Ahhhh sweet Balm of Gilead. I’m not kidding when I say it’s liquid gold! As I’ve mentioned before, this is one medicine my family is never without. Balm of Gilead is a rich salve touted as a heal-all miracle from the plant world. It actually gets it’s moniker from biblical times. The Webster dictionary defines it as ‘an agency that soothes, relieves, or heals’. You can read all about it’s origins here. This wikipedia article is absolutely fascinating to me! Balm of Gilead is a medicine known for it’s anti-inflammatory properties, to enhance the immune system, reduce pain, detoxify the body & speed healing among many other claims.
The Cottonwood Cure
Another wonderful thing about Balm of Gilead is that it’s so easy to create. While the main ingredient is only available in the spring time, the plant from which it emerges is found all across North America; the glorious cottonwood tree! And extracting it’s bounty is so simple…even my kiddo friends love to help me with it.
🌳 The cottonwood tree is a fast growing tree from the genus Populus, in the family Salicaceae. Once you know what you’re looking for, the cottonwood tree is easy to identify. When the buds emerge in spring, they give off a familiar woodsy aroma & contain the magic ingredient…salicin. You may be familiar with salicin because it’s essentially the precursor to what western medicine knows as aspirin. It wouldn’t be far fetched to liken Balm of Gilead to a powerful liquid aspirin! 🌳
The Alchemy of Liquid Gold
One of my favorite parts of this medicine is how simple it is to create. Once you have identified your cottonwood trees, you’ll need to wait for late winter/early spring to start crafting. As soon as you see the buds start to emerge, you can begin.
There are different ways to gather them & I feel that as long as you are respectful of the plant, it really doesn’t matter how you go about bringing home the buds.
Some folks prefer to snip the buds off in groups like you see in the picture above, but personally I prefer to get right in there and use my fingertips and a jar or basket to collect them. I enjoy climbing about on the stronger limbs collecting and immersing myself in the magic. If you use your bare hands, you’ll find that the salicin soaks directly into your skin. It always makes my aches and pains disappear on the spot!
It’s good to look for live-fall or downed trees as they are easier to wild-craft from. It’s also easier on the trees! Be careful to wear clothes you don’t really care about as the resin will stain anything it touches. Because these trees are so prolific, it’s even easier to make sure you’re gathering your medicine away from major roadways where the plants are more likely to be tainted with pollution. The goal is to have the purest medicine possible.
When you’ve gathered a nice batch of buds, you’re ready to start your medicine making! Find a high quality oil such as olive, coconut or almond and set the plant matter to infuse. While I do have a recipe I mostly adhere to, I don’t usually measure my ratios, but I try make sure that I have about a 1/5 – 1/6th the amount of medicinal material to oil ratio.
Typically, I will add many other herbs to my balm, but that is totally up to you! Try adding a fistful of whatever you have on hand…herbs like yarrow, calendula, osha & believe it or not…stinging nettle! I’ve written more about how much I adore stinging nettle in another post that you can read here. There’s nothing wrong with making a pure batch of balm with oil cottonwood buds as your only choice of medicinal herb.
Once you have immersed your herbs in your chosen oil, simply place the glass jar containing your concoction out of direct sunlight & wait! I like to gently swirl my jar and check the progress once a week or so. The process can take anywhere from 6-8 weeks, but you’ll know by the rich smell and glorious amber color when it’s ready to strain and use.
I like to keep my balm as pure as possible, so I don’t usually add anything to firm up the oil. Many people choose to add a thickener like beeswax or shea butter, but I simply keep mine in the fridge! Exactly how you make your medicine is up to you and only adds to the magic.
How to Use Balm of Gilead
This healing wonder is as easy to use as it is to make. That’s my kind of medicine! Simply rub on the affected area and let it’s soothing properties go to work.
And depending on what other herbs you’ve included in your medicine, cottonwood oil can even be taken internally. It’s been known to reduce aches & fever & is a strong expectorant.
Another great use for cottonwood oil is to mix a small amount in with your other medicines. It’s one of the best natural preservatives to be found!
If you’d like my tried & true Liquid Gold recipe, simply fill out the form below & I’ll email you the first 3 chapters of my ‘Homesteader’s Medicine Chest’ e-book.
Spring is only hinting about it’s arrival here in Montana, so I had to borrow the gorgeous images you see in this article from my fellow wild-crafting goddess, Kate Sheckarski. She hails from Tulsa where spring is well underway. Kate can be found at @KateSheckarski on Instagram. I highly recommend you give her a follow!