“What’s this?” asked my clutter-resistant husband, observing the giant mason jar of oily plant matter on the counter.
“Ohh, it’s medicine! It’s called Balm of Gilead,” I explained.
“Oh. But what is it?”
“Cottonwood tips in oil.”
“Hmm. And what’s it good for treating?” he asked, in an impressively neutral manner, eyes scanning to the brand new bottle of olive oil next to the stove that was now suddenly, dramatically, near-empty.
I reamed off a list of benefits from Balm of Gilead, the old herbal remedy – that I’d just copied out carefully into my new Plant Allies notebook – using information I gleaned from Natalie Rousseau’s blog. The resinous buds are rich in salicin which your body converts to salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. Good for sore muscles, rheumatic conditions, simple wound healing, as an expectorant chest rub to treat a boggy spring chest cold. Bees also use the resin to protect their hives.
“Plus,” I enthused, “it’s helping me be more in tune with this place, with the seasons, and what’s outside our door.” He’s knows that “tuning in to the deeper rhythms” is kind of my jam right now, so, even though I could see his brain calculating the cost per millilitre of this little experiment, as compared to the cost per unit of a bottle of generic aspirin tablets, as weighed against the likelihood of me ever 1. completing this project and 2. treating anything with it, he nodded quietly, and put the jar back on the counter.
Since moving to Pemberton from the land of eucalypts and snow gums, I had acquired the habit of thinking that black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera ssp.) are kind of junk trees – the wood is too wet to burn well, the snowfall of the seeds in May wreak havoc on friends’ allergies, and the branches crash to the ground, making them kind of hazardous to live directly under under. Even though wonderful plant mentors like Evelyn Coggins, Dawn Johnson and Connie Sobchak have offered me other ways of thinking about cottonwood, thanks to their contributions to The Wellness Almanac – great bird habitat! good for erosion prevention! great shade in a sweltering Pemberton summer! a beautiful scent! a medicine! – those attributes felt like supplementary prizes, making up for basic deficiencies in character.
Then, in February, I joined Kera Willis and Guliz Unlu for an all-day workshop, offered through Mountain Horse School, “Lightning Seeds: Opening the Gateway of What’s Possible.” The hook had been set, when Kera asked:
What happens when we invite natural rhythms, cycles and energies to help us create the changes we wish to see, in both ourselves and the wider world?
What if we could get out of our own way?
What if we could remember ourselves into a state of embedded belonging within the natural world?
“In the same way a lightning strike may ignite an instant blaze or slow burn that smoulders for months, these awarenesses and experiences may take root eagerly within us, or they may take months (or even years!) to percolate down through our soil,” wrote Kera.
Befriending my tree neighbours has been an outcome with a long slow germination. First there was ignorance, curiosity, longing, admiration of those with more knowing. Years of that.
Then, facilitated by Kera and Guliz, a group of us were invited to stand in the crunching snow in the shelter of a cottonwood and consider: what is the smell of lighting? what is the sensation of green? what secret desire might we share with a horse, a tree, a non-verbal witness? How might be hold ourselves if we courted wonder, if we invited animals to approach us, instead of steam-rolling our way into the thick of things, without waiting, without listening, without receiving?
We ended our explorations at the mixing table, hands-on, pouring melted beeswax and cottonwood oil into containers, inhaling the aroma. Connecting with our senses. Relating.
A month later, on the first day of spring break, I found myself at the base of a massive cottonwood that grows beside the creek behind my house. I wouldn’t have known it was a cottonwood. But I was sniffing around the ground like a truffle pig, and when I found dropped branches with the tell-tale resinous buds (quick sniff for confirmation, month-old memory of sitting at Kera’s table still fresh), I gazed up, to locate the source. Oh. There she is. Wow. Your majesty. I couldn’t help but bow. Her crown was stunning. So different from the conical tops of the Douglas-fir and red cedar that have filled my winter days.
I picked the buds from winter-fallen branches, taking in the scent, and I kind of chatted away to the tree. First, I acknowledged her presence. Big step. I’ve walked by plenty of times, head in my own thoughts, brushing by like strangers. So we began the dance of becoming friends. I accepted her, without assessing her worthiness, just as I do when I become friends with someone. And I offered myself as a potential friend, and complimented her on her lovely qualities – like the fact that the branches she drops in winter storms are rich with buds that are full of medicine for spring coughs, muscle aches and pains, wound healing. I accepted the offering.
She’s a local here, (a coastal dweller, her kin are native to western North America) and the flood plain is her habitat – she can take root in pure sand or gravel along riverbanks, and absorbs water through her roots to help control flooding.
I’d brought the wee lad with me, beckoning him outside with the promise of a “creek patrol.” I had showed him Natalie’s blog post, with her step by step photo instructions of making a poplar salve, and explained what I was wanting to do. I pulled out my little jar of salve from February and we both inhaled it. He absorbed it all quietly, then ran to find a basket for me, and his raspberry picking container (yogurt container with string to hang around the neck) from the bottom drawer.
As I plucked the buds from fallen branches he hustled back and forth between the creek and mother tree pouring water on it as “an offering.” Also leaving branches against its trunk in case it felt compelled to be a Fort anytime soon. It has been almost a year since we last talked about the idea of offering thanks to the trees and living things around us – and maybe we owe it to Wild Kratts, but he’s bought into that idea completely.
(Cut to last night’s first fire, with deadfall we collected from the forest floor.
Dad: “trees are so awesome because they give us firewood!”
Boy: “No, trees are awesome because they give us oxygen. That’s more important than fire wood. If you don’t have oxygen, you can’t LIVE!”)
This is the seed I want to plant in his heart, I thought, as I was collecting buds from the forest floor : there is so much abundance here as long as we remember to acknowledge and give thanks and give something in return. This is the dawning that is, at last, awakening in me.
The smell of cottonwood resin, which I found kind of medicinal and stenchy in February, is now something I inhale with intention and gladness. (Especially given that my hands are covered with it, right now, after I opened the lid of my brewing jar to see how things were looking. Word to the wise: when they say, “only fill your jar 3/4 full, because the buds will swell”, they mean it. Oh grasshopper. So much to learn.)
Now that I have begun to enter into relationship with that great tree, I see her – from my window, out in the yard, walking the creek – all the time, and it doesn’t make sense to not nod in greeting. After all, we’re friends. Even if I never use the oil, medicinally, some “medicine” has been gained, in this, small glimpse at the significance of the phrase I have heard my Lil’wat neighbours use: all my relations.
Balm of Gilead
Local clinical herbalist, Evelyn Coggins says you can make Balm of Gilead as follows:
Using a ratio of one part buds to 3 parts vegetable oil (I use olive oil), soak the buds for at least three weeks, stirring gently once a day to expose all bud surface areas to the solvent.
I use 500 ml canning jars and cover the tops with paper towel secured with canning rings. This prevents stuff from falling into your oil but also allows the moisture from the buds to escape. Keep the oil in a warm place (in the oven with the oven light on) to help gently dissolve the resins into the oil.
When your soaking is complete, allow the jars to sit at room temperature overnight then strain out the buds. Let the oil sit covered with a clean tea towel for another 24 hours at room temperature and then decant it into jars, cover tightly, label and store in a dark place.
You can apply it to sore spots as is or mix it with other infused oils and essential oils, add some melted beeswax and presto: an absolutely fabulous homemade version of “Tiger Balm”.