I step into the snow patch and my feet break the crust of the snow with every step. Around me are several tall cottonwoods so I’m checking the ground for branches to harvest cottonwood buds after a big storm. Harvesting buds begins days before by taking daily walks in my favorite cottonwood grove, where the snow is melting away. Tlél kútx i yáa wdawóodlik — Have patience and don’t be in a hurry. Harvesting cottonwood buds is like that — a little here and a little there.
I pick up a branch and inspect it. It’s been a long hard winter and I love to get outside and get my oxygen and negative ions from the forest, the water, and spring air. My favorite harvesting time is when the snow is patchworked on the ground, and, especially, I love that cottonwood scent. It triggers so many happy feelings. In the Tlingit language, the cottonwood is called dúk. In Southeast, we have the black cottonwood, Balsam poplar, Populus balsamifera.
After the first big spring storm it’s time to get dúk buds. The wind is a great trimmer. Everyone has different ways, but I harvest from branches that have fallen on the ground and not from living trees. Now, I find a broken branch and brush away some snow. From my backpack I pull out a wide-mouth mason jar. I’m gloved and wearing an old coat and hat. After 15 years of harvesting cottonwood buds, I’ve learned my lessons the hard way. Cottonwood resin sticks to everything. These tips will help:
— Cottonwood buds contain a lot of resin: Use disposable or gardening gloves.
— Wear shoes/boots, pants, shirt, hat, clothing you don’t mind getting resin on.
— Preparing for harvesting begins at home: Have space to dry your buds or prepare them for oil or whatever substance you’re putting them in.
— Don’t harvest from young trees because it inhibits growth.
— Leave some for the moose. Don’t harvest in areas where there’s evidence of moose eating the buds because moose depend on buds from lower branches.
— Don’t take more buds than you can handle. Harvest a small amount like one or two mason jars filled ¼ to ½ full.
— Use one gloved hand (left or right) for picking buds and dropping them in your container. Use the other gloved hand for handling the outside of the jar, scratching your nose or brushing your hair from your face.
— If you bring your dog, keep them out of the sticky buds. If the resin gets on their fur it can be trimmed out.
— At home, have standard white (not colored) toothpaste and vodka standing by for removing resin.
I’m frugal when it comes to making things from what I’ve harvested. Because of all my hard work I make use of every part of the plant, but this has led me to make mistakes. Once, I grabbed the buds and tried to squish out as much oil as I could through the strainer. I wasn’t wearing gloves. Both hands—front to back—were completely covered with resin.
Then, as I tried to fix the problem, it became a Dr. Seuss “The Cat in-the Hat” adventure — everything I touched stuck to me or was smeared with resin. There I was stuck in my house with no way, and no one, to help get the resin off. There’s a difference between trying to get a dab off your finger rather than your whole hands. Using my nose, I dialed the phone to call my partner for help because I couldn’t use my hands. Eventually, what saved me was toothpaste and vodka. I used a lot of toothpaste to get the first layer off and then alcohol in the vodka removed the rest. Afterward my hands were just lightly sticky but manageable. Despite being difficult to harvest, cottonwood buds do make great medicine.
Cottonwood is also known as Balm of Gilead. It contains salicin, which is the origin of aspirin. It’s used for pain, inflammation and fever. You can infuse the buds in oil, water, honey or other substances. You can make oils, salves, or tinctures. The buds are used for aches and pains, burns, cuts and scrapes, and even a cough.
Many people are allergic to cottonwood, though, presenting with mostly rashes and hives. It’s also common for people to have allergies to the spring bloom or seed shedding. So make sure before you go harvesting or make anything from the buds. For some cottonwood trees are best enjoyed from a distance.
Dúk buds are among a handful of first harvests for the year. When it comes to harvesting from our traditional land the main thing to understand is: everything is connected. You’re never doing just one thing. You have to consider the land, the people, the weather—everything is harvested according to many variables. In the Tlingit worldview, haa kusteeyí, our way of life, is different from the Western worldview. Harvesting from the land is about relationships—relationships to the moose, the bear, the birds, the trees and your fellow harvesters. We aren’t in competition. We harvest depending on what’s growing, where it’s growing, and how it’s growing. Western ways want to plan a specific day but cottonwood buds might not be ready. The forest doesn’t care about grant deadlines or western time management systems. When it’s time to harvest, the forest will tell you.
Today, I pick a few buds and move around the tree to find another branch. Harvesting cottonwood buds requires doing a thousand squats. Even though it’s a lot of work I can hardly wait to make something. I love the smell of dúk. I often tell others my heaven will look like the Stikine River, smell like dúk and taste like smoked sockeye. I am surrounded by this heaven-scent today.
After you’re home from harvesting here’s some advice: Don’t fill your jar all the way to the top with buds and oil, or whatever liquid you’re using, or the jar will overflow as the resin from the buds infuses with the oil. If the lid is on it can swell and maybe burst. Don’t use a lid at first otherwise you’ll have a big mess, but you can use a paper towel in place of a lid and a rubber band to hold the towel in place. Once the buds release most of their resin, then you can put a lid on it.
— Use gloves!
— Dedicate a pot or jars, or whatever utensils you’re using, as single-use or only for preparing cottonwood buds. The resin coats them forever.
— After cotton wood buds have dried a few days, cover them with a bit of oil in the jar.
— Only fill the jar with a small amount of buds and a small amount of oil. LET IT SIT.
— As the buds sit, remember to check on the process. As the oil/resin seeps from the buds the level in the jar will rise. When the level slows down or stalls then add a bit more oil/liquid. Keep watch. Do this slowly and repeatedly.
— Never fill the jar to the top with oil when you start out.
On my counter sits my cottonwood buds in oil. It reminds me of a lava lamp. The bubble floats up through the oil to the top of the jar—it’s mesmerizing. I think about all the people who will benefit from this beautiful gift from the land. I love to hear stories from people that my medicine has helped them feel better. Whenever I use a cottonwood salve or oil, I’m reminded of the relationship I have with the tree and the scent of cottonwood triggers memories of sticky hands, snowmelt, fresh air, the quiet woods, and the hope and excitement of spring. After a long hard winter, it’s all good medicine.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.