Cottonwood – Salves and Lore

**Disclaimer** The information in this article is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.

Properties: Anti-inflammatory, Anti-spasmodic, Anodyne, Diaphoretic, Expectorant, Astringent, Anti-microbial, Diuretic, Tonic

Energetics: Cool, dry, astringent, bitter, slightly sweet

Parts used: Bark, Leaf buds


“…the Cottonwood suckles like a baby, suckles on the Mother Water running under the ground.  A Cottonwood will talk to the Mother Water and tell her what human beings are doing….”  

Yoeme,  Almanac of the Dead

The elegant Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) has captured the imagination of myth and folklore all over the United States.  One of my friends once declared that she didn’t think she had a “Spirit Animal”– she had a “Spirit Plant,” and it was the Cottonwood.  This tree medicine is held sacred, or at the very least important, to many American-Indian cultures.  Some folks think that the injury or felling of any Cottonwood, or negative happenings near these trees, have heavy repercussions in the Spirit World.  What happens near a Cottonwood grove, tends to stay with the Cottonwood grove.  There are some connections between the Cottonwood and the waters, and even connections to “rain magic.”  But that’s just the esoteric stuff.

The average herbalist loves Cottonwood for its sticky, resinous leaf buds that drop in springtime, which lend themselves beautifully to oils and salves for topical treatment of inflammation, pain, and soreness in muscles, joints, tendons and the like.  Those of you who have experienced a good Cottonwood salve can say it is a very cooling, soothing relief for what is greatly inflamed, coming in like a calm water to put out a nasty fire.  The origin of Cottonwood salves comes from its use by Native North American tribes, who used it also as a wash for wounds, skin afflictions, and various pains.

~Cottonwood Salve Recipe~


  • 1 cup Cottonwood Buds (this does not need to be exact)
  • 3 cups your favorite organic oil (my favorite is sunflower; safflower, olive, and canola can be ok)
  • Less than 1 cup beeswax (flakes, strips, blocks, whichever)

-Infuse your oil with the Cottonwood buds by heating oil very low on stove in a pot or pan (clean cast iron ok), placing buds in oil.  You know the infusion is happening if the oil starts to change color, and your kitchen begins smelling “resinous.”
-Once infusion is finished, wait for it to cool, then strain out infused oil into different pot or pan, making sure buds are completely removed and no bits of herb are left floating in the oil.
-Heat up oil again, on low once more.  Throw in bits of beeswax, a little bit at a time.  Start with 1 tablespoon. Wait for it to melt, stirring a bit.  At this point you can “test” the consistency of your salve by placing a spoonful of it in the freezer for a minute, where it will cool and harden.  You can then add more beeswax if you want it to be thicker.  It’s all up to you if you want a “stiff,” waxy salve or one that is more oily.
-If you add more wax, wait for that to melt, stirring that a bit.
-Once it’s all melted and you’ve tested/found a good consistency, pour your mixture into glass jars which you would like to keep your salves in.  Glass is best, I’m iffy about metal and plastic.  Set jars to cool and harden somewhere for several hours, and make sure they aren’t touched; this causes ripples and encourages cracking in the salve, if you want it to look smooth and nice.

While I am including a recipe for how to craft a very simple but effective Cottonwood salve, there is a lot more to this towering tree, which shares its ancestry with Willows, Poplars, and Aspens– and with whom it also shares some medicinal qualities.  We owe today’s widespread use and production of Aspirin to this family and other plants rich in salicylic acids, the original purveyors of the effects Aspirin is responsible for: pain-reliever and fever-reducer.  Historically, this family of plants was used even more on the fringes of traditional folk-medicine as a fever, cold, and respiratory remedy.

Bare Cottonwoods in Winter ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

If one were to come up with a signature for Cottonwood, I would call it “guardian of the waters.”  In herbalism, a “signature” hails from the “Doctrine of Signatures,” the idea that a plant’s effects are reflected in its appearance, function, or environment.  Seeing a Cottonwood usually signifies that there is a river, creek, oasis, or subterranean water nearby.  Groundwater also tends to store up around the Cottonwood’s roots, and in the desert, seeing a Cottonwood is a sure sign you will find water.  In a way, this relates to its work as a medicine.

I could categorize it with Matthew Wood’s “Crane Medicines”, which he dubs “bringers of waters.”  I call it “Heron Medicine” since I see herons so often near these trees, flying or wading, and I feel a stronger connection to the bird myself.  Herons are in fact often known to build their “rookeries” or nests in tall Cottonwoods, near water.  Crane, or Heron, Medicines emphasize the balances between wet and dry, just as the bird wades in the balance.  They are about striking that right balance between excess moisture, and too little, or bringing in needed moisture throughout the organs of our bodies.  If this tree medicine acts as a representative of the waters of nature, it certainly works similarly in human physiology; it brings the waters in or plays an important role for water-transport in the organs, most notably the kidneys, lungs, and skin.  Indeed, Cottonwood is a sign of relieving water nearby, water to come, or a way of moving water out of the body.

I should certainly note that these effects are better documented and empirically experienced in other members of the Willow family Salicaceae, like Black Poplar (Populus balsamifera), which also goes by the name of Black Cottonwood.  Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and White Willow (Salix alba) are a few others.  But it has been found that Cottonwood can be used interchangeably with them, to an extent.

When it comes to “guarding the waters,” Cottonwood is a powerful ally to have in the expelling or modulating of water in excess or deficiency.  As a folk medicine, Cottonwood and other Willow family members were used for wet, damp respiratory afflictions.  Pneumonia, bronchitis, and asthma are some examples but it may be used to help in any pulmonary condition where the phlegm is stubborn, impedes breathing, and cough is unproductive.  Considered a both stimulating and relaxing expectorant in Traditional Hispanic Herbalism, an internal dosing of the bark or buds would urge the lungs to create a thinner, more watery mucus that could be easily coughed up.  The same dose encouraged the cough reflex from the lungs.  Other Willow/Poplar trees in the California-Hispanic tradition were more favored for this use but the Cottonwood is not necessarily one you want to pass up, if it happens to be the only member of that family available to you.

Additionally, in the Hispanic tradition, it was known that Populus species, when used early enough, would inhibit bacteria growing in the lungs.  Today, studies are showing, more and more, that Populus trees including Cottonwood cause 100% cell destruction in bacteria causing both pneumonia and the flu, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilius influenzae.

Cottonwood and its cousins were once one of the most favored medicines against wild fevers.  In fact, old herbalists were confident in replacing doses of Quinine bark with the bark of the Cottonwood for malaria, as the tree is an effective diaphoretic or fever-quencher.  This is another example of Cottonwood proving to be a useful transporter of fluids, as it allows pores to open, pushing out the sweat and toxins of a fever through the skin, just as the tree in nature pulls water from under the Earth up closer to the surface.  What more, the tree was even more help to malarial conditions as a diuretic.  Old herbalists and practitioners found that while using the bark to usher out the fever of malaria, it simultaneously brought a cleansing, tonifying action to damaged kidneys, liver, and stomach– organs that are at the complete mercy of such intense fevers.

Cottonwoods are a large part of riparian Iowa forests
Cottonwoods are a large part of riparian Iowa forests

Yet there is still so much more to this tree.  It expels diarrhea, helps recovery from scurvy, and I would recommend having it on hand for periods– a few cups of Cottonwood bark tea has allayed some of my worst cramps.  It can also serve to regulate menstrual irregularities.  As a tonic, it is excellent for building up and strengthening from the kidneys and on outward.  It should be noted that Cottonwood bark should not be used if there is acute irritation or illness in the gastro-intestinal system, uterus, bladder, or prostate.

To this day, I still have my little jar of Cottonwood bark on my shelf, and I save it for only when I’ll really need it.  I’ve thought about making it into a nice salve but I’ve thought twice about it.  In Iowa, the Cottonwood– along with many other trees– is a pretty marginalized species.  I was very lucky to obtain the bark– in other ways, not so lucky.  One of the enormous, beautiful Cottonwoods took an unfortunate tumble on the property, dying from some sort of crotch-rot, or other problem.  It felt ethical harvesting the bark from a tree that was going to die anyways, but in my opinion, it is unethical to harvest bark from a living tree, especially in Iowa.  Cottonwoods are “guardians of the waters” in their own home ecosystems, not just our bodies, and their role in wildlife areas is important and unique.  Some Cottonwoods are known indicators of a habitat’s health, and some are even protective of their environments against invasive species.  Leaf buds are a different story, as most folks can harvest buds that have dropped or been shaken after high winds or a storm.  Tree bark is protective and stripping or harvesting bark from a tree creates an invitation for disease or pests.  Keep this in mind, especially in a state where people don’t think twice about removing trees to make more room for corn and soybeans.

If you wish to use Cottonwood as a medicine, I would recommend considering using the buds before the bark.  If you wish to use the bark, check around the tree or grove to see if any bark or twigs have fallen that seem fresh, which you could use.  Try harvesting bark from fallen limbs instead of from the tree itself.  In all attempts to make medicine from plants in the wild– try to think not only about how it benefits you, but how it also benefits the plant and its population.  Please, harvest responsibly and with respect!


References: Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko.  Charles Garcia/California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism.  The American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy, 1919, written by Finley Ellingwood, M.D.  Henriette’s Herbal Homepage.  Matthew Wood.  Personal Experience.


What is the “Deer Nation”?

What is the “Deer NatiArtwork Copyright Adrian Whiteon?”

I first stumbled upon the term leafing through well-known herbalist Matthew Wood’s acclaimed book, The Book of Herbal Wisdom, while in the midst of completing my studies as an herbalist’s apprentice this past year (2013).

The juxtaposition of these two words seems to leap out from the page.  They somehow combine themselves together very beautifully.  I guess you could say they leapt out at my subconscious just like a pair of deer themselves.  The words take me way back to a time I dreamt I was being trampled to dust by a stampede of a thousand deer, trapped in a car on the highway, windows smashed and hooves and antlers puncturing the walls of the vehicle like butter.  I was unable to escape death and yet at the same time, I felt completely elated.

A Mdewakantan Dakota woman Wood was treating and whom he mentioned in his book passed this term on to him as a formal title for all deer, their name as a complete species, as if they are a collective society, a tribe.  No doubt in my mind they are.  Wood references the term Deer Nation later in the book, stating that some herbs are specifically endorsed by the Deer Nation.  His meaning is very simple: these are herbs that deer like, of which deer are often seen favoring and feeding on in the wild, and very arguably for their own medicinal purposes.

The concept of the Deer Nation can develop further along those lines, if one delves into Matthew Wood’s phyla of Native Medicine and a grouping of herbs called Deer Medicines.   Specificity and origin of this herbal medicine classification system is unknown by me as to which tribe or nation from which it may originate; there is a chance that this is simply a classification method Wood developed on his own, inspired by native practices, but don’t quote me on that and I am sadly not a person to ask.  There are Wolf Medicines, Bear Medicines, Snake Medicines among others.  The classification of medicines in this system known as Deer Medicines have signatures reminiscent to the the physical and behavioral characteristics of deer, while also being herbs and wild plants that deer have predilection for.  Thus, Deer Medicines are herbs used (and endorsed) by the Deer Nation, you could say.

In taking the term Deer Nation and applying it in part to the work I want to do, it serves as a reminder to me and I hope to everyone else that everything we use is borrowed.  The plants and wildlife around us ultimately take care of themselves as they have for so many hundreds of thousands of years, without our help and regardless of our hindrances on them.  As herbal medicine is beginning to explode and become somewhat of a “trendy” thing along with all that other trendy stuff, people are going to start buying Gypsy Cold Care tea, or Triple Echinacea, or Black Cohosh capsules, or Goldenseal Root or whatever-what-have-you without even thinking twice about where it came from, and probably right off the Walmart shelf pretty soon– probably even already.  A lot of these “hit” herbs are, ironically, endangered and for the most part, you can attribute that to the high demand that has been placed upon them as medicine now and throughout history.  Plants don’t just belong to us all of a sudden as if they are now newly responsible for our health, a newly discovered medicine cabinet just sitting there in the wild, ripe for the picking.  We can’t just think of our health only to forget theirs.  We need to think of where they come from, where they grow, and we can’t forget the other Nations that may use or depend upon them.  We also can’t forget that they are their own Nations, their own populations of living things in their own right.

Deer Nation is a reminder to me that the plants I use are no more so my own than they are for the deer that wander through the fields outside my window.  In fact, one could argue that the deer are much more deserving of nature’s medicines than I could ever hope to be.  So I just try to remember what I’m borrowing.  Even the Black Cohosh capsules I purchase here in town– who knows how far they came, from where they came, and how many are left from where they have come. deernationLOGO

Lastly, if the overlooked state of Iowa where I live could be called anything in terms of its representative wildlife, Iowa is most certainly the Deer Nation.  Without wolves to hunt them and far outnumbering the coyotes that cannot hunt them but only scavenge their remains, deer are next at the top of the food chain amongst land mammals, second only to us human beings here in Iowa.  Deer are a widespread pride of this state, no doubt the most populous denizens of our wilderness, the guardians of what’s left amongst fragmented borderlands and patches of woods still clinging for life to the edges of thousands of acres of corn and soybeans.  If there’s anyone left looking after and deserving of the small wealth of plant medicines we have remaining here in the last oak savannahs, tallgrass prairies and woodlands of Iowa, it would be the Deer Nation.

So I have a handful of “hopes” in launching this “thing” I like to call Deer Nation Herbs.  It’s not a company, although it has a website.  It’s hard to call it even an operation, or an apothecary.  It may evolve into something like that someday, including products and consultations.  But I really just see it foremost as a hopeful presence.  Firstly, Deer Nation is my personal, unique take on herbalism, not just as an “-ism” but as the rich, deeply ancestral well of human culture it really is.

Secondly, I wish to exhibit a clear, unmuddled resource on herbal medicine in Iowa and the Midwest.  It is astounding how much misinformation there is on herbalism, and it’s disheartening to see how little it reaches people despite its increasing popularity.  When it finally does, people misinterpret it so much.  What’s more, when people who could greatly benefit start to use it, so many have no idea what they are actually talking about, let alone what they are doing– yet there they are, drinking Echinacea tea every day.  I do think Herbalism is a medicine belonging to the people; but medicine and especially medicine, like everything else, requires actually studying it and learning it from a reliable source or teacher.  Indigenous peoples the world over did indeed use herbs and have knowledge of their medicinal uses, the average layman amongst some knew the uses of 100+ herbs for food and medicine simply as a cultural norm; and yet, why did our cultures still have healers, medicine people and herbalists, people with specialized knowledge?  Herbalism is becoming immensely popular, yet 85% of the time when I hear it being discussed and “used” as at-home remedies, I am saddened because just these types of advocations and uses of herbs are the ones that discourage people from ever going to herbal medicine again, because it “didn’t work” or even made matters worse.

So without any further definitions, here is my hope of developing a tradition of herbalism and lore based in magical Iowa (that’s right, Iowa is magical), a place where herbalism is not heard from much in comparison to other areas of the United States, and where a lot of the old lore has been lost with the people who were displaced here before– and a place aching for a culture which desperately needs a true representative.  What better representative, or you could say “mascot,” may be found in Iowa to speak for plant lore, other than in the Deer Nation? 

Soon to come:  I hope to release sporadic articles on many subjects herbalism, at times discussing healing modalities directly or indirectly related to herbalism, or perhaps focusing on a specific plant as medicine, particularly Iowan plants, from Eastern Iowa and the Driftless Region.  This will include various herbalist concepts, methods, beliefs, traditions, movements, or personal commentaries on herbalism; whether from myself, other herbalists, other cultures or other herbalist sources– or maybe just what’s on my mind in regard to the world of herbalism at the moment.  I wish to post articles not only voiced in informed, scientific speak, but also to convey a voice steeped in lore and tradition stemmed directly from herbalism’s deep and fascinating pastIncluded may be unique or passed-on preparations for medicine-making, recipes and directions for your use and education at home.  I hope to see this website teeming with artwork, animals and plants.  Consultations, services, and perhaps products, to follow...

….thank you in advance for following Deer Nation Herbs.



Matthew Wood, The Book of Herbal Wisdom.  David Winston.

Artwork Copyright Adrian White