Humans have known for millennia that society benefits from honey bees. In temperate climates, ancient settlements used to plant poplar trees around them, aiming to attract bees. Poplars provide a resin used by honey bees to create propolis—the antibacterial glue that seals the hive and supports its health. It was once known that if on your travels you found a grove of poplars in the distance, you were likely approaching a human settlement. Where poplars grew, people dwelled. The genus of these trees was thus aptly named Populus-- the Latin name for people.
Poplar supports people’s health, and in turn, their enjoyment of life by offering potent anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, digestive and restorative properties. In the early spring, the aromatic buds can be harvested and heated in olive oil to yield the makings of an ointment for pain, inflammation and infections of various kinds. It also makes soothing massage oil. The buds of one species, Populus gileadensis make the famous Balm of Gilead—a remarkable healing balm.
Poplar’s inner bark can be shaved off pruned or newly fallen branches in the early spring and simmered in water to yield a bitter-tasting digestive tea. It will help cleanse and restore a tired, aged or debilitated system, clearing away toxicity, reducing arthritic or rheumatic pain and renewing vigour. Taken in the spring, this tea can help one adapt to the increased activity that comes with the new season, such as outdoor sports, gardening, hiking and the like. The bark contains salicin, the same active pain-relieving ingredient found in aspirin, giving it analgesic and fever-reducing properties. Any bark that is not used fresh can be cut into smaller pieces and dried for future use. It can last for three to four years if stored in a jar and kept away from light.
Later in spring, young poplar leaves can be infused in water for a healing tea. This too has a bitter flavour which indicates its myriad benefits to the digestion, the ability to absorb nutrients and safe, gentle detoxification. To balance out the bitter flavour, one could add mint, cinnamon or lemon verbena to the infusion. Poplar leaves crushed up can be placed on an insect bite to reduce swelling and irritation, making outdoor excursions more fun.
There are a number of Populus species found in our region. Trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides), large-toothed aspen (Populus grandidenta), Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra) and balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera) are common. Any of these can be used for similar purposes.
Poplars love to grow in sunlight and can be found in clearings, near beaches or at forest edges. Trembling aspens grow in clusters with smooth, narrow light-grey trunks. Lombardy poplars are long, narrow trees that sometimes line lane-ways or paths. Large-toothed aspens have widely serrated leaves compared with those of the other varieties. Balsam poplar has the largest, stickiest leaf buds with a pleasing aroma that spreads on the wind. This species is a big honey bee attractor.
My favourite time to harvest poplar is when taking a walk or hike after a wind storm in early spring when fallen branches, laden with sticky buds, make themselves easily available for use. I am continually impressed by the many uses they offer, and am always grateful to encounter them.
Tamara Segal is a Registered Herbalist and wild foods enthusiast. She teaches classes and gives plant identification walks and workshops in the Quinte area. She also runs an herbal clinic called Hawthorn Herbals at her farm in Prince Edward County.
Originally Published: April 17, 2017
Tamara Segal, Contributor and Registered Herbalist
+ Read Bio
Tamara Segal is a Registered Herbalist and wild foods enthusiast. She runs an herbal clinic called Hawthorn Herbals at her farm in Prince Edward County. She also teaches classes and gives plant identification walks and workshops throughout the Quinte area.