Planet Alaska: harvest within the scent of spring
By Vivian Mork Yéilk
I step on the snow surface and my feet break the snow crust with every step. There are several tall poplars around me so I check the ground for twigs to harvest poplar buds after a big storm. Harvesting buds begins days before with daily walks in my favorite poplar grove where the snow is melting. Tlél kútx i yáa wdawóodlik – Be patient and do not hurry. Harvesting poplar buds is like this – a little here and a little there.
I take a branch and inspect it. It's been a long hard winter and I love going outside and getting my oxygen and negative ions out of the forest, water and spring air. My favorite harvest time is when the snow is mended on the ground, and I especially love that poplar scent. It triggers so many happy feelings. In the Tlingit language, the poplar wood is called dúk. In the southeast we have the black poplar, balsam poplar, Populus balsamifera.
This photo shows a poplar tree. Black poplar, balsam poplar, and Populus balsamifera are found in Southeast Alaska. (Courtesy photo by Vivian Mork Yéilk)
After the first big spring storm, it is time to get dúk buds. The wind is a great trimmer. Everyone has different paths, but I harvest from branches that have fallen to the ground, not from living trees. Now I find a broken branch and brush away some snow. I pull a wide-mouthed mason jar out of my backpack. I am wearing gloves and an old coat and hat. After 15 years of harvesting poplar buds, I've learned my lessons the hard way. Poplar resin sticks to everything. These tips will help:
– Poplar buds contain a lot of resin: use disposable or gardening gloves.
– Wear shoes / boots, pants, shirt, hat, and clothing that you like to apply resin to.
– Preparing for harvest starts at home: have space to dry your buds or prepare them for oil or whatever substance you pour them into.
– Do not harvest from young trees as this will inhibit growth.
– Leave something for the moose. Do not harvest in areas where there is evidence of moose eating the buds, as moose depend on buds from lower branches.
– Don't take more buds than you can handle. Harvest a small amount like a mason jar or two that are ¼ to ½ full.
– Use a gloved hand (left or right) to pluck buds and drop them into your container. Use the other gloved hand to handle the outside of the glass, scratch your nose, or brush your hair off your face.
– If you are bringing your dog, keep them away from the sticky buds. If the resin gets on the fur, it can be cut out.
– Have regular white (not colored) toothpaste and vodka handy at home to remove resin.
I'm thrifty when it comes to making things with what I've harvested. Because of all of my hard work, I use every part of the facility, but that has led me to make mistakes. Once I grabbed the buds and tried to squeeze as much oil out of the sieve as possible. I didn't wear gloves. Both hands – front to back – were completely covered with resin.
Although difficult to harvest, poplar buds like the ones shown in this photo make great medicine. (Courtesy Photo / Vivian Mork Yéilk)
Then when I tried to fix the problem it became a Dr. Seuss adventure "The cat in the hat" – everything I touched stuck to me or was smeared with resin. There I was stuck in my house with and without anyone trying to get rid of the resin. There is a difference between trying to get a swab off your finger and not all of your hands. My nose was used to dial the phone to ask my partner for help as I couldn't use my hands. What finally saved me was toothpaste and vodka. I used a lot of toothpaste to remove the first layer and then alcohol in the vodka removed the rest. After that my hands were only slightly sticky, but manageable. Although poplar buds are difficult to harvest, they make great medicine.
Cottonwood is also known as the Balm of Gilead. It contains salicin, which is the origin of aspirin. It is used for pain, inflammation and fever. You can infuse the buds with oil, water, honey, or other substances. You can make oils, ointments, or tinctures. The buds are used for pain, burns, cuts and scratches, and even a cough.
However, many people are allergic to poplar and most often have rashes and hives. It's also common for people to have allergies to the spring blooms or the shedding of seeds. So make sure before you harvest or do something with the buds. For some poplars, trees are best viewed from a distance.
Dúk buds are part of a handful of harvests of the year. When it comes to harvesting from our traditional land, the most important thing to understand is that everything is interconnected. You never do just one thing. You have to consider the land, the people, the weather – everything is harvested according to many variables. In the Tlingit worldview, haa kusteeyí, our way of life, differs from the western worldview. Land harvesting is about relationships – relationships with moose, bears, birds, trees, and your fellow harvesters. We are not in competition. We harvest depending on what is growing, where it is growing and how it is growing. Western trails want to plan a specific day, but poplar buds may not be ready. The forest doesn't care about grant deadlines or western time management systems. When it's time to harvest, the forest will tell you.
Today I pick a few buds and go around the tree to find another branch. Harvesting poplar buds takes a thousand squats. While it's a lot of work, I can't wait to do something. I love the smell of Dúk. I often tell others my heaven will look like the Stikine River, smell like Dúk and taste like smoked bobcat. I am surrounded by this scent of heaven today.
After getting home from the harvest, here is some advice: Don't fill your jar to the brim with buds and oil or any other liquid that you use. Otherwise, the jar will overflow when the resin from the buds is infused with the water. When the lid is on, it can swell and possibly burst. Do not use a lid at first or it will make a big mess. However, you can use a paper towel instead of a lid and a rubber band to hold the towel in place. Once the buds have released most of their resin, you can put a lid on them.
– Wear gloves!
– Dedicate a pot or glasses or other utensils that you use as a single use or just for preparing poplar buds. The resin coats them forever.
– After the cotton swabs have dried for a few days, cover them with a little oil in the jar.
– Only fill the jar with a small amount of buds and a small amount of oil. LET IT SIT.
– When the buds are sitting, remember to check the process. As the oil / resin oozes out of the buds, the level in the jar rises. If the level slows down or becomes blocked, add a little more oil / liquid. Guards. Do this slowly and repeatedly.
– Never fill the glass to the brim with oil when you start.
Jars contain poplar oil. Don't fill your glass to the brim with buds and oil or any other liquid that you use. Otherwise, the jar will overflow when the resin from the buds is infused with the oil. (Courtesy Photo / Vivian Mork Yéilk)
My poplar buds sit in oil on my counter. It reminds me of a lava lamp. The bubble floats through the oil to the top of the glass – it's fascinating. I think of all the people who will benefit from this beautiful gift from the country. I enjoy hearing stories from people who my medicine has helped feel better. Whenever I use a poplar ointment or a poplar oil, I remember the relationship I have with the tree, and the scent of poplar releases memories of sticky hands, melting snow, fresh air, the quiet forests, and the hope and excitement of the Spring off. After a long hard winter, all is good medicine.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.