Balsam Poplar

Populus balsamifera – Balsam Poplar

Balsam PoplarPopulus balsamifera

= bal-sa-mi-fe-ra, L. for “yielding or producing a fragrant resin;

Identification: Balsam poplar is a deciduous tree which grows up to 25 m tall. It has a broad crown and, when mature, a dark furrowed bark. The twigs are light grey, and have sticky buds. The leaves are ovate, yellow green or pale brown beneath and dark green above.

Distribution & Habitat: Balsam poplar is locally abundant in the foothills and on the edge of the mountains. It hybridizes with other poplars and is often found in association with aspens.

Preparation & Uses: The Cree called balsam poplar Metoos and shredded the bark, obtaining a liquid extract used for coughs. They also noted that its wood burns better than other species while still green.

The Blackfoot called it As-si-tsix-in. They used the inner bark in smoking mixtures and as emergency horse food. The Blackfoot used to take the sap and rub it over their body when stalking horses to disguise the human scent. It has been reported that some Indians used the resinous bud to cure snow-blindness. It didn´t always work and the application was extremely painful.

I consider Balm of Gilead to be one of our area´s more important herbs. It is made from the bark or winter buds of P. balsamifera and several other poplar species. Dr. John R. Christopher lists this oily resin as a major cathartic. The bark is a cathartic, tonic, stimulant, diuretic, alterative and expectorant. The buds have the same properties in addition to acting as a nephritic, demul-cent, emollient, vulnerary, counterirritant, antirheumatic and nutritive.

It is very soothing and healing to dry and inflamed parts, both internally and externally. As a soothing expectorant, Balm of Gilead is very effective in bronchitis.

Made into a compounded ointment or oil, it is extremely good for any skin disease. Balm of Gilead is also effective in cleansing the blood and eliminating the cause of scurvy.

The fragrant resinous matter that covers the buds of this and other balsams is easily separated in boiling water. It is soluble in alcohol and oils but not in cool water. As is the case with most cathartics, if the expelling action comes about too fast, griping pains may be felt. If this occurs, add ginger root to the mixture.

Many testimonials could be given for this herb, Here is a personal one:

I was at a party where some cheese was brought to appease our hunger. Being quite hungry I took out my hunting knife, which was very sharp at the time, and started to cut some cheese. Instead of putting the cheese on the table, I held it in my hand and speedily cut through the cheese and deeply into my index finger. In great pain, I put the cut finger in my mouth. Holding the cut together with my tongue, I ran outside. Fortunately I was by the Elbow river where there were lots of cottonwood poplars. I got a friend to pick some winter buds off a tree. I squeezed the resin out of the buds and put it on my finger. The pain went away almost immediately.

For a dry cough or sore throat, take ½ teaspoon of the oil or ointment, mix with honey and lemon juice, and drink it. The oleo-resin can be used internally or externally, but only small amounts should be used internally. Externally, it is soothing to any skin irritation, cuts, bruises, rashes and pimples.

I have found it to be a very good massage oil — soothing and smelling like a fresh spring day. Use almond or cocoa butter oil as the base, if you prefer, because they are a little less oily.

To prepare Balm of Gilead, take:

1 part P. balsamifera bud
2 parts olive or other pure oil

Place in a jar and put the jar in a pot of water (like a double boiler) and heat, keeping the water just below the boiling point, steeping the buds for about 1 hour. Strain and cool. After cooling I put about 400 I.U. of Vitamin E per 8 oz. of oil to keep it from going rancid.

Populus balsamifera was also used by many Indians to make their pipe stems. Some Indians believed that there was natural fire in the wood and if properly treated, they could bring the fire out. This legend probably led to the tree being used in the board and drill of friction firemaking equipment.