Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fun alchemy project of the day -- turning yard waste into Balm of Gilead

Two jars of cottonwood buds soaking, dormant trees behind
After reading a post a few weeks back from one of my favorite bloggers about Cottonwood bud balm, I got very excited, because one of the bane/blessings of our quarter acre sububurban property are our two giant cottonwoods in the front yard. They make growing food in the front yard tricky at best, limited to the southern and eastern fringes and even there competing with the cottonwoods roots. Not to mention dropping all these annoying, sticky buds that get tracked into the house between January and April every year. However, those glorious leaf canopies get us through the summers without touching the A/C. While I'd love to double my arable land and gain several years of firewood by cutting them down, I could never bring myself to do that to such majestic trees. So, I was delighted to find that there's a secondary benefit to them -- their dormant buds, collected in late winter, have valuable medicinal properties.

From a fascinating-looking forum on North American bushcraft, this post explains the salve in more detail: "The buds of a number of varieties of cottonwood and poplar trees (Populus nigra, Populus balsamifera, Populus augustafolia and others) contain a sticky orange resin that has been used for centuries to make a soothing, healing salve commonly known as “Balm of Gilead.” This salve has anti-inflammatory, antibiotic/antiseptic and pain relieving qualities, and has been effectively used to treat abrasions, minor burns, frostbite and to ease the pain of sore muscles and joints. It is also (sometimes known as Black Salve) a traditional skin cancer remedy."

Yesterday, Willow gathered an entire quart jar of buds off of dropped branches in our glorious mid-60s reprieve from winter while I read Blackbringer aloud (I'm always excited to find really good juvenile/young adult fiction.This one's a keeper.) Making the base oil couldn't have been easier -- fill a canning jar half-full of buds, cover with olive oil (I only had first-cold-pressed on hand, so this is going to be some high-end salve -- sigh) and let sit for between two weeks and a year. Putting it in a warm, sunny location speeds the extraction.

We will gather more buds in the next few weeks (we could pull them off the trees, but cottonwoods are so brittle they are constantly dropping branchlets and I'd rather just be patient than deprive them of viable leaves) and follow the Bushcraft forum instructions to make a batch on the stove top for some instant salve (I can get beeswax from a cool little honey shop in town). I figure I'll be able to put it to the test pretty quickly, as I have been burning myself rather frequently, between the bread baking and the wood stove stoking. The perils of pioneer life.

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