Feb 202009

That’s 8 yr. old Rhiannon sitting on a rock ledge looking out at the budding Cottonwood trees, one of my favorite pain salve ingredients.


Pain salves are used for a wide variety of purposes, but are most commonly applied to sore and often inflamed joints and muscles. This pain and inflammation can stem from many sources, including arthritis, fibromyalgia, old injuries, myriad chronic diseases that result in systemic inflammation (including many auto-immune diseases and some viruses such as Hep C) as well as acute trauma to some part of the body. With the exception of an acute injury, most of these disorders are symptoms of other underlying issues. With this in mind, realize that using a pain salve as a bandaid for your discomfort rather than addressing the source is not a very effective method of healing. On the other hand, if you ARE working with your body and making appropriate changes while taking care of yourself, pain salves can help provide significant relief from chronic discomfort.

If you’ve ever used herbal pain salve or liniment (or even looked at a recipe for them) you’ve likely noticed that most of them contain a large variety of essential oils from mostly exotic plants. Now, essential oil are ok, and they certainly do  the job in most cases but you know, it would be difficult for me to make them (not to mention the insane amount of plant matter needed) and many people have reactions or sensitivities to them. I also don’t see them as a sustainable (and thus, ethical) healing resource for the general public. Thus, I don’t use them unless I happen to have a really great product made with them (like Ananda’s amazing Salve). In my own formulations though, I work strictly with infused oils and tinctures to make my salves and liniments. I’ve found them to be exceptionally effective, and to work just as well as most essential oil based pain compounds.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with a variety of local plants made as infused oils and liniments as a treatment for general muscle and joint pain. I started out using simples of each plant to see which herbs were most effective in a given situation and then began slowly combining them in order to get a sense of what complimented what in the blends. What I’ve come up with has proven to be extremely versatile and useful in a wide variety of situations on many different kinds of people.

Some Notes on Preparation

You’ll see below that most of my top choices are strongly aromatic plants, which means they’re primarily herbs that have the capability to move stagnant energy in the body which is one of the main cause of pain, especially the chronic sort. It also means your salves and liniments have the capacity to smell really really nice! It’s not necessary that it have a heavenly scent, but the pleasantness can add to relaxation and speed up healing (somebody should mention that to the people who make those nasty sports rubs, blech).

My suggestions here assume you know how to make a salve (either infused directly into animal fat or by doing the infused oil plus beeswax thing) and liniment (usually a blend of infused oil and tincture to be used externally). For liniments I tend  to do about half and half oil and alcohol but that’s not any kind of rule, I just find that it penetrated deeply that way but still stays on the skin for a while. Vary as you like, but keep in mind that most Pain salves will often be applied to a fairly large area so it’s helpful to keep it a fairly soft ointment for ease of application.

And yes, I was just telling you beginners not to use recipes in a recent post. I would suggest using each of the herbs separately as simples to see how they work for yourself before combining them. You will end up understanding the effects and the personality of the plants MUCH (MUCH) better this way.

The Foundational Element

Budding Cottonwood trees on the river.


One of the things I’ve learned is that there are a thousand ways to make an effective pain salve or liniment but that my base ingredient will always be Cottonwood (or Aspen, depending on what’s available).

In his excellent book, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Michael Moore says of the Populus spp.:

“Topically both the tincture and steeped oil is useful as a counterirritant analgesic for joint and muscle pain, similar to methyl salicylate (Oil of Wintergreen) but without the potential for absorption toxicity of the latter.”

And you know, he’s really not kidding. This stuff kicks ass. It works better than any other single plant I know of to reduce general swelling, pain, bruising and speed healing. It’s also very broadly applicable, meaning that unlike some plants (like Golden for example, with its specific affinity for just the muscles), it’ll work on just about anything where there’s pain and inflammation, and it’s also great for burns, wounds, infections, broken bones and pretty much any other painful external affliction you might run up against. Don’t take this lightly, a great generalist can be damn hard to find and is so incredibly multi-faceted as to be invaluable. Also, take note that the Populus spp. is extremely widespread  and abundant across the world, either as native trees or as introduced landscape/decorative species.

Supplementary Elements

Baby Moonworts just outside the den.


Alder and Moonwort (Artemisia spp) are two other broadly applicable (and extremely common) plants. They’re not as strong as Cottonwood on their own for pain, but both have excellent synergy with it. Also great general treatments for wounds and potential infections. While I’m grouping them together here, they’re actually very different herbs and if possible, use both rather than one of the other. Larrea is another great choice here, and works very well for inflammation, especially when combined with something more stimulating and blood moving.


Native Goldenrod in bloom.


Sweet Clover – My favorite for many kinds of nerve pain or where there’s pain associated with vascular stasis or weakness.

Goldenrod – The expert on muscle trauma, pain and injuries, even very old injuries that refuse to heal. A great remedy for every dancer, rock climber, rodeo star wannabe and cowboy (and other people who frequently inflict serious muscle strain and pain on their bodies on a regular basis) to take note of.

Rose & Cherry – For that burning, screaming kind of pain that often accompanies inflammation or dislocation of discs.

Comfrey – Lovely for any kind of swelling, bruising, blunt trauma kind of thing as well as broken bones.

Warming Circulatory Stimulants

Blooming Rosemary in the Kitchen Garden


These plants are especially valuable for old, chronic injuries (often typified by stiffness and aggravation by cold weather) because they help stimulate local blood circulation and thus assist the body in bringing the vital energy of healing back to the neglected (and usually quite painful) area.



Cayenne (Watch out for your mucus membranes with this though, it can cause a whole different kind of pain).

Black Pepper

A Few Sample Formulas

  • 3 Parts Cottonwood
  • 2 Parts Moonwort
  • 2 Parts Alder
  • 2 Parts Goldenrod
  • 1 Part Rosemary


  • 3 Parts Cottonwood
  • 2 Parts Moonwort
  • 1 Part Pine


  • 2 Parts Cottonwood
  • 1 Part Sweet Clover
  • 1 Part Ginger


  • 3 Parts Cottonwood
  • 3 Parts Comfrey
  • 1 Part Ginger

These formulas can of course be varied in innumerable ways depending on what plants grow near you. Arnica, St. John’s Wort, Lavender, Birch, Wintergreen and Meadowsweet are other common botanicals included in Pain salves and liniments for various reasons.

My student Rosalee recently sent me a Pain Salve containing Cottonwood buds, Artemisia leaves and Rue leaves that works extremely well and presents another wonderful (and so simple) option.


All Photos (c) 2009 Kiva Rose

  18 Responses to “A General Guide to Creating an Effective Pain Liniment or Salve”

  1. I trekked all around today in search of cottonwoods, to no avail. *sigh*. At least it got me out on a beautiful albeit frigid day!

  2. Hmm, I would think you’d having some in that area…. but you do have the Birch which can be used similarly for many external things. And if you really want some Cottonwood lemme know and I’ll harvest some to send you this coming week. 🙂

  3. Thank your for this post! I just started using my cottonwood bud oil, the buds of which I’d left soaking in olive oil (by happy accident!) for two years. The oil is heavenly! I’m off today to collect buds-a-plenty today!

    I’m fascinated by the idea of making a salve or liniment combining a couple of other ingredients with the cottonwood bud oil. Do you tincture Rose & Cherry and combine it with the oil?

    Again, you’ve widened my horizon of the possible in a way that makes total, beautiful sense!

  4. greetings kiva
    and an abundance of gratitude for your generosity
    in sharing your wisdom, knowledge and beauty
    especially with concern to the plants~
    i live in the S.E. and do not have experience with populus
    i am very curious about learning more and am wondering
    if you find the dried form of value,
    is it vital enough to make medicine with?
    i do not believe we have the cottonwood? here in north carolina?
    yet would like to begin to get to know her
    thank you for your time

  5. Actually, there’s all kinds of poplars in NC so just take a look around. You can look up the USDA plants site and search for populus in your state, and usually you can even see where the plants are down to a county level. Once you find some where you are, you can look for those that have the most resinous buds, or just use the bark.

    Freshly dried buds still work pretty nicely, but fresh is better.

  6. Kiva, I am a student way up in the Northland, in Quebec where we are still at the 20 below mark and snow over everything. I’m wondering – if spring ever arrives – which aspens or birch I might be able to use? I have a quaking aspen in my yard and birch – both yellow and white. Is there a Northern tree that will simulate the effects of the cottonwood?

    Cat, dreaming of spring 🙂

  7. Hi Cat,

    I love yellow birch and tends to have an appreciable amount of methyl salicylate (you can tell by how strong the wintergreen smell is) which will make it a good pain reliever… I’d think that Aspen bark and Yellow birch bark together could make a really nice pain salve or liniment although I haven’t had the opportunity to try the combo myself (sadly, there’s no birches, although alders are a close relative).

  8. Thank you so much for taking the time to reply when you’re not feeling well. I will make a test batch when spring finally arrives and let you know how I make out. Feel better soon!

    Cat 🙂

  9. Hi Kiva hope you are feeling better. I live in Connecticut and we have Populus deltoides
    the Eastern Cotton Wood here. Do you think there is any difference when making salve and what do you think of adding willow buds. From what I am reading adding birch buds will also work, I have black and white birch close by. I love your blog thanks for sharing your knowledge. Donna

  10. I’m in NM so I don’t have any idea about Eastern Cottonwood, but pretty much all populus species work to some degree or another, especially the bark… if the buds are resinous and aromatic you can use them too.

    I don’t think birch buds are very resinous so you’re likely better off just using the bark for a stronger salve. Again, with willow buds, I think you’re better off just using bark.

    Thanks for reading.

  11. This may be a silly question, but do you use cottonwood leaves or the bark? I have several cottonwood trees near me and would like to experiment with it in my salves.


  12. So by using the buds would you need to harvest just in the spring?

  13. hi, Kiva! I was searching for info on Larrea and came across this article. I love your writings! How do you like to make the poplar bud oil with the fresh buds? They seems to need a hot oil infusion. Thanks!

    • H Jiling,

      I collect the buds, put them in the oil, and usually put the jar in my woodstove warmer for a couple weeks, but one could use a double boiler instead…. honestly though, while I prefer the warm infusion, a cold infusion can still extract a lot of the medicine in my experience.

  14. Hi,
    I have two cottonwoods in my back yard. What part is good for pain. I am assuming the buds, but wanted to check.

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