Balsam Poplar buds are something you can collect in late winter before anything else is really out there. The smell is unlike anything else…truly indescribable. I’ve asked many people what they think it smells like and everything from vanilla, to cinnamon, to spicy and sweet have been mentioned. It is warm and extremely complex. A deep inhalation is a medicine unto itself.
The first time I ever harvested the buds was at a nearby beach where a stand of Balsam Poplars grew. I foraged up some of the branches on the ground that had broken off with the wind and placed them on my car dashboard. As the heater warmed up, my car was inundated with the most sweet, rich and spicy smell. In early spring, you can smell it in the air and it fills you up with something beautiful.
Balsam Poplar buds lit up in the sunshine
The buds from this tree have so many beneficial properties that can aid us in our day to day lives. This includes relief from inflammation and muscle pain, joint pain, it helps minor wounds to heal and can be used as a chest rub to expel excess mucus and congestion in our lungs.
Coming from someone who does gardening for a living, aches and pains are one of the biggest challenges I face. A salve made from these buds is something that is so comforting, and pain relieving. Sometimes I even blend it with CBD infused oil and create quite a powerful duality. This is an amazing medicine to create for yourself, your family, and friends.
How to Make Balm of Gilead
1/2 cup of Balsam Poplar Buds
1 cup of olive oil (preferably organic)
1/4 cup of melted beeswax
Cheesecloth, or pillow case (for straining)
Jars for salve + Lids
- Harvest the buds
Identifying Balsam Poplar is made possible through countless resources found online, or in your local library. One of my favourite resources for identification is Forest Plants of North Eastern Ontario. This tree is found from coast to coast in Canada and is one of the most cold hardy deciduous trees. The best time to harvest the buds is at the end of winter when it’s becoming warmer at night. The buds are swelling with their resins. You’ll know they’re ready when you see actual tiny bits of resin dripping out of them. The first step to harvesting is recognizing the fact that these buds are going to become the leaves of the tree; the light capturing, photosynthesizing, food creating energizers of the tree. If you do not find branches that have been broken off by natural causes such as the wind, it is extremely important to not harvest very many. Additionally, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources, bees are known to sometimes collect the resin and use it to disinfect their bee hives. Show your appreciation and respect by only picking a few off of each branch. When making salve it is best to use the Balsam Poplar buds that day.
- Prepare double boiler and wait until water is gently simmering. You don’t want it boiling. Turn to low heat. If you don’t have a double boiler, you can always use a pot of water and a stainless steel bowl to put the buds, beeswax and olive oil into.
- Heat up the olive oil and the Balsam Poplar buds on the lowest possible setting you can. Make sure to use a pot you don’t care about very much! The resin will stick. Pay close attention to this, as you don’t want the buds to get too hot in the oil. A slow and gradual extraction is needed here for the most potent medicine. Let this go for 5-10 hours and you can go even longer as long as your heat is low enough. Your kitchen will smell incredible and the buds will start to open up like newly found wings of a bird. See pictured below:
- Add the beeswax and continually stir. It will eventually melt together into one.
- Test the consistency of the salve by putting a spoonful of the mixture into the freezer. After 1 minute take it out. If it’s too hard, you can add more oil. If it’s too soft you can add more beeswax.
- Pour the mixture into a measuring cup. Ensure there is no water in the measuring cup. The salve can go rancid if any moisture is added to it.
- Add liquid salve to jars and allow to cool. Do this rather quickly or salve will harden before you have poured it all. Allowing it to cool is important because if you put the lids on before it has fully cooled, condensation could occur.
- Label! Always label. Make notes on what worked during your process and any improvements you could make in the future.
- Enjoy and embrace in the gifts this tree offers you.
Balsam Poplar buds in Northern Ontario
Giving Back; How to Propagate
Balsam Poplar is a hardy and fast growing species that can thrive in extremely cold areas; up to zone 1! This is not only an amazing species of medicine for humans. In Nature, it is a great medicine too. This tree prevents soil erosion and can remediate soils with pollutants and heavy metals.
It is great for planting along the edges of water ways to prevent unwanted contaminants from breaching. It has a vigorous and shallow root system that readily sends up suckers or shoots that we find in the grass all of the time.
In the spring time, you can simply dig down where the shoot is until you find a good set of roots and then use your pruners to cut it off. Plant where you want it to be and water often for the first couple of months and slowly taper off.
You can also take cuttings when the tree is dormant. In early spring/late winter before the tree leafs out, simply cut 1 ft long branches with buds and stick them into dirt. Put most of the branch into the dirt leaving only a few inches above soil. Ensure there are buds beneath the soil that will root. You can also soak the cuttings in water, changing the water everyday or aerating it with some kind of bubbler and then plant out once roots develop. However, I haven’t found this to be necessary, as you can simply just stick them into the ground and get great results.
Balsam Poplars are dioecious meaning the female and male reproductive organs are on separate trees, rather than one individual tree. The catkins from the female trees can be collected for seed and planted. I however, have never tried this. I’ve heard it works though and the genetic diversity is increased because of the variation that is made possible by planting seed.
Balsam Poplar is a great ally in our lives; in medicine, restoration and well being. It is not a weed. This is just a limiting perspective. In spending time with it, I am overgrown with answers it has for the world.