Apr 13, 2017

The Kiss of Cottonwood & Amber: On Poplars

When the wild rose thorns catch your hair like a lover,
and the rain is but a mist that kisses your face,
and the cottonwood buds gift their aroma of honey and amber,
you will know that your heart is forever lost
to the forest and wetlands and overgrown places.

I've been running away. I have grown tired of waiting on spring, and so for the past couple weeks I have driven over to the next valley and kidnapped a friend who led me off-trail into a wetlands area where we got lost and felt our winter-weary spirits lift. The red willow was showing off its crimson bark. The wild roses were grabby and glorious, their bare, thorny limbs revealing little pockets of bird's nest treasure and strangely weathered strands of milkweed fluff that had caught there in some autumn wind and never escaped. We were watched by a mating pair of bald eagles and made eyes at them in turn until they grew shy and moved to a tree across the river. We picked up rocks and sticks, and then put them down again because we each have too many rocks and sticks in our collections.

Meandering our way through the floodplain, our fingers became sticky as we picked a few cottonwood buds here and there from each tree. We would stop from time to time, and take long breaths of the late winter air and swoon at the scent on our hands from the resin. The first time we went out wandering, a few weeks back, the snow was low on the hills and the buds were still closed tightly. Only a short time later the ice had melted from the river's edge and the buds were starting to burst open. (If you live in a climate where spring comes especially late, you may still find some buds to harvest, but time is running short.)

When the world is behaving badly, and your spirit is parched from a long, cold winter, and your green-soul knows that there is always something alive and speaking if you just pay attention, a walk in the wilds in early spring is the very best medicine. I have needed the outdoors so much this winter, so when the cottonwoods called, I answered.

In the interior of British Columbia, we use the terms "cottonwood" and "poplar" fairly interchangeably. Both cottonwood trees and balsam poplar can be identified as Populus balsamifera, though you will more often see black cottonwood specifically identified as Populus trichocarpa (and as you head east you run into variants such as plains cottonwood and eastern cottonwood, among others). The cause for the confusion is that the trees are nearly identical to each other and are known to hybridize where they meet in their environment. However, the sticky resin contained in the late winter buds is the same stuff-of-the-gods whether you stumble across black cottonwood, balsam poplar, or eastern cottonwood. Black cottonwood is sadly much maligned in my area due to the prolific downy seeds that fly through the air and coat our small town in whorls of white fibrous fluff.

If you listen carefully, cottonwood will whisper to you of thresholds and magic. A liminal being, it chooses to grow close to a water source, stabilizing the banks of rivers and offering shade.  It is prolific and grows swiftly, a benefit in our area where trees often fall to the beaver population along waterways. In my high valley desert (an unusual combination of rolling hills and mountains stuffed with pine and fir, and a valley floor dotted with lakes, with an arid region boasting desert sagebrush and bitterroot) it gets very dry from mid-May to mid-September, but cottonwoods are drought tolerant and laugh at the heat while their roots reach into the water table.

The resin found in poplar buds (sometimes called balm of Gilead) is a gummy, sweet-scented miracle. I usually infuse my harvest in oil and put it to use as a sore-muscle rub, or a chest rub when I have a cold. You can also add some local beeswax, and now you have a lovely balm you can employ for minor cuts (poplar is antibacterial as well as pain-relieving) or to pack around in your gym bag for a spot treatment for overworked muscles. I also cut a small amount of the poplar oil into my after-bath oil blend because it makes my skin smell like it has been blessed by some kind of heady temple incense. 

Magically, the honeyed resin has been used in healing and apotropaic work as well as in situations regarding love or reconciliation (likely owing to its sweet scent and sticky/binding qualities). There is also evidence that poplar was either added in kind with, or played host to, other psychotropic herbs in salves that would likely have been used as medicine, though would also have been considered 'witch's ointments.'

Possibly due to the goodly number of metamorphosis myths that the Greeks attributed to poplar, the tree whispers of shape-shifting and transformation, and the myths surrounding its connection to Hades (including his love(s) Leuce/Persephone) 
among others, hint at the tree's underworld connection. Poplar was also reputed to be one of the plants in the garden of Hectate. There are references, as well, to cottonwood being used in ceremonies for the dead within several First Nations tribes, and a rather fascinating belief of at least one tribe that the shade of the tree might host a spirit that could be willing to offer assistance if entreated respectfully.

Spend some time with the poplars in your region, if you can. Let them teach you about moisture and transformation while you watch the sticky buds burst open. Mind your allergies, but do delight in the snowy 'cotton' of the cottonwood seeds as they alight on the spring winds. Consider how these trees that stand at the mingling of land and water might offer insight into your own work surrounding balance, and the in-between places. Approach the shade of these great hardwoods with respect and perhaps you'll make an ally, or at the very least have a place to rest on a hot summer's day.

 *Please avoid using poplar if you have any aspirin allergies - like willow, the trees contain salicin which your body converts into salicylic acid.*

Of Interest:

Kiva Rose has a lovely post about cottonwood medicine here.

Gabby Allen writes her story of cottonwood here.

I've been gathering red willow (also called red osier dogwood) during the last month, and this post from Erin about the shrub is pure poetry.

Greek myths - see Leuce, Hades
Hidatsa history and culture

Witchcraft Medicine - Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Christian Rätsch, Wolf-Dieter Storl Ph.D.


littlemancat said...

Thank you for this wonder-full post.

MrsDuncanMahogany said...

What a perfectly timed post! Here in the middle of the prairies winter was harsh and long and tiring. My soul aches for the trees, the forests but when the wind is howling and making it feel like -45, you hardly want to go outside. I wish I could run away for a time but spring is finally showing herself here. Our cottonwoods will not be "raining" for about another month and a half but when they do it is glorious.

Rue said...

Wishing you warmth and spring-like days soon!

Aidan Wachter said...

Sigh. You write so beautifully, fairy girl! fish-paws-love

Marcie said...

All so beautiful and your thoughts really resonate with me. I also go to nature when my spirits need a lift. This is a beautiful blog post.

Magaly Guerrero said...

One can never have too many sticks or stones. You could always sleep standing. It won't matter (regardless of how much your back screams), as long as you have a world of sticks and stones. ;-)

Kathy Buxton said...

Thank you for the reminder that nature is calling. Your writing is so inspiring and it came at a time when I needed it.