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Black Cottonwood and the Balm of Gilead

“Perhaps you have noticed that even in the slightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree; this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men, but all things and all beings pray to Him continually in different ways.”

– Nicholas Black Elk (Hehaka Sapa) , from The Sacred Pipe (1953)

Every spring the Black Cottonwood disperses its white fluffy seeds upon the world. As a child growing up in Oregon, I loved to walk in the cottonwood snow drifts.  I looked up into the sky and watched the fluffy seeds twirl and dance above me.  Wind-driven, the seeds cannot survive in the shade of their parent and so they seek their fortunes floating and spilling over into every biome of Cascadia.  I am always surprised when the humans around me complain of the mess or the possibility of allergies.

I hear the other humans calling the Black Cottonwood a nuisance or a tall weed.  I want to tell them that this tree is in fact a bearer of great healing.  Research shows that the Cottonwood tree seeds are not the bringer of sneezes and sniffles, but the healer of such maladies.  The tree just happens to disperse its seeds at the same time that other plants release their pollen.   The Balm of Gilead hides in the buds of the great cottonwood and the bark and twigs heal all manner of pains and inflammations. The resins of this tree feed the bees and butterflies and the resin is collected by bees to protect the hive.


Cottonwood seed dispersal

Black Cottonwoods make millions of seeds, usually in the last week of May and the seeds are dispersed on the winds- casting themselves as far from the mother tree as possible. The fluffy seeds can travel 20 miles on a breeze, they can be carried on streams and rivers and rest in a vernal pool.   Within 24 hours of hitting its mark, the seed will sprout.  So strong is the need to propagate, even a fallen branch will sprout where it comes to rest.

The species is native to western North America, and is a coastal species ranging from Alaska to California and as far inland as the Rockies.  It is often found on flood plains and is known to extract water up through it roots to control flooding in many areas.  Cottonwood will plant itself and take root where few other trees will grow.  They take root in pure sand or gravel along riverbanks.


The bark of the mature Black Cottonwood is deeply furrowed, dark grey with young shoots often angled in cross-section.


The leaves are alternate, deciduous, thick and oval with heart-shaped base and sharp-pointed tip. FLOWERS Male and Female flowers in catkins, on separate plants; male flowers with 40-60 stamens, female flowers with 3 stigmas.  The tree flowers before leaves open up.


The fruits are round, green, hair capsules that split when ripe into 3 parts.  The seeds are covered with white, fluffy hairs that help propel them through the air.


Chehalis – ne.’k’w! Cowlitz – xu’pxp

Green River – q’wde’’q’ats

Quinault – kalle’tsalx Squaxin – stsa’pats

(Populus balsamifer ssp. Trichocarpa)

“Populus” means the peoples’ tree.  This scientific name comes from the fact that cottonwood has proved to be so useful over the centuries.  Many parts of the cottonwood tree are medicinal. A compound called salicin, which is found in the leaves, buds and bark of cottonwood, has been proven to lower fevers and reduce inflammation and pain.  The resin has been used to waterproof boxes and baskets, and the bark has been used to make buckets for storing and carrying food.


Black Cottonwood contains a large amount of rooting hormone, just like willows, so it is useful for plant propagation.  Both Cottonwood Trees and Willow Trees produce their own rooting hormone, called auxin. Also like willows, leaf buds contain salicin which is a powerful anti-inflamatory and pain-reducer.

Making a rooting compound with Black cottonwood in 5 easy steps!

  1.  Take cuttings from a Black Cottonwood tree. Use a sharp pair of pruners or scissors and cut twigs that are less than a half inch in diameter.
  2.  Strip away all the leaves and throw the leaves away. Cut twigs into short pieces (1″-2″ long) and place into a pail.
  3.  Boil as much water as will cover your cuttings. Pour the boiling water onto the cuttings and leave overnight.
  4.  Remove twigs. Save in an airtight container in the fridge until you are going to use.
  5. To use – Get the cuttings of the plants you want to root. Remove any leaves that would be in the rooting area (you don’t want leaves to soak in the rooting hormone). Place your plant cuttings into the rooting hormone (only the bottom portion of the stems) and let soak for a couple hours, then plant in a pot with soil and care for as usual. An easy way to use the cottonwood as a rooting helper is to put cuttings of the plants you want to root in a bucket or vase with newly cut cottonwood cuttings.  This will also cause the other plant to root.


In the spring, bees chew the resin from the cottonwood and digest it with their own enzymes to make bee medicine and glue called Propolis.  Bees collect the resin, which is an anti-infectant, for their hives and seal intruders (such as mice and other invaders) in the resin to prevent decay and protect the hive (Pojar and Mackinnon p. 46).   The bees use the resin as a type of bee glue. The glue is thought to be very antibacterial and inhibits microbes that constantly threaten the environment of the hive. Some bees also collect the resin of the cottonwood to use as both an adult and larval food source.



Many kinds of animals use the twigs of Populus balsamifera for food. The leaves of the tree serve as food for caterpillars of various Lepidoptera. (Butterflies, moths and skippers).


“There is a Balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole,” -traditional African American Spiritual


Black Cottonwood bud with resin

The biblical Balm of Gilead is nearly indistinguishable from bee propolis; Balm of Gilead is made of resin from various poplars, including P. balsamifera, P. nigra, and P. gileadensis.”-Broadhurst and Duke 1998

The Balm of Gilead is mentioned in the Christian bible and the Torah.  It was a substance collected from several varieties of Middle Eastern and East African trees and was said to have many curative powers. The ‘balm of gilead’ of the Bible is a resin-exuding tree related to myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), frankincense (Boswellia spp.) and possibly Commiphora meccanensis. The resin was extracted and revered as a great healing salve.  It was burned at ceremony as it was thought to heal the soul and protect it from dark sources.

Most propolis research focuses on resins from forests where bees collect mainly from the poplar (Populus) genus and, to a lesser extent, beech, chestnut, birch, and conifer trees. Chemical analyses indicate that the bees’ propolis is almost chemically identical to these tree resins and is similar to medicinal gums such as boswellia and myrrh.

The balsam is not water soluble, so it is necessary to extract it either with fat, by macerating it in oil or cocoa butter in a warm place (do not boil, otherwise the buds might get burnt), or to prepare an alcoholic extract (tincture). It should be noted however, that some people develop an allergic reaction, which is more common with the tincture than with the ointment. This is probably due to the salicylic acid that is extracted in alcohol, but not in fat. So, if you are allergic to aspirin, you will probably react to Balm of Gilead tincture as well.

This resin, when turned into propolis by bees, contains a medicine that eases sore muscles, arthritic joints and helps to heal damaged skin. It contains substances that are known to inhibit the growth of cancerous cells (caffeic acid phenethyl ester-CAPE) (Broadhurst and Duke – 1998) When to Harvest:  Buds appear on cottonwood trees from late winter to early spring. You can smell the fragrance in the air on the first warm days.  Just before they open, the leaf buds will exude a drop of red to yellow colored resin. When you pinch the buds and see resin inside, it is the perfect time to gather them.  You will notice that some of the buds have catkins inside.  These do not have as much resin and are less preferred for medicine than the leaf buds. Herbalist Gregory Tilford suggests collecting the buds from lower branches and soaking them in alcohol to release the resin.



You will need: extra virgin olive oil (enough to cover the buds), a double boiler, a blender (only if you are making a large amount), a pressing cloth like muslin, a strainer and a glass jar for long-term storage.  If you do not have a double boiler you can create your own by placing a small pot in a larger pot with an inch or two of water in the bottom pot.

  •   Step 1 – Do not wash the buds -blend or pinch open the buds.  This will help the resin to more easily release into the oil.  If you have a small amount you can simply pinch the buds with your fingernail.  Place directly in a double boiler and cover completely with olive oil.  For larger amounts, using a blender will save you a considerable amount of time.  First, place your buds in a double boiler and cover them with olive oil so they are fully covered ½ to 1 inch above the buds.  (If you put the buds in the blender directly without oil they will stick to the sides and your clean up will be much more challenging.)  Pour oil and buds into the blender.  Turn on and blend just until the buds are mostly broken open.  Place back in the double boiler.
  •   Step 2 – Gently heat.  Heat on a very low setting.  Do not allow the olive oil to get hot enough that it boils!  I place my oiled buds near my heater and keep it warm without a stove top.   Heat for several days.  The oil will turn a deep golden color and become very fragrant.
  •  Step 3 – Press out the oil.  Lay a piece of muslin cloth over a strainer that is sitting on a container.  Pour a couple of cups of buds and oil into the muslin, bundle it up, twist the cloth and squeeze with all your might.  Once oil stops dripping, empty the buds into a compost container and continue pressing until done.  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.
  •  Step 4 – Store.  Pour your oil (minus any water or solids that might be at the bottom) into a glass storage container.  You can use any glass jar with a tight fitting lid.

Making the Balm or Salve

The infused oil can be added to beeswax to make a balm or salve.   To each cup of oil, add 1 ½ to 2 Tbsp. beeswax. Over very low heat, or in the top of a double boiler, stir and melt the beeswax. Pour into clean tins or jars. Allow to cool and solidify before covering with lids.

If your balm is too hard for your liking, melt with a little more oil. If it is too liquid, melt with a little more beeswax. Cottonwood oil and balm is especially helpful for swollen arthritic joints and sore muscles.  It has a very fragrant aroma.   It also makes an excellent massage oil for sore muscles.  Because cottonwood is high in antioxidants, it is useful for healing the skin, including sunburn.  The buds are also antiseptic and can be added to other herbal oils to prevent rancidity and molding.



Many First Peoples believed that Cottonwood was a sacred wood used as an instrument of communication between The Great Spirit who loves us all and humanity.  Many instruments of ceremony were made of cottonwood. According to Pojar and McKinnon the Nuxalk/Kwakwaka’wakw and other Cascadian First People used the sweet inner bark and cambium tissues as food and medicine.  The bark was boiled and the infusion was used for a gargle to treat sore throats (Gunther 1945).  These barks were harvested in late spring.  Many other tribal people collected the buds in the early spring and boiled in deer fat to make a fragrant salve. The gum from the buds was used to treat baldness, sore throats, whooping cough and tuberculosis. The resin from buds were used in a poultice with crushed cottonwood leaves to treat pains and rheumatism.

The gum that exudes from the burls was placed directly on wounds and cuts. A soap and a hair wash were made from the ashes of burned cottonwood.

The wood from the tree was used to smoke fish (mostly inland tribes). The inner bark was used to reinforce other fibers in spinning.  The gum from the spring buds was used to waterproof baskets and boxes. Paint and dyes were made from the yellow and red resins of early spring buds. The Squaxin used the young shoots of cottonwood for making the sweat lodge, and also used them for lashings and tying thongs. (Gunther 1945). The wood and buds were burned down to charcoal and used as ceremonial incense.

Several Cascadian tribes believed the Black Cottonwood had a spirit force that was very powerful and it was reported that the tree moved even when the wind was not blowing.  They would not burn the wood but would often listen to the trees for direction.  Like Black Elk, they listened for the voice of the Cottonwood tree.


  •  Broadhurst, C. Leigh, Ph.D and Duke, James A. Ph.D, (1998)  Propolis: An Age-Old Medicine, Mother Earth Living, Natural Home, Healthy Life March/April – Viewed on the web 12-01-2012 at
  •  Gunther, Erna. (1945) (Revised 1973) Ethnobotany of Western Washington. Knowledge and use of Indigenous plants by Native Americans, University of Washington Press.
  •  Meyer, Joseph E. (1918) (Revised 1970) The Herbalist, Meyer Books Publishing
  •  Pojar & McKinnon, (1994) Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska, Lone Pine Publishing, Vancouver, British Columbia
  •  Stur, Ernst T. (1933) Manual of Pacific Coast Drug plants, Ernst Theodore Stuhr Papers, Oregon State University Archives, Corvallis, Oregon.
  •  Tilford, Gregory L., Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West, ISBN 0-87842-359-1


by Ellen O’Shea

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