Growing up in rural western Canada, our family relied heavily on natural, wild remedies and food sources. My father’s close ties to the First Nations of the Fairford reservation meant that we were privy to dozens of secrets to wild harvesting of plants for medicinal and culinary use. Yet, we overlooked one of the most prevalent and beneficial sources: the poplar.
Although the local native people did use poplar bark, poplar catkins and poplar sap, we relied on the white willow, a close relative of the poplar. For us, its primary use was as a pain reliever. The inner bark of the willow contains salicin, a natural reliever of headaches, muscle pain, fever and blood disorders. Similarly, poplar bark contains salicin, one of the components of aspirin. Natives used the bark, as well, for cuts, fevers, and coughs. The bark has antiseptic and expectorant properties.
Poplar sap, readily available in the spring, often is harvested and boiled down like maple syrup. However, it does not store well, and must be used in season. Like the sap, the slippery inner bark does not render well, and has limited use as a winter remedy.
Many wild plants, cattails and common plantain among them, are mucilaginous and act as a thickener for stews. The inner bark, when dried and ground, can be used in a similar manner. Like the former two plants, it also acts as an excellent digestive system cleanser.
Poplar bark powder, used in a poultice, is an excellent dressing for wounds, acne, sore joints and even rheumatic complaints. Some people have used the finer root tendrils similarly, or have chewed them foe toothache relief. The bark can be made into a tea-like infusion by steeping the ground bark in boiled water for ten minutes. It is not unpleasant-tasting.
Poplar sap tea is a commonly used spring tonic, or a seasonal pick-me-upper for the elderly, to treat urinary infections, relieve nausea, alleviating hay fever and to relieve allergy symptoms by clearing the nasal passages.
Catkins, available in early spring before the leaves grow, are much more bitter tasting than either the bark or the sap. They, though, can be dried for use throughout the spring, summer and fall, with effects similar to that of the bark or sap.
Poplar offers an array of health and nutrition options, but, unfortunately, has a limited season. Nonetheless, this tree should be on your list of chosen plants for wild harvesting.