Balm of Gilead – Is it a tree or a balm or both?

image1To me, it seems quite confusing that there is a tree called Balm of Gilead tree and a healing salve/balm also called Balm of Gilead and mentioned in the Bible. To make matters worse, there is a North American Balm of Gilead tree and there are other Balm of Gilead trees of completely different species scattered around the globe. Below I try to alleviate some of the confusion.

One of the common names for the Balsam Poplar tree (Populus balsamifera) is Balm of Gilead. So how did a north american tree get named for an ointment that was found in the ancient middle east? It seems that when Europeans first came to North America, the native peoples shared with them the buds of the Balsam Poplar tree which they used as a treatment for all types of discomforts. The English settlers named these healing buds “The Balm of Gilead” after the “Healing Balm of Gilead” that is mentioned in the Bible because the balm made from the buds of the Balsam Poplar had so many healing properties.

The names “Balm of Gilead” tree and Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera, aka Populus candicans) are also ascribed to other similar trees including the Black Poplar tree. The balm of Gilead mentioned in the Bible is believed to be an oleo-resin obtained from Balsamodendron, a plant now thought to be extinct. Many plants have been called balm of Gilead but there is only one in North America: the Balsam Poplar.

The historic Old World balm of Gilead, or Mecca balsam, is a small evergreen tree (Commiphora gileadensis, also once called C. opobalsamum) of the family Burseraceae (incense-tree family) native to Africa and Asia and the source of the commercial balm of Gilead; it is referred to in the Bible in Jer. 8.22. The Ishmaelites from Gilead were bearing balm when they bought Joseph from his brothers.

Balm, Baulm or Bawm, contracted from Balsam, may be derived from the Hebrew bot smin, ‘chief of oils’, or bâsâm, ‘balm’, and besem, ‘a sweet smell.’ Opobalsamum is used by Dioscorides to mean ‘the juice flowing from the balsam-tree.’ The rarity of the middle eastern balsam tree, combined with the magic of its name, has caused the name to be adopted for several other species.

The Balm of Gilead herbal salve is made from handpicked buds and stems of the Balsam Poplar tree. To create the healing salve, the Balsam Poplar essential oil or an infusion of the buds can be mixed with a combination of bees wax and base oil.

Balm of Gilead is traditionally used as a soothing relief balm for comforting minor aches and pains of arthritis, tendonitis, over exertion and many other painful conditions and can also be used as a chest rub for colds and flu.

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