Spring is here (I swear!). After seemingly endless days of snow and freezing temperatures, we are beginning to see days of warm sunshine, rain, and melting snow. At Twinflower, we're excitedly preparing for the beginning of the harvest season, a whirlwind of work that will culminate in new batches of balancing herbal products for the community.
One of the first plants that we will harvest this spring is the buds of Populus balsamifera, or the balsam poplar tree*. A proliferous tree, it makes its home in many places, but it is most abundant near rivers and streams. Poplar buds are one of the tell-tale smells of spring- highly aromatic and sticky with a thick, delicious resin that turns your hands black while picking them. (Pro-tip: the resin is fat soluble so wash your hands after picking with whatever fat you have around- oil, butter and lard are all effective!) We harvest the buds before the tree leafs out, while the leaf buds are still curled in a teardrop shape. Always when harvesting, we ensure there is enough of the plant for us to take some, and we only gather a few buds from each tree, ensuring its survival into the future. Most importantly, we give thanks to the Earth for the gift, which is not to be wasted.
Poplar has been used for generations for its myriad of health benefits. It is in the Salicaceae, or willow, family. This plant family is known to support folks with issues of pain and inflammation, such as arthritis, sprains, strains, and aches. The resin of poplar buds is also antimicrobial and can soothe the skin and help heal cuts, scrapes, burns and wounds by supporting skin proliferation. Additionally, poplar is an ally of the respiratory system both because of its antimicrobial properties and because it is a soothing expectorant when used as a tea, tincture, or in a steam (but beware, while potent, we’ve found the tea to be a bit unpleasant on the palate). Fresh or dried poplar buds can be used in remedies.
Here at Twinflower, we make a traditional Balm of Gilead Salve, which harnesses the power of poplar buds by infusing the resin into oil. The salve can be applied to areas of musculoskeletal discomfort as well as to cuts, scrapes, rashes, and wounds. It will soothe dry or cracked skin. We have also applied the salve below the nose and on the chest to support instances of respiratory congestion and found it incredibly relieving. One could also put a pinch of salve—or buds if you've got them—into boiling water and breathe in the steam for congestion relief.
It is clear why balsam poplar has been a staple in herbal remedies for generations. It smells incredible, and it's uses are as diverse as they are powerful. We can't wait to spend time with this plant friend!
*Further south in Alaska, one can also find black cottonwood, or Populus trichocarpa, which is nearly indistinguishable from balsam poplar and can be used for its health benefits in the same way.