When I need to regroup and pause, I go and sit by the Poplar tree. Perhaps it’s the convergence of elements they live among that’s so soothing, with that borderland where river meets rock and gnarly root. Poplars are majestic. Sturdy. Powerful. And in the in-betwixt season of late winter and early spring, their buds swell and ooze their signature golden sticky resin and heady fragrance. They are a sign of harsh winters being over, but also a warning that the wild windstorms of our region’s spring might howl through a few more times. These signature windstorms are timed well; just in time for the poplars to shake loose branches ripe for harvest and tufts of Usnea to be gathered from the ground, fresh from the storm.
As I lean back against poplar’s thick trunk, I feel strength, and a wisdom that is thick, ancient and deep. The tall balsam poplars remind me of childhood, and of being buried in Anne of Green Gables books where I first read in fine detail the beauty of these upright trees. I was a little girl, consumed with the Anne books and just about every other book that Pam Montgomery wrote. I remember being entirely charmed by her writing, which is flush with long paragraphs describing the beauty of the trees, flowers, and landscapes that were the companions of her human characters. These books shaped me, they spirited me away, from nine years old and through my teen years. I related to them in part because I was finally reading children’s novels based in a landscape similar to mine, one that she described so poetically. But I also related to them because Anne was an outsider, spoke to plants, and saw the world as truly alive. These books kept me good company through the long, freezing cold Ontario winters where -35C was to be expected. And sure enough, just as Anne described, the newly budded poplars were a sign that the toughest part of a harsh Canadian winter was over.
To the Lakota Peoples, the Poplar is the Sacred World Tree, said to be the very heartwood from which humans originate. It’s also the wood that forms the structure for the Sundance Lodges and dance poles, and still today the wood is carved, as it has been for centuries, to make tools, instruments, and dug-out canoes. Poplars were once called “Messengers of the Gods” because it was thought the trembling leaves were conversing with the Wind. Trees are not just utilitarian in providing structures and tools and shelter, they are deeply embedded in culture, in medicine, and in Spiritual health for people around the world, and throughout time.
Poplars belong to the Salicaceae family, commonly called the Willow Family. Aspen is also in this family, and sometimes aspen are indeed called poplars, or the two are spoken of interchangeably.
In the Ogham Tree Calendar, poplar is called Eadha and signifies endurance, overcoming hardship and generating wealth. In one of my most treasured tree books, called A Tree in Your Pocket by Jacqueline Memory Paterson (the book fits just in the palm of my hand), the author writes, “Golden crowns of aspen leaves were found in burial grounds of Mesopotamia, dating back to 3000BCE. In legend, crowns of poplar leaves were not only worn by heroes, but also allowed heroes to visit the Underworld and return.”
The white poplar and aspen are sacred to the Goddess Persephone, as she planted a grove of these trees in the lands of the Underworld where she reigned Queen.
Jacquline Memory Paterson also writes that in some parts of Briton, there was a time countryfolk buried lamb’s tails under every newly planted poplar as an offering to Hekate, the Goddess of death and Crossroads.
In my own plant spirit journeys, a practice I’m dedicated to in order to balance research and clinical work, poplar shows me images of bravery, courage, and overcoming fear. In my classes, I present the fresh buds to students and watch them inhale the strong fragrance. They smile, and even giggle. Upon inhaling the heady scent, most feel flush with renewed energy, vitality, and excitement. The spirit of this plant is invigorating, teaching us there’s more vital energy to be had, if only we open to the Wild.
Latin Name: Populus spp. (including: P.alba, P. tremuloides, P.deltoides, P.gileadensis, P. balsamifera, P. angustifolia, P. trichocarpa, P. fremontii)
Botanical Family: Salicaceae
Common Names: Poplar, Cottonwood, Balsam Poplar, Alamo, Aspen, Quaking Aspen, Tacamahac, Hackmatac,
Parts Used: The closed bud before opening, leaves, bark. The entire plant is medicinal. Best to use while fresh. Personally I’ve never worked with it dried.
Bud and Leaf: Caryophyllene, cineole, cinnamic acid, humulene, omega-salicyloyl-salicin, P-coumaric acid, benzoic acid, populin pyrocatechin, salicortin, salicyl-alcohol, trichocarpin, fatty oil, phenolic glycosides
Bark: creotinic acid, dihydromyricetin, palmitic-acid-ester, populoside, querectin-3, 7-dimethylether, salicortin, trichocarposide.
Actions: anti-inflammatory, analgesic, febrifuge, antiseptic, antimicrobial, diuretic, hepatic, vulnerary, anodyne.
Poplar belongs to the genus Populus of which there are 35 species of trees. They like to live close to water so you can often find them by canyons, creeks, ditches by the side of roads, riparian forests, lining lakes, or riverbanks. They are native to open areas of most of the Northern Hemisphere. No matter the species, their branches reach up high to open sky with beautifully broad crowns as if hugging the sun. They do not grow well by the shade of other species—these trees carry a majestic presence. While the Cottonwoods like their feet wet, the Aspens grow where ever there are mountains reaching to heights of 8,500 feet, and as low as 6,000 feet.
Poplars are fast-growing trees that can reach 50m (165ft) with wide trunks up to 2m (6ft) in diameter. The bark is smooth and light grey, but it can become deeply furrowed and dark brown as the trees age. The leaves are shiny, smooth and green, 6-12 centimetres long. They vary oval to wedge-shaped and have a sharply pointed tip. The catkins, on male or female trees, and sticky fragrant leaf buds appear with the first signs of spring. Male and female catkins exist on separate trees. The catkins are the flowering body of the tree. Male catkins are small, 2-3 centimetres long and female catkins are larger, 8-20 centimetres long. The catkins develop into a hairy capsule that releases the seeds which are covered in white fluffy hairs and is dispersed by wind in the late spring to early summer. It’s named Cottonwood for the white hairs on the mature seed which float through the air like wisps of cotton or snow. This is how Poplar propagates by seed, carried by the wind. Despite their showy distribution of wispy seeds, poplars mostly propagate through root sprouts.
The fluffy fibres that put the “cotton” in the name cottonwood are used around the world in the garment and paper industry.
While many believe an ointment of this tree, sometimes called Balm of Gilead, is the same one referenced in the King James Bible of 1611, it is not. This is where knowing your Latin botanical names comes in so handy! The plant referenced in the Bible is actually Commiphora gileadensis, or, more recently botanists say it may even be a Terebinth tree in the genus Pistacia.
The ancient Sumerians and Egyptians used poplar medicine for relieving pain, fever and inflammation. In the middle ages Hippocrates, Galen, and Hildegard von Bingen—all great thinkers and writers contributing to what would eventually be modern medicine—also used this medicine as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic.
Poplar spp. contain the widely known glycoside salicin, which converts to salicyclic acid in stages in the liver and intestines, the chemical from which Aspirin was discovered in 1897. Taking a herbal preparation from a Poplar tree is not the same as taking Aspirin, in that Aspirin is the laboratory-made medication acetylsalicylic acid that has side effects. The body metabolizes it like a drug, because it is one. Whereas poplar herbal preparations are not simply salicyclic acid. Poplar contains dozens, if not hundreds of plant constituents that buffer the salicyclic acid effects rendering the whole plant extracts as safe for most people when used in circumstances where the herb is indicated.
Poplar as Herbal Medicine
Poplar is a key remedy for painful throats, taken internally as a tincture. It’s antimicrobial—a specific remedy for laryngitis accompanied by loss of voice. It can also be used for dry, unproductive coughs and chronic bronchitis. Harvesting the sticky, resinous buds in late winter and early spring makes for a potent fresh tincture to use as a gargle, add to cough syrups, or simply take straight off the spoon.
Poplar’s resins (benzoic acid, and populin) contribute to this herb making a cooling, soothing, and pain-relieving remedy for topical and internal use.
The buds or bark act as a bitter to improve digestion. You can make a vinegar of the bark for this purpose to decrease heartburn and improve overall digestion and assimilation. Michael Moore has a lovely, simple recipe in his book Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West:
Make an excellent, old-fashioned bitters by steeping an ounce of the dried bark, one-fourth ounce of Licorice root, and a teaspoon of cloves in a fifth of brandy. After a month the bitters have “matured” and can be sipped for poor appetite, indigestion, and feverishness.
Michael Moore, medicinal plants of the mountain west
The bark and buds have a gentle effect on the kidneys and bladder as a slight diuretic and an effective antimicrobial for urinary tract infections. The leaves or bark, either fresh or dried can be crushed as a poultice or prepared as a fomentation for muscle aches, sprains or swollen joints.
As a member of the Salicaceae family, Poplar is notably useful for external use to help ease the inflammation of rheumatism or arthritis, and general muscle aches and pains likely due to its anti-inflammatory salicin component. Add it to analgesic massage oils, liniments, or ointments. I’ve used it to ease the pain and discomfort of sprains, strains, and broken bones. Topically, it’s also used for dry, irritated, inflamed or painful skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis. It makes a great addition to creams or salves for chapped scaly skin. It’s a vulnerary, soothing and healing skin.
Like many herbalists, I like to use poplar bud oil as a base for salves and creams or add it to other oils to prevent it from going rancid. Poplar has antioxidant activity. Plus it smells simply divine.
The, resinous buds contain the most concentration of medicinal properties of this plant.
Resin is the sticky oozing stuff surrounding the buds. It is best extracted in warm oil, or, a high percentage of alcohol such as 95%. Resin is not very water soluble.
Harvest the buds and prepare them as a fresh tincture at a 1:2 ratio of herb to alcohol and cover with either 75% or 95% alcohol. This produces a powerful tincture and is my personal favourite way of using this herb.
My second favourite way to prepare this herb is as an oil to make salves, creams, ointments, or massage oil.
Fill a glass jar with fresh buds. Ideally prepare at a weight to volume ratio of 1:3, that’s one part fresh buds weighed using a scale, to 3 parts oil, using a measuring cup. Lightly mist the buds with a splash of alcohol, quickly cover with a lid, and let it stand on the counter for a few hours. This helps to begin the extraction process. After a few hours, pour good quality olive oil into the jar cover to the top with olive oil. Place in a warm place for at least one week. I use a crockpot, or, I keep it by my wood stove. Your home will soon be filled with it’s signature heady, uplifting scent. Strain with cheesecloth. The sticky resin will ruin your jar, and any cookware it comes in contact with, so beware. I use thrift store jars, pots, and strainers that are reserved only for poplar buds.
Use this beautiful oil as a base for your topical preparations.
Cautions: No side effects or drug interactions have been reported. However, avoid using in conjunction with anticoagulants, and I would avoid use if an individual has a history of reactivity with salicylate or aspirin products or blood clotting disorders.
If you dare plant a root near your home, beware, the roots are so strong and grow so vigorously they can break through pipes, concrete, and lift foundations of houses. They are, afterall, teachers of resilience, fortitude, and reclaiming the wild.
Special thanks to my herbal students @imaginetruehealth, @potent.earth @Mossdance for sharing their photos and this video.