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November 9, 2023

Plant of the Month: Cottonwood

Plant of the Month: Cottonwood


January is the perfect time to notice cottonwood trees. They stand like guardians—towering above other trees along the banks of rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Each tree’s broad canopy, tall trunk, and miles of roots create a rich ecosystem benefiting many species. People receive many gifts from cottonwood including wood and medicine. Late winter is the time to harvest leaf buds, which can be infused in oil for reducing inflammation, easing pain, and supporting skin health. 

Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) grows 150–225 feet tall and towers above groves of willow and alder in river valleys and floodplains. Grey bark becomes deeply furrowed with age. Winter buds are full of fragrant yellow-to-red resin. Leaves are shiny and dark green above and silvery below. They have rounded to heart-shaped bases and finely-toothed edges. Male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Male catkins are reddish. Female catkins have light green capsules that release seeds with white, fluffy down. Cottonwood fluff flies great distances on the wind and can be so thick that it looks like snow falling in summertime. 

Cottonwood is a whole ecosystem within itself. Roots pump water from the ground and carry it up to the massive canopy of leaves, providing shade that keeps the river water cool for salmon and other species. The filtered light and rich leaf mulch created by the canopy also support a vibrant habitat for shorter plants. Insects make homes in soft cottonwood trunks and woodpeckers hammer holes to find them. These cavities become nests for birds, squirrels, and raccoons. Eagles, osprey, and great blue herons make platform nests in the upper branches of cottonwood. Beavers eat the wood and use logs to build dams. Cottonwood resin is sometimes called “bee glue” because bees gather it to make propolis, a sticky brown substance they use to seal their hives against invading insects, microbes, and harsh winds.

Food: Cottonwood catkins are rich in Vitamin C and can be eaten raw or added to soups. 

Medicine: Populus means “the people” in Latin, and cottonwood is called the people’s tree. It is a beloved plant around the world and is also called “Balm of Gilead.” A compound called salicin, which is found in the leaves, buds, and bark, lowers fevers, reduces inflammation, and eases pain. Cottonwood bud oil is a favorite remedy for swollen arthritic joints and sore muscles. It is also high in antimicrobials and antioxidants that heal and protect skin. Use it for sunburns (use cool water and aloe vera first to cool the burn), chapped lips, wounds, and eczema. 

Cottonwood leaves are harvested in spring through mid-summer. They dry well in baskets or paper bags and will keep for about a year. You can use them in teas or herbal baths for reducing pain and inflammation.

Cottonwood bark is made into a decoction for breaking fevers and fighting infection, including coughs and sore throats. It can be harvested in any season but is most potent in spring and fall. To harvest, choose lower or recently fallen branches. Strip bark with a knife, leaving behind the hard inner wood. Dry in a basket or paper bag. The bark has a bitter yet aromatic flavor. Use a small handful of peeled bark or a heaping teaspoon of finely cut bark per cup of water. Simmer for 10–15 minutes. Drink ½ to 1 cup up to 3 times a day.

CAUTION: People who are allergic to bees or aspirin should avoid using cottonwood.

Making Cottonwood Bud Oil

Harvest cottonwood buds in January through March. If you are lucky, a windstorm will knock down tall branches with large buds. Some have catkins inside which do not have as much resin and are not as medicinal. Snap the leaf buds off the branches and place them in a plastic bag. 

You Will Need: Extra virgin olive oil (enough to cover the buds), a double boiler, a pressing cloth like muslin, a strainer, a glass jar for long-term storage, and a label. 

Place your buds in a double boiler and fill with olive oil until the buds are completely covered. If you don’t have a double boiler you can create your own by placing a small pot in a larger one. Heat on a very low setting. Do not allow the olive oil to get hot enough to boil! Turn the burner on and off to keep the temperature low. Heat for a day to several days. The oil will become very fragrant. Pour this into a glass jar and let sit for several weeks. Press out the oil through muslin cloth. Let the pressed oil rest for an hour or so. If there is any water or solid material, it will fall to the bottom of your container. Pour your oil (minus any water or solids at the bottom) into a glass storage container with a tight-fitting lid. Label and store in a cool, dark place. Cottonwood oil will last several years. 

*Helpful Hint: Sticky cottonwood resin will adhere to anything else it touches. To remove it, use  high percentage rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer. 

Traditional Technologies: Native Americans have used cottonwood resin to waterproof boxes and baskets, and the bark has been used to make buckets for storing and carrying food. The fruit capsules and buds are used to make dye. The wood is soft and lightweight when dry, and is excellent for smoking salmon. Cottonwood is currently grown as a large-scale crop to make pulp in the Northwest. It grows twice as fast as Douglas fir, reaching up to 80 feet in just eight years, and can be harvested after 10–15 years.

Learning from Cottonwood – Wellspring

Cottonwood is resilient in landscapes where changing water levels and disturbance are the norm. Fluffy seeds fly in the wind, land on open soil, and then germinate within a day. They quickly grow deep roots to secure a water supply as warmer weather creates drier conditions. As cottonwood grows, it can shed leaves or causes lower branches to die back during some when water is scarce, and when conditions are very wet, it takes expanding roots and branches. 

Cottonwood is a reservoir of water. A single tree has miles of roots that anchor deep in the earth, drawing massive amounts of water up to the surface. It can hold this water in its trunk and breathe it out through its leaves, thus helping to generate rain. In many cultures around the world, water is associated with our inner emotions and our spirit. Cottonwood reminds us to dive inside ourselves and access our inner spirit. We are connected to a greater source of strength, and we too can be resilient during challenging times.  

  • What teachings, traditions, or skills do I have to help me tap into my inner source of strength?  

To learn more about cottonwood including activities for educators see the Tend, Gather and Grow lesson visit

For more information about Northwest plant teachings see our new Plant Teachings for Growing Social-Emotional Skills book and plant cards!

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