Late January or early February, when the skies are gray and snow covers the ground, is the best time to go foraging for Cottonwood Buds. The ideal temperature is 30-32 degrees and if the sun isn't shining, that's even better! Look for very tall trees with grayed trunks. If you see pointy buds on the branches of the tree, those are the ones! They are coated with a sticky resin known as Balm Of Gilead. Even a little bit of sunshine seems to liquify that resin. Sometimes there is such a build up on my fingertips the buds won't fall off into the collection bag. So, don't wear nice gloves. I use fingerless gloves I don't care about, dedicated to just this purpose.
Family friends, Liz and her daughter Paige, came with me one Saturday to gather Cottonwood Buds. Those rosy cheeks aren't from Blush...it was only about 30 degrees outside!
Paige is pulling Cottonwood branches out from just underneath the rotting leaves. Cottonwood trees lose many fragile branches during a good wind storm, and are quickly buried by the whirling leaves. A little rummaging around can yield a treasure trove of buds. Sometimes, too, branches are loosened in the wind while still attached by a tendril to a tree. If one seems to hang at an odd angle, give it a tug. If you are lucky it will come loose, chock full of buds.
If you're not sure how to identify a Cottonwood tree, head for the wetlands along a river, and look for trees with rough bark, a grayed trunk, and branches with pointy, rust colored buds. My neck will not bend far enough backward to capture the top of this Cottonwood tree with my camera. I am too close. It is well over a hundred feet tall, as are many of our older Cottonwoods.
The buds in the bag below were gathered in an afternoon for a friend. It is best to gather buds that lay along the thickest part of the branch. Sometimes they lay almost flat, and other times they have lifted up and away from the branch. Either are fine to take. Just grasp firmly and snap off at the base. Single, terminal buds at the tips of branches should be left in place, as they will become the new growth in the spring.