By Janelle Eklund
Enjoy an early scent of spring by inhaling the intoxicating perfume of balsam poplar buds when picking them for making a very healing salve called Balm of Gilead. The winter months up through March and April in Alaska is the time of year to pick the buds before they leaf out. They can be picked anytime during the winter and into spring when the buds are still a little frozen and the sap is not so sticky - the trick is keeping your fingers from freezing. Once the buds warm they are very sticky and much of the valuable resin is gone. I try not to pick all the buds as high as I can reach but leave some for leafing out.
To make a big batch of salve, which lasts me about 2 years, pick two cups of buds and put them in a glass quart jar. You can halve the recipe. Fill the jar with first cold pressed olive oil, preferably organic. Cover the top with a piece of paper towel or cheese cloth and secure it with a metal ring. Put it in a warm place which could be by the stove, furnace, sunny spot or warm crock pot, so the temperature is between 80° and 110°. My crock pot gets too warm - you don't want to burn the oil - so my husband made a rheostat with a dimmer switch and I plug the crock pot into that and get the perfect temperature. I just set the whole jar in the crock pot. Leave the crock pot lid off so the water vapors from the buds can escape. Any water left in the finished product will cause it to mold.
Stir it with a stick or chopstick every day, to keep the buds covered, until they sink. Leave it in this warm environment for at least six weeks. The longer the better, as more medicinal qualities emerge from the buds infusing the oil.
Once you are ready to use it strain off the buds through cheesecloth or in a glass coffee press. You can use the oil on your skin as is, or make a salve by firming it up with bees wax. Put the oil in a double boiler, being careful not to let any water in the oil. Have the heat on low - just enough to melt the bees wax when you add it. Again, you don't want to burn the oil. Rule of thumb is 1/4 cup of bees wax to one cup of oil. I put in a little beeswax at a time and check it so it doesn't make the salve too hard. To check the consistency put a tablespoon of the mixture in the freezer for a minute or two. If it's too soft add more bees wax. Remove from heat immediately and pour into one or two ounce jars - or larger jars of your choice, preferably dark colored glass jars. It sets up fairly fast so don't dink around getting it into the jars. Store in a cool place. It will last years.
Oh, you say, now what do I use if for? Besides smelling so awesomely good, Balm of Gilead has very good healing qualities. It's an anti-inflammatory (cooling things down); anitmicrobial (kills things that can infect you); an analgesic (calms the pain); an anitoxident. It can be used for healing cuts, scrapes, rashes (including diaper), skin irritations, frostbite, etc. It can relieve nasal congestion or stop nose bleeds by putting a tiny bit in your nostril. You can also use it as a steam for congestion by putting about a tablespoon in water and inhale the vapors, being careful not to burn yourself. Children should be supervised. The balm is also healing for sores on animals. So capture the essence of the 'healing tree' and enjoy it year around.
From my light to yours-
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.