It’s February, and the winter blues are really getting the best of me. So what’s a winter-weary forager to do? Go foraging for some Balm of Gilead! That’s right, this time of year is perfect for making Balm of Gilead.

But what is this romantic, regal-sounding thing? Don’t be ashamed if you’ve never heard of it before. I hadn’t, until a couple of years ago when the hubby told me about it. Balm of Gilead is a salve made from the buds of the Poplar, or Cottonwood tree.

Balm of Gilead is a wonderful ancient salve that has a myriad of uses. It’s even mentioned in the Bible, as it was believed to be a true cure-all. In Jeremiah 8:22, I quote: “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?”. Also, Jeremiah 46:10-11, “Go up into Gilead, and take balm, O virgin, the daughter of Egypt: in vain shalt thou use many medicines; for thou shalt not be cured.”

Benefits of Balm of Gilead:

  • Analgesic
  • Anti-bacterial
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Astringent
  • Detoxifying
  • Demulcent
  • Skin soothing

What is Balm of Gilead good for?

Poplar, in this case specifically Cottonwood, buds contain salicin. Salicin is similar to aspirin, so it is valuable as a pain reliever. It is fantastic for an analgesic (pain relieving) rub for arthritis, sore muscles, achy joints, and even broken bones. Be cautious, though. Since it does contain salicin, you shouldn’t use it if you are allergic to aspirin. Also beware of using Balm of Gilead on children.

Balm of Gilead is also very helpful for various skin conditions. It’s good for minor cuts, scrapes, and burns. It can help eczema, psoriasis, frostbite, chapped skin, and even hemorrhoids. The infused oil works like aloe vera on the skin, so it will immediately help sunburns, and can prevent blistering.

Identifying the Cottonwood tree

If you would like to try to make this amazing ointment, please make sure you have positively identified the Cottonwood tree.

Cottonwood tree in late winter

Poplars are huge trees with gray, deeply grooved bark. They can grow up to 100 feet tall. The leaves are dark green and almost heart-shaped. Unfortunately, the Black Cottonwood only grows in Canada and the western United States. This tree is the one responsible for the white floating “cotton balls” in the spring.

The optimal time to harvest Poplar buds is from November to February, when the buds are tightly bound with orange-brown resin. It is best to harvest them on a very cold day, to help with the stickiness. You might want to wear rubber gloves, and don’t plan on putting the buds in cloth. Because it will be messy!

Poplar tree leaf
Poplar (Cottonwood) tree leaf

If you can find a downed branch (which is pretty common with Cottonwoods), be sure to harvest as many buds as you can. Otherwise, please use ethical foraging practices. Don’t take more than a third of the buds that you can reach. Remember, these buds become leaves, so you don’t want to harm the tree by harvesting too much.

Making Balm of Gilead

Cottonwood buds infusing in oil
Quick infusion of cottonwood buds – for Balm of Gilead

When you have collected enough buds to fill a small mason jar halfway, you are ready to make the infused oil. Fill the jar almost to the top with olive oil. Then you have one of two options. If you have plenty of time, simply put the lid on the jar and sit in a sunny windowsill. Stir or shake occasionally, making sure the buds are fully immersed in the oil to prevent mold. This process takes about 4 weeks.

Balm of Gilead
Melting the beeswax into the infused oil to make Balm of Gilead

If you don’t want to wait that long, you can do a quick infusion using a double boiler. I personally don’t own a double boiler, I always improvise. Just put the jar into a sauce pan with water that is nearly as high as the oil in the jar.

Warm this pan over medium-low heat and allow to simmer for an hour. Then strain the oil through cheesecloth and return to the jar.

If you want more detailed instructions on how to make this wonderfully healing salve, check out our other post on DIY herbal salves.

You may want to keep some infused oil plain, and make an ointment out of the rest. To make the ointment, do the same double boiler style to melt some beeswax, then pour the infused oil into it. Stir gently, then add a touch of Vitamin E oil as a preservative. I actually made mine in old baby food jars.

You can also heat some tallow and infuse it with the cottonwood buds. Tallow is great for skin as well, so you’ll get a double benefit!

I gave one jar away to my daughter’s sister-in-law for her son’s eczema. She said it has really helped heal his sores. The other jar will be stored in my apothecary as a general first aid salve.

Do you know of other herbs that can be harvested in winter? Please share in the comments so we can chase away the winter blues together!


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