March in Alberta is that in-between month – its not quite spring, but winter is definitely starting to lose its hold on the landscape and there is an undeniable freshness in the air … that undeniable smell of spring.
For the enthusiastic backyard herbalist, this in-between month is the perfect time to collect popular buds that can be made into Balm of Gilead – allowing you to quite literally bottle the smell of spring!
Poplar buds can be harvested throughout the winter and kept in the freezer until you are ready to use them. But I like to wait until late in the season to make a harvest as a way to say good-bye to winter.
For your comfort, pick a day when the sun is out and the air temperature is hovering around 0 degrees Celsius. Pack up a lunch, warm water proof boots, plastic bags to hold your harvest and head to the nearest Poplar grove.
While most Poplar species will work, the best species of Poplar to use for making your Balm of Gilead is Populus balsamifera.
Before you start harvesting, survey the grove of trees and choose more mature trees with lots of branches. Remember that for every bud you harvest, that tree will have one less leaf that year, so it’s important to be respectful of the gift the trees are giving. Some herbalists will strip one branch and leave the next; others take every 2nd or 3rd bud from 2-8 branches on each tree. Whatever method you decide to use always remember to ask permission and give thanks.
The buds can get quite sticky, especially if the temperature warms up softening the fragrant resin. To avoid spreading the stickiness to your pack, car, etc. it’s a good idea to keep a little jar of alcohol with you, as the alcohol can quickly clean things up.
When you get your buds home, put them in a heat resistant glass jar and add double the amount, by volume, of your favourite oil, such as Olive, Coconut, Grape Seed, etc. For example if you harvested one cup of buds, then add two cups of oil. Put the jar in a pot half filled with water to create a double boiler. Simmer for 30 to 90 minutes, or until the buds open and float to the top. Once cooled, strain through cheese cloth and pour into small glass jars for storage.
Your Balm of Gilead can be used in a variety of ways. You can rub the oil into sore, tired muscles and bruises for a soothing effect. To ease a dry cough or sore throat mix ½ teaspoon of the oil with 1 tsp of honey and 1 tsp of fresh lemon juice and take ½ to 1 tsp every hour. Use as the base for homemade ointments and moisturizers.
Or, my favourite use, simply remove the lid and deeply breathe in the smell of spring all year long.