Scientific Name: Populus trichocarpa
Common Names: Black Poplar, Black Cottonwood, Western Balsam-poplar, California Poplar
Family: Salicaceae (Willow Family)
As we nestle deeply into winter, I eagerly anticipate the harvest of poplar buds. The aroma of these buds sends me (*swoon*). It is absolutely one of my favorite aromas and a medicine I cherish.
From late-winter to early spring the reddish-brown resinous buds emerge and plump up—oozing a tenacious sweet balsamic odor, with resinous, coumarinic (grass/hay) and sweet cinnamon-like undertones. The Poplar “aroma-energy” imparts a grounding presence anchoring a sense of ease, a soothing balm to bring one back to center in the midst of chaos. From here we can flow more fluidly on our journey of inner alchemizing, especially when feeling “rigid or stuck in the muck.” I associate its balmy aroma with the introspective darkness of winter, all the while swirling about with a “sweetgrass” promise of spring.
Often during the seasons’ crossings, when warm days interlude, Poplar buds and emerging leaf sprouts emit an iconic Pacific Northwest aroma that perfumes the air. Many times I have stopped in my tracks as I catch whiffs of its “invisible” molecules perfuming the air—olfactory heaven; the perfection of nature’s diffusion. It immediately brings me a sense of reposeful comfort, allowing me to pause and inhale with gratitude.
Oh, how I love visiting the Poplar trees we are blessed to have grace the rivers’ edges and sections of forest throughout areas of our Pacific Northwest Coast. In this region they are considered the tallest native deciduous tree, and with its rapid growth can reach 100 feet or more. Poplar trees are also known to live for up to 200 years. Upon arrival of their reddish-brown resinous buds, they bestow herbalists the opportunity for communion with their medicine. From infused oils, tinctures, and salves—along with my favorite application—perfume roll-on’s—it’s a warming balm for body and Spirit.
(Above photo by Jess Lofton, IG: airoe_officinalis)
Harvest and Preparations
Peak harvest time will vary per the winter weather patterns, typically late-winter to early Spring. Keep in mind that the longer the buds have a chance to develop, the higher the resin content. Often you will see it dripping from the leaf buds like liquid amber-ish gold! This is the optimal time for harvest.
Seek out low-hanging branches or limbs that have fallen—especially after windstorms or better yet, from downed trees. This makes your harvest accessible (remember these trees can be quite tall!) and most considerate for the tree’s life. If you are harvesting from live tress, remember to be very selective and conservative… harvest a little from here and a little from there to minimize your impact.
Logistics of Harvesting
With a reverent heart ask permission from the tree, gift an offering (a song, a prayer, something of value to you that is also decomposable, etc.) and begin your thoughtful harvest. Cut the bud laden branch ends with clippers then remove buds. The budding twigs contain the resins as well and may also be included when you make medicines. As the late and great herbalist Michael Moore states “gather the branch tips heavy with buds and use all of it.”
Due to the stickiness, I highly recommend collecting the buds into a glass jar. Paper or plastic bag can work but you will lose a little bit of the stickiness to the bag. If you come home with a gooey mass and want to separate the buds for various preparations, simply freeze it—this will make it easy to then separate individual buds.
It is most preferred to make your medicine with fresh buds. It is possible to dry them, however, it may take a few weeks. Because the resin can lock moisture content in the middle of the bud you want to be mindful of how you dry them as they are highly susceptible to rotting/mold. An approach for this is to keep the buds on the twigs to dry them which allows for good airflow between the buds. This moisture content is also a reason why it’s important to prepare medicines from fresh buds within a few days to avoid the increased risk for mold. Properly dried buds can stay potent for a couple of years.
Keep in mind that while you work with these buds your hands will become colored from the resin and sticky whilst smelling ahhhmmazzing. The resin may be easily cleaned off with an alcohol wipe.
Medicinal Uses at a Glance
Pain and Inflammation
Buds, twigs, (and bark) are known to contain bitter salicylates (relatives of aspirin) that work incredibly well to reduce inflammation and ease aches and pains. A balm, or salve made from the infused oil can be a helpful application for swollen joints, arthritic pains, sore muscles, sprains, hyperextensions, and provide relief for muscle tension. It can be a wonderful addition to a massage oil base, adding a warming vasodilating and analgesic aspect. For general first aid support it can reduce swelling and assist with skin cell regeneration/proliferation: cuts, scrapes, abrasions, burns, and chapped skin.
Due to a variety of aromatic compounds in the resinous buds, topical use of poplar has fantastic antiseptic, antibacterial, and antimicrobial qualities that lend the infused oil or salve a wide range of uses. It’s a “must have,” in my opinion, for one’s herbal first-aid kit. Our beloved founder of the Dandelion Herbal Center, Jane Bothwell, makes a topical liniment she refers to as “Nature’s Bandage” using Poplar tincture and Myrrh tincture. “Nature’s Bandage” creates a resinous “seal” one could use on minor cuts or wounds to prevent or hasten the healing of infection. Honeybees have long had the intelligence to gather the poplar resin to use in the making of propolis: a protective waxy-resiny substance they use to fill cracks in their hive to keep infections and rot at bay. This is why propolis often smells and tastes like poplar—pretty magical if you ask me!
The tincture not only imparts its antimicrobial properties, but is also a stimulating expectorant to help thin and expel mucus. It is helpful for chest colds, especially for hard, stuck mucus that causes rattling unproductive coughs or painful coughing. The aromatics will also become volatile gases in the lung’s expiration, therefore inhibiting microorganisms and lessen likelihood of secondary infections.
Black Poplar is grounding/anchoring, calming, transmuting for chaotic energy and overwhelm; allows one to pause, stop resisting and allow spaciousness for transformation. My favorite way to utilize the energetic qualities of Black Poplar is by making a perfume-roll on. You could also add a few tablespoons to a bath (as I did tonight) or take a “Spirit dose” of tincture (1-2 drops).
Medicine Making with Poplar
Ratio measurements: 1 part fresh buds : 10 parts oil
Weigh your fresh Poplar Buds and then multiply that by 10. The resulting amount will be the liquid volume you’ll need to cover the buds with. Example: 2oz of buds x10= 20 ounces of oil. You have options of what oil to use—my favorite is Jojoba (has no aroma and an indefinite shelf life), however, Olive Oil and Sunflower oil are equally great choices.
Once you have your ratio, take a glass mason jar, add the resin buds, cover with oil. Seal with lid and label your jar. Allow to infuse for 4-6 weeks (be sure to shake the jar daily and charge it with loving vibes), then strain—you now have a remarkable oil to use as is or make a salve with.
Ratio measurements: 1 cup of infused oil to 3/4 -1oz of beeswax (approx. ¼ cup)
Once you have your ratio, in a double boiler add the oil and beeswax. Be mindful that the water in your double boiler should be a gentle simmer—you don’t want to overheat your oil. You may also measure out the oil and beeswax in a pyrex measuring cup and place that in a saucepan of simmering water. Stir frequently to help the beeswax melt more quickly.
Once beeswax is melted, give another good stir, and carefully remove from heat. Do a spoon test To check for desired consistency: take out a spoonful, set in the freezer for 3 to 5 minutes. Feel the resulting consistency and add more beeswax if you would like a thicker salve. If you desire a thinner or softer consistency add a splash more of oil.
Pour into glass salve jars. Once completely cooled seal the lid and apply a label.
Shelf life: because of poplar’s antimicrobial and antioxidant content this salve will often last for a few years.
Ratio measurements: 1 part fresh buds : 2 parts menstruum of 80-100 percent Alcohol (higher alcohol content is preferred as this will more effectively extract the properties of the resin.).
Add buds to a glass mason jar, pour menstruum over, seal with lid, and label. Allow to macerate for 4 weeks (or a lunar cycle), shaking the jar daily and charging it with your Love. Strain, store in an amber round bottle, and apply a label. Suggested dosage of tincture is 30-60 drops up to 4x’s daily.
Bonus Recipe! Balsam Poplar Perfume Roll-On
- 10ml glass perfume with roller top
- 10ml Poplar Bud infused oil
Essential oil blend*:
- 8 drops Lavender EO
- 12 drops Australian Sandalwood EO
- 2-3 drops Patchouli EO
- 6 drops Sweet Orange EO
Add essential oils to the roller bottle, then fill with Poplar infused oil, put roller cap on, shake well, label.
*The essential oils you choose here are up to you. Feel free to try this blend or come up with your own. Remember that the Poplar infused oil itself is the aromatic star of the blend.
Seek out essential oils that marry well according to your nose with the base aroma of Poplar. Some others that I love to use are: Vanilla, Rose, Vetiver, Atlas Cedarwood, Bergamot, and Benzoin. Since this is a perfume, I encourage you to get crafty with your label. Apply to pulse points as desired. Enjoy!
- Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants by Scott Kloos
- Fragrance and Wellbeing by Jennifer Peace Rhind
- Medicinal Plant of the Mountain West by Michael Moore
This medicinal plant spotlight was written by Jessica Shepherd: an Herbalist, Plant Lover, and Co-director of Dandelion Herbal Center.