Cottonwood Trees – blessing and nuisance

Cottonwood trees enrich our outdoor experience. In summer they provide wonderful shade along Montana’s rivers. In the fall, Montana riverbottoms are ablaze with brilliant yellows of cottonwood trees’ fall foliage. When Lewis & Clark came through Montana, they built dugout canoes from cottonwood trees, and fed horses cottonwood bark. In fact, some people assert that cottonwood trees are what made their expedition possible.

On many western rivers, such as the Missouri River, that have been deprived of seasonal flooding by dams and diversions, many cottonwood groves have lost their vitality, as mature trees age and don’t get replaced by new growth. It’s another reason to enjoy the Big Hole River where nature still rules the river’s flows and cottonwood forests are dynamic.

Yet there are times when it’s difficult to fully appreciate those cottonwood trees. Our Memorial Day weekend is a case in point.

We camped on the lower Big Hole River, intent on fishing and relaxing. While setting up camp I saw my wife scraping some stuff off her shoes. At first glance it looked like an exquisite mixture of doggy-doo and tar. “What did you step in?” I asked.
“It’s cottonwood sap,” she responded a bit testily, as scraping proved only a temporary fix. With every step we picked up more sap, along with gravel, leaf buds, dead grass, twigs and anything else in the path of the dripping trees.

Dealing with cottonwood sap was a continuing theme throughout the weekend. We agreed to leave shoes at the trailer door and not walk around inside the trailer with our gooey shoes. At least that was the theory. The reality was that no matter how hard we tried, we tracked in stuff constantly.

While we didn’t appreciate the cottonwood sap mess, it was not unexpected. Neither did we appreciate the role cottonwood sap has had in folk medicine through the years.
According to Lori Harger Witt, an herbalist from Genesee, Idaho, in an article on the website of the Moscow (ID) Food Co-op, there are a number of folk medicines based on cottonwood sap. Cottonwood buds infused in olive oil make useful massage oils. The buds contain salicylates, aspirin-like compounds which have anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. To make infused oil, gather enough cottonwood buds to fill a canning jar and pour in enough olive oil to cover the buds. Place the jar in a pot of water and heat just below simmering for about an hour. At that point you can strain the oil off the buds, or continue to let the oil steep for a couple weeks.

In another on-line article on Natural Life News, Elnora Old Coyote, who has made a lifelong study of native plants and their uses, says Montana Indian tribes traditionally used cottonwood bark and sap as a sweetener in teas, pudding and syrup. They would cut out a piece of bark and wait for sap to collect in the cup-like holes, and then they’d collect the sap, similar to collecting maple sap. She also notes the healing properties of cottonwood buds, and offers her own recipe for a cottonwood bud/olive oil infusion, with the added suggestion of adding beeswax to make a salve for burns and other skin irritations.

There are also references to making a cottonwood bud tincture by soaking cottonwood buds in rubbing alcohol.

While cottonwood sap has a surprisingly long list of folk medicine uses, that same sap that oozes from a cottonwood leaf bud can make a mess of a car, truck, or recreational vehicle. I certainly agree it’s hard to get off. Ordinary car wash detergents barely make a dent on those sticky brown spots left by the leaf buds. According to some on-line bulletin boards, bug and tar remover products do a good job with cottonwood sap. In earlier encounters with cottonwood sap, I found Dawn Power Dissolver effective.
It’s also a good idea to not leave a vehicle or RV under a cottonwood tree for an extended period, or you may have a mess that’s almost impossible to clean. As Benjamin Franklin noted, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”