Harvesting Cottonwood and Making Balm of Gilead in Spring – here’s how!
Normally we harvest cottonwood buds mid to late April, but Spring arrived late on the Island this year, so my partner and I are only just now collecting these beautiful sticky jewels. The photos below show you what an intact cottonwood branch looks like. Isn’t it beautiful against a patch of white trillium?
Balm of Gilead is used medicinally for inflammation, arthritis pain relief, psoriasis, sunburn, bites, and rashes. Personally, I love it because I adore the aroma. When I first travelled to British Columbia from Alberta over 30 years ago, my then-husband was already working on the Island, so I had to pack up our home, and travel with two pets by myself over the Rockies.
As I approached the coast on my second day of driving, I stopped at a little town called Hope. The scent in the air was miraculous, amazing, unusual, and rejuvenating. At the motel I asked the locals what that gorgeous scent was. Cottonwood! It was April 16th. How appropriate! I needed to feel some hope as I left my family and went to a new place called Vancouver Island!
I create my own Balm of Gilead as gifts for others. This precious little jar of balm is the result of weeks of mindful preparation, patience, and meditation. Practical reverence!
Look for windfall branches under cottonwood trees. The buds at the end of the fallen branches are easy to snap off with gloved fingers (see the images above to help identify them). Collect the sticky buds in a glass jar or bag. We gather five or six cups.
When harvesting, please follow the guidelines for an Honorable Harvest shared by Robin Wall Kimmerer in her beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass. She encourages a humble and more realistic alternative to our arrogant exploitation of our Mother Earth: Reciprocity. With gratitude for earth, air, fire, and water, and for all that our planet gives us, Kimmerer shares the “guidelines for an Honorable Harvest”. Some of her guidelines that I teach include:
- Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
- Never take the first. Never take the last.
- Take only what you need.
- Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
- Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
- Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
- Give thanks for what you have been given.
- Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Once home, the buds we harvested are put into a large pickle jar and covered with olive oil. We put this jar in our laundry room where it is warm, but you can also put it in a sunny window. Warmth releases the resin from the buds. I let my buds release resin for about six weeks, and I stir them in the oil with an old knitting needle about once a week. The infused oil smells amazing and becomes a beautiful dark amber color.
After 4 to 6 weeks, strain the oil through cheese cloth into a darker glass bottle, and compost the buds. To avoid the oil going rancid until you’re ready to create your balm, you might want to put a teaspoon or so of pure Vitamin E oil into the oil.
Creating the Balm
To make a cup of balm (8 ounces) which you can put in little one-ounce jars like the one pictured, you will need a cup of infused oil and 24 grams of beeswax. Add both to a double boiler and heat slowly and gently until the wax is melted into the oil. You won’t be boiling this mixture, or even simmering it. You just want to liquefy the wax and have it blend with the oil.
(To make a double boiler, I use a smaller glass jar and put that into a pot of boiling water. I find I have more control over the gentle heating and the smaller glass jar is easier to clean afterwards.)
Once the mixture is blended and warm, I add another teaspoon of pure Vitamin E oil, and pour into 1-ounce jars to cool to room temperature.
I love making gift tags from recycled brown paper bags and jute for the filled jars.
And your honourable harvest is complete as soon as you gift someone a jar containing the fruits of your labours!