Wáǧačhaŋ. Populus deltoides. Cottonwood. This is a very culturally important tree for the Lakota and many other Indigenous cultures. It has more uses than I will get into in this post. Today I will focus on the medicinal uses of the buds, or čhíŋkpa. (“Čhíŋkpa” specifically refers to a bud on a tree; “čhamní” is a bud on other kinds of plants/flowers.) Wáǧačhaŋ čhíŋkpa are useful for making a salve that helps with pain and coughs, as well as a cough medicine that can be taken internally.
Late April is the time of year when late winter/early spring winds blow lots of wáǧačȟaŋ čhíŋkpa to the ground. Most people do not use the word “windfall” literally, but to those of us who gather wild plants, the term’s original meaning is just perfect. After a heavy wind, the gift of fallen plant items allows you to collect what you need from the ground, without harming the tree or having to reach up into tall, inaccessible branches. To harvest these, I just went outside after a windstorm and looked on the ground under some local cottonwoods:
These buds are very distinctive in both appearance (waxy, sticky buds on nobby branches) and the sweet, almost honey-like smell. Another way of identifying them is that the inside of every branch of the cottonwood tree, when cut cross-wise, has a star:
There are stories that explain the reason for this star, but I will leave that to far more qualified storytellers. It can be a useful way to identify this tree, though, and also a beautiful aesthetic feature.
The medicine in these wáǧačhaŋ čhíŋkpa comes from the orange sap, which you can see building up in several little beads on the buds in this picture:
The buds vary in shape, size, and color, so here is another shot:
The most recent year’s growth, the part that has buds attached to it, all contains the medicinal sap and can therefore be used — there is no need to separate out the buds from the twig. There will be a clear joint where the most recent year’s growth meets the previous year’s growth, and it should be easy to snap it off at this joint.
I gathered a small bag’s worth on my walk:
One way to extract the medicine from wáǧačhaŋ čhíŋkpa is to put them in honey and leave them for at least 6 months. This makes a good cough medicine and can be taken internally. Fill a jar up halfway with the buds and stems, and fill it the rest of the way with honey.
Since honey is a slow-moving liquid, it may take some time for air to bubble up to the top of the jar from between the buds, at which point you can fill the remaining space with more honey.
Another preservation method is to make a tincture, following the previous recipe, except with a non-flavored, high-proof grain alcohol such as Everclear:
Finally, the most common way of extracting medicine from wáǧačhaŋ čhíŋkpa is oil. The slow method, which may produce the strongest result, is to fill a jar up halfway with the buds, and then the rest of the way with olive oil. Most people recommend leaving it alone in a dark, cool place for between 3 months to a year.
You can also heat it up by cooking it on a low setting on a stove for at least 6 hours (up to 24 hours). It’s difficult to get the heat low enough not to burn it, though — this batch may have come out a bit toasty (though not too charred to be useable).
If you’re going to do a faster oil infusion with heat, I prefer the crockpot method. These buds will spend about a week infusing in coconut oil (which melts all the way — this photo was from about 20 minutes in) on very low heat in a small crockpot, the type meant for fondues and sauces.
In the end, strain the oil through a coffee filter, cloth, or sieve to remove the plant bits.
For a salve, Linda Black Elk taught me that a good formula is 2 ounces of beeswax per cup of herb-infused oil, in order to achieve the proper salve consistency.
Mistakes I made, to avoid:
1. Use or preserve all buds as soon as possible after harvest — they will mold! (I tried to rescue some moldy ones by soaking them in vinegar water, rinsing them, then cooking them in boiling oil — but I’m not sure if they were damaged too much by the mold to be medicinal.)
2. You don’t need to wash the buds if you’re doing an oil or alcohol infusion — you will strain out any dirt through the filter at the end of the infusion process. Washing them can promote mold growth, and also add more water which you don’t want in the oil while you are infusing.
4. However, washing them is definitely important for making honey.
5. There is no need to separate out the buds from the twigs that they are on. As I mentioned above, the sap that is such a strong medicine is present in both.
6. If you handle these, your hands will be very sticky! Soap won’t help much. However, rubbing alcohol works like a charm.