In Chippewa, man’asa’di, balsam poplar is often used to make the ever-popular Balm of Gilead. Poplar is a common wild edible, medicinal and useful tree in our area. (And some people think it’s trash!)
Next month I’ll cover quaking aspen. For today, the focus is balsam poplar, also called Balm of Gilead. Writing about two populus at once was.. interesting. Both resins can be used to make the popular “Balm of Gilead” salve. But the “true” Balm of Gilead is from an exotic plant of the genus commiphora, a relation of frankincense and myrrh.
Edible Uses of Balsam Poplar
The juicy, sweet inner bark can be eaten in spring and early summer when the sap is running. It rips off in long thick strips. It spoils fast so it needs to be eaten immediately or preserved in fat. On my lot the poplar tree is overabundant, so the porcupines are welcome to saunter in and have at.
The spring sap and young catkins are also edible.
The inner bark is rich in vitamin C.
Medicinal Uses of Balsam Poplar
Balsam poplar is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Anti-inflammatory, Antiseptic, and Expectorant. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes the sticky buds harvested around late winter/early spring for the balsam-fir smelling resin. It’s used in cough medicines and in pain-relieving balms. Aforementioned Balm of Gilead! You can make a simple salve by boiling the buds in oil, but that’s only one of many ways. For a quick fix the sticky young buds can be smudged, or like fir pitch, just rubbed on your nose* for congestion. *See warnings
Poplar has salicin derivatives for pain relief properties. “Salicin” may make you recall nature’s Aspirin – willow – the original organic source of ASA. Poplars and willows are in the same family.
The bitter bark has also been chewed to relieve colds, and historically used in teas* for TB and whooping cough. *See warnings, always
Like many trees, astringent poplar leaf poultices have been applied to bruises, sores, and aching muscles. Its bark ashes have been used in skin poultices too. You could never run out of natural astringents around here!
Alternative Uses of Bam (for short)
Bees sometimes harvest the resin from balsam poplar and use it to disinfect their hives. Here’s the backup for this claim: Metabolomics reveals the origins of antimicrobial plant resins collected by honey bees.
The wood chips can be used to smoke fish.
Growing Balm of Gilead
They have shallow wide-spreading roots so don’t plant poplars too close to residences. I’ve seen poplars pop up many yards away from the grove – wide-spreading indeed. It’s also a fast grower. They are easy to transplant. (For appearance’s sake, I prefer quaking/trembling aspen!)
Like other poplars and willows it contains salicin, so beware if you’re allergic to Aspirin.
The bud resin may irritate sensitive skin.
The bark tea may be somewhat toxic.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
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The Path to Wild FoodThe Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual