Materia Medica: Poplar

Last year I was driving north through Canada, disappointed that I’d missed poplar budding season in Alaska, when I pulled over in the mountains and found a whole stand of baby poplar trees by a little stream that were just starting to bud. I spent two or three hours there picking the buds, sliding into the cold stream and running barefoot through the snow to warm up, and picking buds.

I had vodka with me, of course, so I started some of them tincturing right away. I still remember last years poplar tincture jar, too. It was an old olive jar, tall and thin and shapely. The rest of the buds I put in my Smart Mug, covered with oil, and left set at 110 degrees for the next couple days of driving. Smart Mugs are great, in case I haven’t said so lately.

All winter I used the poplar tincture at any hint of congestion, and it came right up. I even used it on my sisters recurrent, rather serious, bronchitis/pneumonia, and it worked great. Once I forgot to care about my congestion and it got really bad. I used the poplar tincture with usnea tincture every couple hours and improved rapidly.

The oil I put in a sore muscle salve (recipe at the end) that turned out great for sore muscles and especially good for nerve pain. It was so good that people kept requesting more and halfway into the winter I had none left.

This year I picked poplar buds from huge trees in Colorado with Darcy. I made oil in a warm water bath at her house over the next few days, and started a big jar of tincture. This time I saved the oily buds to put in other oils I make throughout the year – they will keep them from going bad. This poplar is different – lots warmer, for sure. I hope that means that the medicine is stronger in it.

Poplar is usually called cottonwood, here in Alaska. In biblical times they called it the Balm of Gilead. They are a part of the willow family and have that famous aspirin chemical in them (and much much more).

Poplar can be used topically for cuts, scrapes, rashes, piles, burns, and muscle aches. Internally, it brings down fevers, brings up congestion, cures UTI’s, sooths arthritis, and calms stomach upsets.
Obviously, I’ve just barely begun to scratch the surface of poplars healing magic. This year I want to make a pure salve of it as well as my muscle salve…

Here’s the recipe for my muscle salve.

Poplar buds
Birch leaves
Spruce tips

In equal parts. I make it in olive oil with beeswax, but you can make it with lard or coconut oil or whatever you want. Click over to the herb section (up at the top) to learn about making oil.


  1. Just so as you know, balm of gilead from the bible is a different plant, probably Commiphora gileadensis. I’m not even sure there are Cottonwoods in that part of the world. Anyhow here’s a wikipedia link with more info

    Definitely a favorite for muscle problems of all sorts… I like mine with piñon pine pitch, alder and western mugwort. The tincture is also useful as a liniment in cases of deep muscle injury where the oil can’t seem to penetrate far enough.

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