Balm of Gilead
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: David Thompson
Posted on: April 29, 1999

As you can see from the topic, I am writing in reference to Balm of Gilead, or Gilead’s Balm.

I had several questions, and my reference material was pretty useless in answering them, so I thought I’d turn to you folks, as you seem extremely knowledgeable.

Question number one is: What, exactly, is the Balm of Gilead? I have heard three seperate descriptions- one as a deciduous plant native to the atlantic islands, one as a species of poplar native to our own continent, and one as a smallish coniferous shrub native to the arabian and north african areas. I suspect that all three bear the same name due to the legendary healing power of the biblical herb, but I was in essence attemting to clarify which was which, etc. It would seem obvious that the one native to the mid-eastern region would be the one of biblical reference, but I am uncertain of what type of plant it is... my information is scetchy at best.

This is more than an idle concern, as I am facinated by the ancient herb, and desire very much to obtain some. I am extremely curious about it’s legendary abilities.

I heard that the Balm of Gilead of Arabian origin is still produced and used in the Middle East.

It is not surprising that you have had so much trouble finding information about Balm of Gilead. The name refers to at least three different plants.

In North America, and on the bulk botanicals market, "balm of Gilead" refers to a tree that grows in the eastern U.S., much of Canada, up to Alaska. The North American tree is more commonly known as "balsam poplar" and the scientific name is Populus candicans. The tree may reach as high as 30 metres (100 feet), but usually it does not grow as high. In the winter the resinous buds are collected and dried. They are aromatic and medicinal.

Populus candicans buds are balsamic (hence the name "balm", a contraction of "balsam"), expectorant and stimulant, according to John Lust in his "The Herb Book" (available from Richters). They are used like other poplars, the quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and the American balm of Gilead or tacamahac (Populus balsamifera), in tea for external and internal use, or in a soothing salve. The tea is used for coughs and as a gargle for sore throat, and is used externally for inflammations, cuts, wounds, and burns. The buds can also be used as an inhalant to relieve respiratory congestion. The buds contain salicin which helps to explain their aspirin-like pain relieving property.

Richters offers dried buds of Populus balsamifera. The buds are erroneously listed with the scientific name Cedronella canariensis in the 1999 printed catalogue, but they are corrected listed in the web catalogue on our website. The correct item number is H1241-100.

The false balm of Gilead, Cedronella canariensis, is a very different plant: it is herbaceous tender perennial that reaches 1 to 1.5 metres (3-5 feet) in height. The leaves have a strong balsam scent excellent for potpourris, but are not otherwise used in medicine as the poplar buds are. Richters offers plants of this species (item number P1241).

The true balm of Gilead mentioned in the Bible is yet another plant, altogether different from the above varieties. It is mentioned in Genesis 37:25 and Jeremiah 8:22. Acording to John Lust, the scientific name is Commiphora meccanensis. The Commiphora genus includes several resin producing trees from the Middle East such as the gum bdellium (Commophora africana) and myrrh (Commophora myrrha), both available from Richters. There are some who believe that the gum bdellium, Commophora africana, is in fact the balm of Gilead of the Bible.

Gum bdellium is a slow growing small tree. It is not hardy, but will grow as a pot plant in full sun. It cannot tolerate cool temperatures or overwatering, so care must be taken to ensure that it gets appropriately warm and dryish conditions. It is deciduous, losing its leaves over winter in our greenhouses when nighttime temperature fall to 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit).

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