Cottonwoods are among the largest of North American deciduous trees. Ironically, they are a hardwood tree in spite of having relatively soft wood. Hardwood trees are in the class of angiospermae (plants that flower and have seeds with an outer fruit). These differ from softwood tress like piñon and spruce that belong to the class of gymnospermae (trees with “naked” seeds that have no fruit around them).
Cottonwoods require large amounts of water, have very large root systems, are found along streams and rivers, and are among the most abundant tree in our bosques.
Cottonwood trees have many uses as medicine. The phenolic glycosides called salicin and populin are related to aspirin and are anti-inflammatory and analgesic. These compounds are found concentrated in the sap and in the leaf-buds present in the spring.
A wonderful pain-relieving salve can be made by warming the fresh buds in olive oil in a crock pot for about three days to drive off the moisture and solubilize the salicin and populin into the oil. Allow the buds to soak for two-four weeks in a warm place and stir daily. Adding 5 percent beeswax to this oil will make a fine pain-relieving salve. Honeybees collect the resin to produce propolis, which is used as a sealant and antiseptic in their hives.
In the old days, here in New Mexico, the bark was heated in water at low temperatures, and then the water was boiled off to produce a sticky goo that was applied to cloth to make casts for broken bones.
The spring catkins from the female are a wild food eaten by Native peoples and early Spanish explorers. The wood is traditionally used for ceremonial drums, and the roots are used by the Hopi and Diné for carving Kachina dolls.