Monday, March 14, 2011
The Healing Balsam of Poplar Buds
Now I'm used to gathering poplar buds in the southwest, sometime in early februrary, usually the sun is warm, reflecting back from the sandy wash where the cottonwood trees grow. It gets downright hot at times, but it was always very meditative work. Working slowly from branch to branch, gathering a bud here or there, taking care never to strip one branch of all its buds. If lucky, finding freshly fallen branches on the ground after a windstorm.
Harvesting poplar buds is slow work. 2.5 hours yielded only half a quart jar of sticky, fragrant buds. But oh god the smell- warm, sweet, pungent, vanilla, honey, plus something all its own. Ever so much more fragrant than the Fremont cottonwood buds I am most familiar with. Little droplets of resin hardened on the large, brown buds. Fortunately, this land is blessed with an abundance of sapling sized Poplars, just the right size for a short herbalist to gather from the lower branches.
I was thinking as I gathered, what is the lesson of poplar buds? Certainly she teaches a measure of patience. I mean- you have to wait until JUST the right moment, when the days are warm enough to melt the sticky resin inside the buds, but nights are cold enough to freeze it solid on the outside of the buds. You might go check on them, every week for a month, or more. And then, there's the slow business of collecting the juicy sticky buds, one by one, buds sticking to your hands, for hours on end, to result in a small harvest. Surely we will learn patience from our poplar tree friends.
But also, attention to detail. Small details. Watch where you step, check each bud, pick one by one, add to the jar, observe each branch, never pick too many from one spot, listen for the next tree to call, pick out the tree by paying attention to the grey, furrowed bark on older trees or grey mottled bark on the saplings, with reddish twigs where the growth is new. All of these with no leaves to give it away, and picking it out among the whitish-yellow bark of its relative, aspen, and the bare, yet hairy branches of the sumach. You look up, and notice how big and juicy the buds on the poplar are. Nothing on any of the other trees compares. Notice the aspen buds in some places are already opening catkins! See the pairs of birchkins high on the white birches, and how they blend in with the large poplar buds. Where does one branch end, and another start, which tree is which.
Finally, thirst and hunger urge me back to the house, trudging through the now melted snow crust, where I pour olive oil over the fragrant sticky buds in the jar to infuse for their pain relieving, antiinflammatory, and stimulating properties. I'll go back another time or two, and gather a little bit more before the buds open into leaves and catkins, perhaps tincturing some as a nice stimulant expectorant and bitter digestive stimulant as well. But for now, satisfied coming home smothered in the fragrance of poplar balsam.