Balm of Gilead: Welcoming Spring with Balsam Poplar Medicine

The equinox has come and gone, heralding the beginning of spring. After a long and snowy winter, our thoughts turn again to wildcrafting, and the desire to get outside. The first plant that we harvest at this time of year is Balsam Poplar. We use the winter leaf buds to make a healing salve called Balm of Gilead, which has amazing pain relieving, wound healing , anti-inflammatory and respiratory tonic properties. We use this salve topically for muscle aches and pains, joint pain, and all kinds of small cuts, scrapes or burns.

Our 2017 batch of Balm of Gilead is now available here! This is a very popular product that we only make in small amounts, so get yours now! Or, if you are the do-it-yourself type, below are the details on how to harvest and make your own:

Balsam Poplar Medicine: Also known as Cottonwood, or by its latin name Populus balsamifera, Balsam Poplar is a common tree along river valleys and moist areas of western Canada. The tree can grow to great heights, often towering above the surrounding vegetation. The part of this plant that we use for medicine is the leaf buds, picked in late winter or early spring. These leaf buds are set in the fall, and will open up into leaves the following spring. When you look closely at the leaf buds, you see that they are covered with a coating of golden or reddish resin. The resin insulates and protects the leaf buds through the cold winter months. In the spring this resin starts to melt off as the leaf buds open, releasing an amazing perfume into the air and dropping small sticky bracts all over the ground.

This leaf bud resin is what we are after, and it has many amazing medicinal properties. The resin contains salicylates, which are natural compounds related in structure to aspirin (aspirin is acetyl-salicylic acid). These natural salicylates provide analgesic (pain relieving) and anti-inflammatory actions. Also present in the resin are numerous volatile essential oils, which give the characteristic aroma. These essential oils have powerful infection-fighting and wound healing properties. If you pick a bud and chew on it, you will notice that it has a very pungent, spicy flavour. These essential oils help to open up the respiratory tract, and after chewing a bud I find that I can feel my lungs open up, and breathing becomes easier. The resin has a warming and stimulating quality. It is a great way to wake up the body after winter!

Harvesting Tips:

Season: You can start picking the buds any time after they have set in the fall, although we feel the best medicine is obtained when the tree is just starting to “wake up” and the sap has started to flow a little. In our Kootenay region we pick the buds anytime from mid-February through early May, depending on the season and on the location. This year we have had a lot of snow, and though the temperatures are rising there are still deep snowdrifts on the ground. It may be worth bringing a pair of snow shoes!

You want to pick the buds before it gets too warm out, as the resin starts to melt off in the sun before the leaf buds open up. You can start picking buds at low elevations and in sunnier locations, and as the season progresses moving up to higher elevations or shadier locations. Gaining elevation is like going back in time, so if you have already missed the season in the valley bottoms, try going higher

Sustainability: If you are in a dense stand of young Balsam Poplar trees, you can pick a few buds from the lower branches here-and-there to spread out the impact of your harvest. As the trees grow, the lower branches are the first to die back and so picking in this way reduces your impact on the population. However, the fattest and most resinous leaf buds are near the top of the trees, and picking a few buds from the lower branches is a very slow process. A better method is to walk around until you find some upper branches that have fallen off the trees in winter storms. Balsam Poplar branches are somewhat fragile, and during winter storms with heavy snow and high winds upper branches will break off and fall to the ground. When you find some broken branches, feel free to pick all the buds off them! This is the easiest way to gather a large quantity of buds, as well as the most sustainable and ethical way to harvest. If you are REALLY lucky, maybe you even find a forest giant that has been uprooted or taken down by a beaver.

Cleanup: As you are picking the buds, the resin will start to accumulate on your hands, until your fingers are a red sticky mess! If you can, pick on a cooler day (just above freezing is great), on sunnier days the resin becomes softer and stickier. To remove the resin from your hands, hot soapy water alone will not suffice. A little bit of orange essential oil or rubbing alcohol on a paper towel will take it off nicely, otherwise try rubbing your fingers with some warm olive oil and then plenty of hot, soapy water.

Making Balsam Poplar Medicine:

So you have picked some Balsam Poplar buds, now what? How can you make them into medicine? The resin on the buds is not soluble in water – it is like trying to mix oil and water, it just doesn’t work. Using the principle that “like dissolves like” we can infuse the resin into an oil. An infused oil is great for topical use, and is what we use to make a salve. We like to use extra-virgin olive oil, but other oils such as coconut oil work as well. Strong alcohol (at least 50% strength) will also dissolve the resin, creating a tincture that can be taken internally in small amounts.

Infused Balsam Poplar oil: Hot Infusion Method

To make the infused oil, we set up a double boiler system. Our method: We fill a 1 liter mason jar about 3/4 full of poplar buds, then pour over organic extra-virgin olive oil until the buds are fully covered. You want to leave a little extra space at the top of the jar, as the oil will expand when heated.

We then fill a large pot with water, and place a cloth in the bottom (so not too much heat is transferred), then we place the mason jar with buds and oil on top of the cloth. We put the heat on low-medium and maintain it for several hours. You want to the water in the pot to be warm and steaming lightly, but not boiling. Top up the water in the pot as needed, with hot tap water so as not to shock the mason jar. We leave the lid of the mason jar on, but not sealed.

During this heating process, two important things are happening. First, the resin on the buds is softening and dissolving into the olive oil. Secondly, we are driving off the water contained in the buds. This is important because if there is any residual water in the buds, it can create a pocket for bacteria or fungus to breed, and potentially cause your infused oil to go off. Some people simply soak the poplar buds in room temperature olive oil, however there is a higher risk of your oil going off. We prefer the hot infusion method because it dissolves the resin more effectively, and drives off the moisture ensuring the oil will remain stable for a long time.

A word on oils: You want to choose a relatively heat-stable oil for doing this extraction. We like to use olive oil because it is liquid at room temperature, and is one of the most shelf-stable vegetable oils. Even cold-pressed olive oil comes out of the press at higher than boiling temperatures, so you don’t have to worry about damaging the olive oil with the amount of heat being used. Don’t use hemp oil, flax oil, or other vegetable oils which are usually kept in the fridge.

As you heat the buds, you will notice that moisture is escaping and condensing on the upper rim and lid of the mason jar. When this happens, we open it up for a moment and use a clean cloth to wipe away the moisture. You want to keep heating your oil and bud mixture until no more moisture comes out – this usually takes about 8 hours.  The reason for keeping the lid on (but not sealed) is so that some of the more volatile essential oils in the resin do not evaporate, and are kept in the olive oil instead.

Once you see that no more moisture is coming out of the buds, your oil is ready to strain! Allow the jar to cool to room temperature, then strain it through a fine mesh kitchen strainer, or a fine muslin bag. Don’t use your nicest equipment, as it will probably be permanently stained with resin afterwards!

Your infused oil should have gained a beautiful dark golden or ruby red colour, and will have a delicious perfume-like smell. You can use this oil topically as-is, but for easy application we like to take it one step further, and make a salve which has slightly harder texture.

Turning your infused oil into Balm of Gilead Salve:

The process is very simple: Set up a double boiler using one smaller pot nested inside another larger one filled with water. Pour your infused oil into this double boiler and start it heating. To make the salve, we will add some beeswax.

How much beeswax should you use? The rule of thumb is to use 1:6 ratio of beeswax (weight in grams) to infused oil (volume in milliliters). For instance, if you had ½ cup (125 mL) of your infused oil, then you would add about 21 grams of beeswax. Shave the beeswax and add it directly into the double boiler pot with your infused oil. Once the beeswax has fully melted, you can pour your salve off into small jars.

We like the consistency of a salve done at this ratio, however if you want a slightly softer salve, use a little bit more of the infused oil, or if you want a slightly harder salve, add a little more bees wax.

Congratulations! You have made a potent medicinal salve, and can now enjoy the amazing medicine of Balsam Poplar all year round.

Want to Learn More?

E-flora BC entry on Balsam Poplar gives useful information on the botany, ecology and distribution of this species: http://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/Atlas/Atlas.aspx?sciname=Populus%20balsamifera

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