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Populus spp./P. candicans

The true identity of this tree is quite mysterious and often confused. Given its biblical name it is natural to assume that it must be a tree of Middle Eastern origin. Indeed there is such a tree, which as legend tells us, Queen Sheba brought as a gift for King Solomon and which henceforth grew abundantly on Mount Gilead. However, the identity of that species is believed to be Commiphora Opobalsamum a member of the Burseraceae. While this plant indeed has a sweet smelling balsam, what is nowadays commonly referred to as Balm of Gilead are the resinous winter buds of a type of North American poplar tree, also known as Cottonwood. There are various species of Cottonwoods with similar properties and, given the liberal sexual behaviour of Cottonwoods, which freely interbreed with members of related species, it is sometimes very difficult to determine exactly which type of Poplar a given bud derived from. Moreover, different Latin names are often applied to the same species, which confuses the matter even further.

The sticky buds of Balm of Gilead are extremely useful. North American Indians have long utilised their healing properties as an effective treatment for protracted coughs, whooping cough and, used like Friars Balsam, to clear the upper respiratory tract. But their real secret value lies in their excellent ability to soothe aches and pains, whether they stem from tissue damage such as sore muscles, bruises or burns, or from rheumatism. The balsam is not water soluble, so it is necessary to extract it either with fat, by macerating it in oil or cocoa butter in a warm place (do not boil, otherwise the buds might get burnt), or to prepare an alcoholic extract (tincture). It should be noted however, that some people develop an allergic reaction, which is more common with the tincture than with the ointment. This is probably due to the salicylic acid that is extracted in alcohol, but not in fat. So, if you are allergic to aspirin, you will probably react to Balm of Gilead tincture as well. For those that are not allergic it offers great healing powers to fight viral, bacterial and fungal infections such as athlete's foot or herpes simplex. Bees use the sticky resin of poplars as 'bee glue' to seal and protect their hives against intruders. Mixing the resins they collect with waxy substances they excrete they form a substance known as 'Propolis', which is hailed as a marvellous healing substance with antiviral, antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties. However, one can extract the same benefits from Balm of Gilead in its natural form, which may help those who are allergic to bee products, but not to salicylic acid.

Balsam Poplar or Cottonwood is one of the most sacred trees in Native American plant lore. Many tribes regard them as a kind of spirit conductor, which conveys messages of the spirit world through their rustling leaves. Sacred objects, like the Hopi Kachinas, were fashioned from Cottonwood. Cottonwoods were associated with fertility. Cottonwood is not a European tree, but indigenous species of Poplar also played role in folk magic, albeit a minor one. In European plant lore poplars are considered protective, especially against lightening and against snakes.