Balsam poplar

Balsam poplar

Latin Name: Populous balsamifera

Part Used:  Unopened buds

Plant Description: Balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera) is the northernmost American hardwood. It grows transcontinentally on upland and flood plain sites but attains the best development on flood plains. It is a hardy, fast-growing tree which is generally short lived, with some trees reaching 200 years. The buds exude resin, which is flammable, so the twigs are useful for starting camp fires. Beaver also use the twigs for building their lodges.

History & Cultural Significance: 

As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt.
Genesis 37:25

The Bible records that in ancient times there came from Gilead, beyond the Jordan, a substance used to heal and soothe. It came, perhaps, from a tree or shrub, and was a major commodity of trade in the ancient world. It was known as the Balm of Gilead. That name became symbolic for the power to soothe and heal. The Balm of Gilead is interpreted as a spiritual medicine that is able to heal Israel (and sinners in general).

Use: Balm of Gilead is used to soothe, disinfect and astringent mucous membranes and can be used as a remedy for sore throats, coughs and laryngitis. It is considered specific for laryngitis accompanied by loss of voice, and may also be used to treat chronic bronchitis. Applied topically, it helps ease the inflammation of rheumatism or arthritis, and may also benefit dry and scaly skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema.

Actions: Stimulating expectorant, antimicrobial, vulnerary

Constituents: Phenolic glycosides (salicin, populin, chrysin); volatile oil (alpha-carophyllene, cineole, arcucumene, bisabolene, farnesene, and others); alkanes; resins; phenolic acids; tannins.

Safety Considerations: No side effects or drug interactions have been reported.

Formulator's Notes: It is such a joy to be living in an area where I can forage for poplar buds. Harvesting is a slow task, as buds can be as small as 1 cm, and its sticky resin makes handling a bit challenging. Once harvested, the buds are processed immediately by slow infusion in a carrier oil. This is a delicate art, as maceration or disruption to the buds can cause the moisture trapped tightly in the bud to leach out into the oil, spoiling the batch. The infusion is ready when the oil is a dark, almost blood red. The scent of poplar buds fills my home and each time I work with the infusion, it reminds me of spring.  I take care to harvest less than 25% of the buds in any given area, and for this reason, use of the infusion is currently limited to Balm of Gilead


Hoffman, D. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, Vermont, Healing Arts Press, 2003. 


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