This week, we'll be looking into the medicinal attributes of Balm of Gilead. The Latin name for Balm of Gilead is Populus balsamifera. Other names include: balsam poplar, bam, bamtree, and eastern balsam poplar.
“Balm of Gilead” is referenced in the Bible; this reference is to another plant of a different family, Commiphora gileadensis, which has similar medicinal properties. In fact, the name “Balm of Gilead” has been used to describe many different species, all having similar medicinal uses. Such plants have been used to relieve pain and treat wounds like cuts and bruises since biblical times. The Native Americans have used Populus balsamifera to treat skin and lung ailments, among other things, for hundreds of years.
Balm of Gilead is a deciduous tree usually 20-60 feet in height, but known to grow up to 100 feet tall and with a trunk 6 ½ feet in diameter. It has a straight trunk, and erect, stout branches. The bark is dark grey and furrowed. The pointed, fine-toothed leaves are somewhat heart-shaped at the base, dark green and shiny on top, and silvery beneath. The tree also has resinous buds with a strong balsam odor. These buds are commonly used in medicine, and less frequently, the bark. The buds are also sometimes referred to as “Balm of Gilead”. To add to the confusion, “Balm of Gilead” may also refer to the medicinal concoctions (tinctures, oils, balms, or otherwise) made from the buds or bark of the Balm of Gilead tree.
Balm of Gilead strives in northern North America, from Alaska and Canada through much of California in the west, parts of Virginia in the east, and parts of South Dakota in the central United States. It enjoys deep and moist sandy soils found in river bottomlands, stream banks, borders of lakes, and swamps.
Balm of Gilead is antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, expectorant, stimulant, tonic, diuretic, antiscorbutic, and cathartic.
Balm of Gilead buds are usually infused in oil to extract the resin. The oil is then used as treatment itself, or as a base for ointments for topical treatment. The buds and bark can be made into tea or tincture, which is then used as a wash externally or drunk for internal treatment. The bark of Balm of Gilead (and most other plants that go by this name) contains salicin, which is converted to salicylic acid (aspirin) by the body. The dosage of tea is dependent on how strong it is brewed; the tincture is dosed as 5 drops to half a drachm.
Ailments which indicate treatment with Balm of Gilead include: sprains, inflammation, muscle pains, headaches; lung ailments and coughs; pectoral, rheumatic, scorbutic, and nephritic affections; wounds, bruises, tumors, sores, some skin diseases, and local rheumatism. The bark also specifically treats gout, rheumatism, fevers, and the pain of menstrual cramps. Tea made from the inner bark is used as an eye wash and to treat scurvy.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and may interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care provider.
Latin Name: Populus balsamifera
Medicinal Actions: (buds) antiseptic, expectorant, stimulant, tonic, diuretic, and antiscorbutic; (bark) tonic, cathartic, and anti-inflammatory.
Indications: pectoral, rheumatic, scorbutic, and nephritic affections; lung ailments and coughs; wounds, bruises, tumors, some skin diseases, and rheumatism; fevers, gout and scurvy.
Contraindications: pregnant, breastfeeding, taking narcotics, sensitive to aspirin, going into surgery.
Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants, #162 – Poplar (Part 1)
Annie’s Remedy – Balm of Gilead
(makes 12 small loaves)
In the medieval ages during times of famine, barkmeal was used as supplemental or replacement flour. It is made from the edible inner bark of a variety of trees, including Balm of Gilead, other poplars and aspens, certain species of pine trees, and really whatever was available. Bark Bread has formed part of our ancestors’ diet as far back as the written record takes us, being the staple bread especially when no other food source was available due to harsh weather. The bark meal gives a somewhat bitter or sour taste to the bread, depending on how much is used. Bark Bread doesn’t leaven as well as wheat bread and has a tendency to fall apart, however the barkmeal is more fibrous than wheat, is gluten-free and low in cholesterol, and also contains more zinc, magnesium, iron, and vitamin C, making it a good nutritional supplement.
4 1/4 cups lukewarm water
1/2 cup + 1/3 cup barkmeal
2 packages yeast
4 1/4 cups wheat flour
4 1/4 cups rye flour
To make the barkmeal:
- Cut the outer bark of the tree to expose the inner bark.
- Scrape off the inner bark. Bark from numerous trees is usually needed for a decent amount of barkmeal.
- Dry the inner bark until hard like cardboard.
- Bake the bark in an oven or over a fire until light brown.
- Grind the bark into a powder, until it is like flour.
To make the bread:
- Gently mix lukewarm water, barkmeal, and yeast to activate the yeast. Let sit until slightly bubbly.
- Begin adding wheat and rye flour in equal parts a little at a time, mixing thoroughly with each addition, until a stiff dough forms.
- Knead the dough 8-10 minutes, adding additional flour as necessary.
- Let the dough rise for one hour.
- Punch down the dough, and let rise a second time for 40 minutes.
- Separate the dough into 12 balls.
- Flatten balls onto a cookie sheet, poke the tops of the rounds with a fork to prevent bubbles, and sprinkle with some more barkmeal, if desired.
- Bake at 450 degrees F for 10-15 minutes.