I’m a big believer in people making their own salves and healing oils, not only for controlling what ingredients touch your skin (especially open wounds), but also to save money. Cottonwood bud salve has been a well-known European and Native American ointment for ages, and is easily made if you have access to dormant buds from a poplar tree.
The salve can be made using the dormant buds from different species of poplar trees (Populus sp.). Cottonwood is the most well-known, but aspen and poplar can be used too. The active ingredients are salicin and populin, pain relievers and anti-inflammatories related to aspirin. (Poplars are healing for other purposes, but here I’ll focus on the salve.)
This salve is sometimes called balm of gilead, or oil of gilead, a valued salve from biblical times. However, the plant used to make oil of gilead was likely one among several options, all indigenous to the Middle East, including desert date (Balantes aegyptica), mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus), or the most likely candidate, myrrh (Commiphora opobalsamum). In fact, many consider myrrh to be the only true source for Balm of Gilead (or Balsam of Gilead). Therefore, the balm made from poplar buds, even though it is definitely effective as a salve, is not true Balm of Gilead though the name is probably interchangeable at this point.
USING THE DECOCTION
You can use the oil or salve on your skin wherever you are feeling discomfort from aches, pains, inflammation or sore joints. Some massage therapists use the oil for clients who experience arthritis pains, or for athletes with very sore muscles. It can also be used to help heal burns or various skin irritations like chapped skin or scrapes. Just rub the salve on your skin as needed.
GATHERING THE BUDS
Collect the unopened leaf buds when they are dormant, in winter to early spring, between January and March. I like to wait until early spring right before the buds open; I find the amount of resin is higher in early spring than when the tree is in full dormancy.
The bark of cottonwood is dominated by large, grey blocks of bark on the tree trunk. The leaf buds are distinctive, large, and pointed, arranged alternately along the stem. The bud scales are a yellowish green with reddish or orange tinge at the edges. It is not uncommon to see beads of resin on the buds, especially in early spring (my preferred collection time).
I collect the buds after a windy day or a storm; bits of branches break off and fall to the ground, making collection a simple process. If you can find low-hanging branches, that works, as well, but fallen branches are easier and they don’t damage the tree since they have already been removed by natural forces.
MAKING THE DECOCTION
There are two ways to extract the active ingredient from the buds: simmer it or let it steep.
Let it steep:
To let it steep, remove the rinsed, dried buds from the stems and place them in a jar. Cover them with about twice as much olive oil as you have buds and put the lid on the jar. Let it steep in a cool, dark place. Some let the buds steep in the olive oil for a year or more before calling it good. Some leave it sit for a week. Because of this variability, I feel I am getting the most out of the buds using a low simmer (heat that is too high, however, will damage the active ingredients so watch it).
Let it simmer:
Remove your buds from the stem, rinse them to remove any dirt, and let them dry. Place them in a saucepan and cover them with about twice as much olive oil as you have buds (you can also use coconut oil). Turn the heat to as low as you possibly can, and let the buds simmer for two hours or more, then strain.
The oil is good as-is after this process. You can just jar it up, store it in a cool, dark place, and rub it on your skin as needed. Or you can take it a step further and make a salve from it, which will make it a bit easier to apply. (Note: If you use coconut oil, it will solidify on it’s own in temperatures above 76F, but will melt in warm weather.)
To make a salve, add no more than 1 oz of beeswax (by weight) for every 5 oz of cottonwood oil. You can either grate it or chunk it up with a good knife. Add it to the saucepan along with the strained cottonwood oil, and melt the beeswax on low heat. Once it is all melted, pour it into a jar. As it cools it will solidify and be ready for use.