Monday, March 2, 2009

Gifts of the Cottonwood

The sun shone bright on February 21, here in Connecticut. It reminded me of what I've wanted to do each of the past several Februarys, but never quite got up the courage to bear the cold.
But I wasn't to be stopped. I had already spent the previous day scouting riparian locations to no avail. Sometimes the answers are simple, as it was in this case. Right at the end of our road, 'two rivers meet', (as John says in his video tutorial) and they join right where our little public swimming area is. In fact, the end of my windy road is punctuated by the bridge from where immortal bikini'd teens fling themselves by the dozens, as if plunging not to death but to shocking relief from the heat of the summer - or simply the heat of being teen. I always fear they will land on a kayaker.

I love swimming there in the summer, because it 'snows' all over the beach. That's my kind of snow - hot weather, and little ephemeral tree faeries swirling through the air. Those little faeries, of course, are the cottonwood seeds.
These trees are huge. They tower over the riverbank with a reverence to the water that is so sweet, like a gentle giant. Here, at this spot, they are the primary tree. They line the banks on either side, creating a corridor where the yard area is. I have a chance to see younger barks and older barks, with their intensely creviced lines and spiral patterned roots.
As a member of the Salicaceae, or willow, family, it's no surprise that it adores the water. It grows with lightweight timber and shares the pain relieving properties of it's family, while providing integral food and habitat to it's local beings. Beaver dine and construct primarily with Poplar trees (Poplar being the genus, from which we get this species - Populus deltoides - and others like Populus alba and Populus nigra) because they are good food, lightweight (have you seen a beaver drag a log?) and are considerably waterproof, a boon to their watery home life. Willow branches will often root and grow just by sticking it into a wet area of earth and wishing it well.

The Cottonwoods are mainly dioecious plants, meaning the male and female trees are separate. I have not been able to tell the difference from the buds, though. Their branching pattern seems alternate and somewhat spiralic, but certainly not opposite. The small curvy branches that were littered along the yard area were mostly donning their terminal buds, with plenty of gnarly leaf and bud scars along the twig. It has been windy here, lucky for me, since there would be no other way to reach these branches. If you had a smaller stand of younger trees, you would carefully collect the side buds, not the terminal buds, and not the whole branches. Harvesting is done on a cool to cold day, before the start of flowering. Here in Ct, that means mid to late February. My son and I collected as many felled twigs as we could find.

Examining the ground for hours was like a trance. My eyes were sharp at first, yet as time went on became wavy... sleepy. It takes a lot of focus to find the branches with buds believe it or not, as the buds are completely camouflaged into the green and brown grass. Considering only one bud on most branches, we wanted a lot of branches. I had expected to be looking out or up on this harvest trip, thinking I would be picking from a standing tree. But Mother Nature usually has some little 'other' plan for the gatherer, and in this case it was slow and long focus, sharp eyesight, and all about detail. I combed the yard like I imagine a crone would have, as she examined an apprentices weaving work on a large rug. Thread by thread, weave by weave, I knew the patterns of each branch area that I had walked past already. They each came alive in their individuality. The curls cast on the lawn like a giant oracle reading. A meditation in patterns.
The buds are beautiful. At about one inch long, and pointy like a witch's slipper, she's distinct among the other smaller or fuzzy buds. I notice the waxy layers, almost scales, of the bud covering. Part brown, part green, sometimes coppery, they are wildly fragrant. Just a slight squeeze and they release a pine-vanilla-balsam scent that tells you for sure you've got the right buds. They are very sticky and resinous, which means that a day like today, in the lower 40 degrees, is perfect for collecting, as it will keep that gluey resin nice and firm. Later it will warm into the oil I soak it in. Covered with cheesecloth and secured with the jar ring, I let it infuse on top of our boiler, as it provides the perfect amount of intermittent warmth for such a resinous plant.

The buds are a wonderful anti-inflammatory, appropriate topically for myriad minor first aid applications. It also provides pain relief, both external on wounds as well as for sore muscles and achy joints. However, I have not yet actually used any cottonwood bud preparations, so I will spare you a list of someone else's declarations. I look forward to using it on my family and self as a skin soother, particularly after harvesting and hiking, where both the skin and muscles are a bit tender. I also plan to try it on my hubby's feet, they get dry and he plays a lot of sports. I think it will be a nice combination of soothing and anti-bacterial. And if anyone gets a cough, I could use it as a chest rub as well. I will let you know.

Going out in the winter meant getting to see some of the secret hiding spots of animals, which is usually covered in green during the warm season. This is the hiding spot of one of our resident Great Blue Herons. He flies over the swimming area, then tucks himself behind the trees like a magician, to every one's awe.
This is also a breeding area for Bald Eagles and Osprey. Our afternoon was accompanied by no shortage of flight showings by the Bald Eagles. In the naked trees you can see them clear across the river, landing in their perch and preening their stunning feathers. One particular bird offered an unusual stunt. Upon our departure, he came barreling in to the corner sycamore, only to tumble like a falling pillow to the lowest branch, where he grabbed hold with a single golden talon. He hung there like a giant bat, upside down, to our sheer amazement. Ominous to say the least. A massive wingspan.......And a last snapshot of me, in my plant glory, taken by my nine year old son. Mark your calendar folks, I rarely smile in February -- but this was an extraordinary day. Plants, animals, fresh air, sunshine and harvest. A good day indeed.

For additional accounts of Poplar buds, you can visit two of my favorite plant Goddesses who have a lot of experience with this herb. Use the search element of their blogs:
or you can just go find a tree and spend some time with it.


Unknown said...

great post! i love cottonwood trees! our great blue herons torture my poor buddy all summer... im so glad when they disappear for a few months and i get a break from his barking at them!

Darcey Blue said...

i'm so glad you got a chance to harvest some cottowood buds! They are sooo lucious!! It's always hard to get enough buds...even here. I only got a pint of oil this year, as I was low on time and the buds popped open very fast here in this heat! I'll be going back for some bark soon!

Sarah Head said...

Thank you so much for this post! We don't have cottonwoods here, which is very frustrating when Kiva and others wax lyrical about their properties. I do have a Balm of Gilead poplar and always thought the buds had to be really large before you harvested them - now I know different! I still think my tree is too small to be harvested from (it's only about 8 years old) but maybe next year....

Anonymous said...

Beautiful photos! You are inspiring me to go out and hunt for cottonwoods around our forest....

tansy said...

what a lovely nature filled post! it's nice to see the beauty during the cold part of the year...i have a hard time remembering i should go out and explore this time of the year as i am not partial to cold weather.

i've never tried cottonwood buds but i've always wished i could after reading kiva's posts on them. someday i'll find me a stand of them!