarthritis, sore muscles and the like. It may also be useful in hot, full and throbbing headaches which need draining, as populus's energy tends to move downward.
Finally it can be used as a digestive stimulant through it's bitter flavors, though I'd probably favor the bark and leaves for this purpose, which are more purely bitter and a little less spicy, resinous.
Populus balsamifera is the official medicinal species used, but I've used whatever poplar species is growing in my region, as long as the buds are resiny and aromatic. One sure way is to pick a resinous bud and chew it. The persistant, stick to your teeth and rather pungent leaning towards downright spicy resin will tell you if it is good medicine or not.
If you're anything like me, you feel the sap rising in your bones and the anxious feeling of cabin fever if there's snow where you are. We've got another snowstorm in the forecast for tonight, but I'm chomping at the bit to move, get out and about, instead of being inside writing thesis and chemistry homework. I'm also eagerly awaiting the first dandelion greens for pesto!