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Balm of Gilead Salve

Updated on May 29, 2012

An anti-inflammatory, antibiotic and pain relieving salve made from cottonwood or poplar buds

The buds of a number of varieties of cottonwood and poplar trees (Populus nigra, Populus balsamifera, Populus augustafolia and others) contain a sticky orange resin that has been used for centuries to make a soothing, healing salve commonly known as "Balm of Gilead." This salve has anti-inflammatory, antibiotic/antiseptic and pain relieving qualities, and has been effectively used to treat abrasions, minor burns, frostbite and to ease the pain of sore muscles and joints. It is also (sometimes known as Black Salve) a traditional skin cancer remedy.

The months between December and March are, depending on your location, best for harvesting the buds.

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The buds must be collected, of course, before the leaves emerge, and if you wait until too late in the spring, you may end up with more of the sticky orange sap on your fingers than not! Cold days are best for collecting the buds; anything below freezing will do. Best of all is to find a fallen branch or two, as they will be easier to reach and will not damage the tree, as taking too many buds from a living branch can do. If you cannot find a fallen branch, go ahead and harvest from the living branches you can reach, but take selectively, a few here, a few there, so as not to damage the tree by preventing entire branches from leafing out.

Once you have collected the buds, you can either use them right away, or they can be dried or frozen for later use. If you choose to dry them, make sure they are spread out in a single layer on a board or cookie sheet, as they will tend to mold pretty quickly if left in heaps and allowed to retain moisture. Freezing really is the best way to preserve them, if you're not ready to make your salve right away.

There are several ways to extract the resin from the buds for making Balm of Gilead salve. One is done by slowly simmering the buds in hot oil to release their resin, and the second, which takes longer but yields a slightly more potent finished product, involves placing the buds in a crock or jar, and covering them with oil, leaving them to "steep" for a period of several weeks to a year. The resin can also be extracted by soaking the buds in alcohol for several weeks, the results combined with oil and simmered to drive off the alcohol, but I have found the oil itself to be sufficient for extraction.

If you don't live in an area where you can harvest your own cottonwood buds...

Extracting balm of Gilead oil from cottonwood buds

Simmering method:

Cover buds with oil--olive is perhaps the best, but coconut, almond and others can be used--and simmer gently (do not boil!) to release the sticky orange resin. Cool and strain.

Gently simmering cottonwood buds in olive oil for several hours. You can see the yellow-orange resin beginning to ooze out of the buds as the oil heats.

Steeping method:

Fill a mason jar or crock halfway with buds, cover with olive oil and set aside. A sunny windowsill or warm spot in the kitchen speeds up the process. Leave in place for at least two weeks, but there is really no such thing as leaving it too long.

Ingredients: Bee's wax, grapefruit seed extract, cottonwood bud oil

I find that a ratio of 1/1 by volume of oil and wax shavings generally works well.

Equal measures (approximately) of wax shavings and oil, by volume

Heat the oil just to lukewarm, and add the wax. Do not boil. Stir with a wooden stick or, if you must use metal, with stainless steel.

Set out your containers. Almost anything will work, from "jelly" sized mason jars to Altoids tins to these salvaged air gun pellet containers I'm using (on left.)

Before pouring into the containers, put a bit of the salve on a spoon and refrigerate it for a few minutes (or just set it out on the counter, if your house is as cool as mine...) this sample hardened shortly after contacting the spoon) to make sure that the finished texture will be alright. It is much easier to add either wax or oil to the mix now, than it will be to later dig the salve out of containers and modify it.

I added two drops of grapefruit seed extract to this batch, a preservative and to increase the antiseptic/antibacterial value of the salve. This step is optional.

Pouring into the tins...

Freshly poured...a wonderful yellow-orange color:

Checking the texture again...just right!

Solidifying takes only minutes in a cool house, longer if the weather is warmer:

All done and ready to use. A very versatile salve that can be used in place of antibiotic ointment on minor cuts, abrasions and burn, helps treat frostbite (have tried that...) and works wonders on dry, chapped hands and cracked fingers and toes.

This is the simplest version. Some possible additions could include lanolin, vitamin E oil or coconut oil, each of which slightly change the properties and texture of the salve. Experiment with small batches, and learn what works best for you!

Photo credits...

Photos all taken by the author, unless otherwise noted

Have you ever made or used balm of Gilead salve, or other herbal salves?

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    • orange3 lm profile image

      orange3 lm 5 years ago

      No I haven't ever made my own salves before but your information makes it look possible for me to try. Thanks.

    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 5 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      You teach so well! Thanks for the lens. No, I have only purchased prepared salves.

    • profile image

      Auntie-M LM 5 years ago

      There are so many mysteries in the natural world, if only we stopped to learn about them. Great lens.

    • andreaberrios lm profile image

      andreaberrios lm 5 years ago

      Excellent idea! I will try this. Thanks for sharing!! :) Blessed*

    • profile image

      Ladyeaglefeather 5 years ago

      Great lens, i would really love to be able to make the salve. thank-you.

    • LouisaDembul profile image

      LouisaDembul 5 years ago

      Another really interesting lens by you! Love the way you describe it step by step with pictures. Wouldn't mind trying some Gilead salve.

    • Rosaquid profile image

      Rosaquid 5 years ago

      I have never made any, but locally pinon sap is widely used and very effective. Thanks for the informative lens!

    • Brandi Bush profile image

      Brandi 5 years ago from Maryland

      This is super interesting! I love all the photos...well done! :)

    • profile image

      JZinoBodyArt 5 years ago

      Great tutorial, I will have to try this! You make it look so easy.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I love homemade natural mixtures, thanks for sharing all your knowledge with us, something else for me to try !!!

    • mymusic1234 lm profile image

      Mark Spivey 5 years ago from Australia

      Great lense. We make a similar type of ointment from tea tree oil here in Australia.

    • lbrummer profile image

      Loraine Brummer 5 years ago from Hartington, Nebraska

      Very interesting and informative lens. I'll have to try making this balm.

    • Inkhand profile image

      Inkhand 5 years ago

      A great lens that shows us how to make "Balm of Gilead" in clear and easy steps.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 5 years ago from Colorado

      Fascinating. I had no idea I could make salve out of cottonwood buds. I loved learning this process. Thanks!

    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 5 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      Great instructions and photos. Thanks for sharing how to make balm of gilead. ~blessed

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 5 years ago

      Great ideas. Thanks for making this lens. I bookmarked one of your lenses and so now I can find them all.

    • ElizabethJeanAl profile image

      ElizabethJeanAl 5 years ago

      Your salve sounds like a good thing to keep around. Some home remedies work better than anything found at the pharmacy.

      Thanks for sharing

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 5 years ago

      Nice lens! The finished product looks great!