Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine
Other Names: Balsam poplar, peuplier (French), ewepipoq (Maliseet), stoqon (Mi’kmaq)
"The Balm of Gilead salve, there are so many different ways in which it can be made. All the old families had some form of it. It could be boiled in water, where the resin came to the top and skimmed off, almost like a tar. Or, it could be done in alcohol, and then it would be used in a lotion form or liniment. And, technically, you can actually put that in a salve as well. Or, you can do it in various different kinds of oils, but everybody had their own favorite way of doing it." - Natalia Bragg
The Balm of Gilead tree has a pretty spotty reputation in northern Maine. Considered a “trash”’ tree by many, the Balm of Gilead has an all but forgotten use - the rosin from its buds is highly medicinal. At one time, farm families, loggers, and trappers used the Balm of Gilead to create a long-lasting first aid salve. Today, Natalia Bragg and others carry on the tradition.
Physical Description: Balm of Gilead is a medium-sized tree that can grow up to 70 feet tall. It has dark green leaves that are 3-5 inches long and 2-5 inches wide, egg-shaped, and pointed at the tip. Seeds ripen in early June, attached to a cotton-like substance that aids wind dispersal. The buds of Balm of Gilead are large, brown, resinous and strong-smelling. The bark of young trees varies from cinnamon brown to green, turning gray and deeply ridged as it ages.
Habitat: Roadsides, ditches, wet areas bordering swamps.
Uses: Resin from the buds is antibacterial, antifungal, and mildly analgesic. Balm of Gilead resin is an ingredient in cough syrups and first-aid salves, used to heal small wounds, cuts, and scrapes.
Preparation: Buds can be placed into warm olive oil, animal fat or alcohol to extract the resin. Herbalist Natalia Bragg of Wade, Maine, remembers a time when all of the large farm families in her town had their own recipes for a first aid salve made with Balm of Gilead.
No matter which form of preparation, it is important to note that Balm of Gilead buds are sticky, and resin does not come off easily. Consider using tin cans or coffee cans when extracting resin.
When to harvest: Buds must be harvested in early spring before leaves come out. Look for buds that have large drops of resin on them. A really cold spring may extend the harvesting season. Morning is the best time to harvest. To avoid getting stubborn resin on your fingers, collect buds while wearing gloves.
Tips for Sustainable Harvesting/Management: Natalia Bragg offers several important tips for the careful harvest of Balm of Gilead buds. First, never harvest all of your buds from one tree. Second, Natalia never harvests the terminal bud from a branch, which allows the tree to put on additional growth in coming years. Third, if you harvest from a certain tree one year, do not return to that same tree the following year.
Note: We are indebted to Matthew P. Edberg, Natural Resources Specialist with the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians for letting us know that, based on the scientific literature and his extensive experience collecting specimens of both balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera) and balm of Gilead (Populus species and crosses), the species in general use in northern Maine almost certainly is balsam poplar. However, at least one participant in our research indicates that she recognizes the difference between balsam poplar and balm of Gilead and uses the latter We hope to follow up on this.
Photos by Michelle Baumflek
Species information reference: 5
Information about medicinal plant uses is provided for educational purposes only. It should not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment and is not a substitute for consultation with a licensed physician.
Last Modified: 01/13/2011