I was born and raised in a river town in Missouri. St. Charles, MO is a town in-between two major rivers, the Missouri River aka "The Big Muddy" and the Mississippi River. We spend summers boating on the Mississippi and canoeing (yes, I did the world's longest non-stop river race) on the Missouri. All along the shores were large cottonwood trees that seemed to be holding up the banks of the river.
I left my spa in Midtown St. Charles one afternoon to walk downtown to Frontier Park and collect cottonwood buds that were starting to pop. The tree starts budding anytime between end of January to early March.
I grew up with a MASSIVE cottonwood tree in my childhood backyard but I never thought to collect the buds. Plus they were too high, because I believe this tree was the biggest cottonwood in St. Charles! My memory of the tree was playing around it in the creek as a kid and cleaning the cotton out of the air conditioner every June. If I had known the buds were so important and useful I would have snagged a few down limbs after a storm.
I did know the importance of this tree because it was literally holding up my parent's back yard. Year after year the creek would flood and the bank slowly started declining, but if it wasn't for the great cottonwood the bank would have given away to the water in sheets of soil. The cottonwood tree is an important part of the riparian corridor.
After years of creating "healing salves" I had figured out there is always a plant close to you that can aid in healing for small wounds, scrapes, burns, sore muscles and bug bites. Its time to harvest the buds when they start getting sticky and have a camphor like smell and taste. Collect a few from each tree, making sure to only harvest a small amount. Place these in a jar and then cover in a carrier oil for a few weeks. Cottonwood buds are interesting because when infused in oil they don't go rancid like other oils and salves over time.
Cottonwood trees not only have medicinal components, they also have traditional uses. As the buds are often used medicinally, they have also been studied in soils. Scientists have discovered that cottonwood buds can clean contaminated soil and increase CO2 in the soil. The trees have also been used to create wooden structures and canoes.
Medicinally, the buds and bark are mostly used, but some herbalists have claimed to use the leaves. Herbalists will use the bark for a decoction or used in a bitter recipe. One of the best uses for the buds when infused in oil is for sore muscles. Used topically as a salve or oil can help relieve minor aches and pains by reducing inflammation. The buds are also antimicrobial which is great for a salve to help heal minor wounds such as burns to prevent infection. Some herbalists will make a tincture of the buds because it is a good expectorant for bronchitis.
One very interesting role of the cottonwood is its anti-aging benefits. Its phenolic content is high in antioxidants and can help with inflammatory response and cell renewal. This makes the buds a great component in skincare. I collected a few this season to try on my own skin. If I see great results I may collect a few more next year and make a big batch, or I may leave this up to each per to discover on their own.
The cottonwood tree is very remarkable with many healing aspects as well as protecting our lands and soils. It is truly a guardian of the river.