This blog will not be adding more posts but will remain open for you to access the information that will remain here.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Healing Cottonwood Salve

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

A well stocked medicine cabinet should include some homemade soothing, and healing ointments and salves. Making your own salve allows you to control the ingredients, and keeps the expense down. A common salve that is easy to make is Calendula salve, but I'm going to show you how to make Cottonwood Salve today.

Supplies needed:
Dormant Cottonwood Buds
Olive Oil (organic, extra virgin is best for your skin)
Beeswax
wide mouth jar to make infused oil
assorted small jars and lids for salve
double boiler or a small and large kettle and canning rings


A popular European and Native American remedy for burns, it is just as useful today. Containing salicylates (think aspirin) it is also useful for pain, sprains and inflamation. Known for its natural antiseptic properties, it also helps with tissue regeneration.

Commonly known as Cottonwood or Balsam Poplar, Populus balsamifera, Populus trichocarpa.
A tall vigorous tree, look for it next to rivers, lakes and streams or in any moist area. If you are not sure if you have found the right tree, rub a leaf between your fingers, and an aromatic sweet scent will tell you if you have hit paydirt. But, mark the location, as the buds need to be gathered while the tree is dormant, in late winter through early spring.



How to gather buds from a 100' tree? Let Mother Nature help you. With cottonwood being a somewhat brittle tree, winter wind and ice storms will take their toll, and bring down limbs for you. I am not too keen on widespread wildcrafting, because if everybody is out foraging, the natural landscape will suffer, but Cottonwood trees are prolific and can take losing a cup of buds here and there. Look for tight, pointy buds that haven't started to open yet. They should be a little sticky and very aromatic. The scent is heavenly.



There are many ways to make infusions. The easiest is to place your buds in a wide mouth jar and completely cover with oil, so the buds do not mold. I prefer not to use heat, and I leave the buds in oil for a year, in the dry pantry. If you are in a hurry, you can heat the oil and buds gently and strain when the oil smells strong enough to you.

Cottonwood buds are antioxidant so no vitamin E or gum benzoin is needed. Good olive oil also is not prone to rancidity, so this infused oil keeps at least a year or more and is useful in itself. The addition of beeswax adds to the keeping qualities of the cottonwood, so you can expect this salve to keep several years.

Cast of characters: Beeswax, and infused cottonwood oil.


Decanted oil, I used wide mouth pint canning jars. That way I know at a glance how much oil I have, so I can measure my beeswax accordingly.



I wanted to make a firm salve, and the general salve recipe is 1 oz of beeswax to 5 oz of oil. Firm salves form a protective barrier, softer salves (less beeswax) will allow for more absorbency of the herbal properties. If this is your first salve making experience, use half the recommended amount of beeswax, when the wax and oil have melted, pour a little into one of your containers and let it set up. If you like the consistency, you're done. If it is too soft, reheat and add the rest of the beeswax and continue.
To get my beeswax down to a manageable size, I chopped it with a hatchet. I use beeswax in my some of my soap recipes too, so I can eyeball 1 oz sizes. I do weigh the beeswax though, after I have it in smaller pieces.


I made a double boiler with a large kettle, and some canning rings. The oil and beeswax should be gently heated to preserve the herbal qualities of the cottonwood.



While the oil and wax is heating, wash and dry your jars and have them ready for pouring. For this batch, I used an assortment of jars: 4 oz jelly jars, wide mouth 1/2 pint, recycled mustard jars (for the barn) and a real salve jar so I can share some salve as a gift. Always try to have a extra jar or two, I always do this when I am canning too, just so I don't have to go looking for one more jar when I have hot food waiting. Put down some newpaper too, if you pour like I do.



Pour the warm oil into your jars...


While the salve is cooling, you can wipe your pan to clean it. If the salve in the pan starts to harden just put the pan back in the water bath to remelt and wipe again, and then you can wash with warm soapy water.

When the salve has cooled, you can scrape the paper, (if you're as messy as me) and the jar threads and add the cleanings to your jars. Let cool overnight, or all day and wipe the rims clean and put the lids on for long term storage. Too soon and it may sweat and add moisture to your jars.

Once you have made and used some of this salve, you will love it!

21 comments:

prairierunner said...

I'll have to try this, I have a lady that keeps me supplied with her own calandula ointment but this sounds good too.

ChristyACB said...

Now that sounds like a useful thing to have about. Now I'll google cottonwood trees to see one. I can just see me making it out of something completely different by getting the trees mixed up. :)

Taryn said...

We have so many cottonwoods around so this seems perfect!

livinginalocalzone said...

Where does one get the cottonwood buds? That's the one part I can't find near me - or, rather, I can't find cottonwood trees. Can it be found online?
My mother often made herbs/salves when I was small, and I am trying to track down some of the reasons why they work and deconstruct them. Honey/beeswax seems to be a very common addition to many.

Chiot's Run said...

How interesting. I know we have cottonwood trees around here because they put off their cotton. I wonder if I can find some buds and give this a shot.

Tameson said...

I make comfrey salve just like this. Gonna have to take a walk in the woods and look for some cottonwood.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Linda, you probably have all kinds of cottonwoods near the river. The scent of this is sooo nice, and it will heal a deep cut with nary a scar.

ChristyACB, Hey you might be onto the next good salve :) Really, though once you learn what they look like, you will start seeing them everywhere. Around here in the parks near the rivers, there are always many limbs that come down in the winter ice storms. We are always on the lookout, and keep a baggy tucked in the glovebox just for such unexpected goldmines.

Taryn, I guarantee, you will love the smell. It makes a wonderful salve for even slightly dry skin.

Mangochild, look for herbalists in your area or online. And probably a search for Balm of Gilead or Poplar Bud on ebay would give you some choices. You might find some salve on Etsy too, just to try out a little.

Beeswax is a natural preservative and contains natural emollients in itself, so it is usually used for salve making. Plus the the scent of the honey doesn't hurt either!

Chiot's Run, if the cottonwoods aren't leafing out yet, go for it, or mark the location for an early next winter gathering. I would say even if they are just starting to open, I would gather some anyway, and heat them with a little EVOO and try it out. The worst outcome would be that the salve wouldn't be quite as strong - but it would still be worth the effort.

Tameson, I'm going to have to make some comfrey salve too, I have used plantain, chickweed and Hypericum with this, but I always fall back on just the Cottonwood, since I can gather it in the winter when I'm not so busy. I used it to heal a really deep gash on my arm from a clipped of nail, and I am amazed how well it healed. My hubby teases me about that being my best looking scar! As if any of 'em look good...

For the comfrey salve, what stage of growth do you find best? Leaves, roots, all parts??

Tameson said...

I don't have the luxury of being choosy - between the kids, the job, the animals, etc. I use whatever I can get from the plant when it occurs to me. I tend not to disrupt the roots, but I do hack back the lot of it in the fall to feed my gardens and if I haven't infused any oil by then I'll take plant or two for the purpose - smash the stems before you put them in the jars though, you get a better infusion that way.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Tameson, thank you - it is the same around here. "When it gets done."

That's good to know, I don't have a too big of a patch but when it gets unruly next time I will try it. Thank you!

Hayden said...

Thanks for this, I've bookmarked it and will try to get it done next winter. I know where there are a number of cottonwood trees...

for now, I'm going to adapt your salve recipe to rosemary and bay laurel and make a batch of each to take with me when I leave!

debg said...

I've also done this with rose petals and lavender (and the calandula). It's very rewarding and works great.

charlene c said...

my son heard about this salve from a friend and made some for me. I have eczema on my wrist and elbow. I should receive it tomorrow or the next day. I will return here and let you know how it went.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

My daughter just sent me this, and I am so glad she did! I knew most of it, but I thought you had to pick buds from a live tree. My cottonwoods are getting huge and the buds are hard to reach. I knew them when they were babies. A friend of mine makes a liniment that is based on a combination of BOG, comfrey, and some proprietary additions. I used it when I was recovering from a broken ankle, after the cast came off. It is truly magical stuff.

Hayden said...

good pics, and important, because I was steaming ahead and almost missed the "balsam" part of the name. What we call cottonwood trees are deciduous, completely different. Alas.

I like that hint on not putting the lid on jars too soon to avoid moisture. Something tells me that same hint generalizes over to when I'm making lard. I knew moisture was the enemy, but hadn't thought of this before.

Lauren said...

Thanks for the great instructions!

I have a respiratory allergy to cottonwood -- not sure if that's the right phrase; I mean I have bad sinuses, nose, and asthma when it is blooming -- do you have any idea if this would affect a topical use of the salve?

I've been very happy with some homemade calendula salves in the past and would love to have this on hand for my accident-prone husband and my cranky dry skin, if it won't make me worse.

Kristin said...

I've got an herbal that uses lard as a base. I would think the vitamin D content would be a good addition. Have you used lard for salves, Nita?

Allison at Novice Life said...

Trapper Creek - Right now where I am, our buds are covered in snow and/or ice...is it still ok to pick them and then just let them thaw out before heating with the EVOO?

Ten Things Farm said...

There are 'common' cottonwood trees all around here, but we also have a poplar variety that we planted called 'balm of gilead'. It is highly fragrant (it smells wonderful!) and I'm wondering if we should use that type, or if the common cottonwood tree is okay too.

Thanks so much!
-Laura at TenThingsFarm

Julia T said...

Thanks for the great blog and photos.

Making balm of gilead has become an annual tradition. It's a great early spring salve that I love to share with others.

maverick099 said...

I seems to be allergic unfortunately. I made some lip balm with cottonwood buds, almond oil and beeswax and my lips have swollen up and I have developed an itchy rash on my top lip, hands and cheeks. My friend also had the same reaction with her lips. Other people have not had this reaction when using it. Have other people had this reaction? I am really disappointed as I LOVE the smell of it.

Crazysuds said...

I live in South Florida and I'm new to making salves and have come across Cottonwood buds and I can't seem to find them... does anyone know who is reputable that I can purchase some...