Every spring I make Balm of Gilead bud salve. Of all the stuff I do with herbs, I think this one has the most meaning for me–it’s a reconstituted family tradition as well as a mainstay of traditional North American plant medicine.
My great-grandmother Carrie and my great-great-aunt Maggie (Carrie’s sister-in-law) were what is sometimes known as “granny women” or “herb doctors” in Appalachia. No one in our family ever used these terms–what these women did was part of daily life, but they had certain specialist skills. In small Appalachian communities a century ago, kin was central to life, and family ties had everything to do with Carrie and Maggie’s skills. Both women came from working-class coal mining families that prized education, intelligence, and a quick wit. After elementary school, education was pretty much a self-directed affair in which libraries–traveling libraries in that part of the country–played a huge role. These were people who, though poor, truly loved learning. Carrie had even considered not marrying at all and becoming a school teacher, though life had other plans for her. (I’ve seen school textbooks such as Carrie would have used and believe me when I say the elementary education included things I never learned in 30 years of school, including at an elite private university. What?! I just realized I spent three decades of my life in school.)
Several members of Carrie’s family were known for having the “second sight” and were consulted as seers. In those days such “wise men” and “wise women” were respected members of the community, provided they used their abilities for good. And it seems everyone was an eccentric and passionate character that deserves to be the protagonist of a novel.
Anyway, first aid and basic medical care was women’s work in a community where the men and boys worked in an incredibly dangerous field and specialized medical care was often many miles distant. My grandmother told me that there are fires still raging underground that started in my great-grandparents’ day. Mines collapsed. Strikers and scabs murdered each other. Men’s veins and lungs grew permanently black with coal dust. And all the while, life went on, with women giving birth and kids and animals getting sick. Life was a near-death experience.
Every spring Carrie and Maggie would get together with a neighbor, a Native American lady called Mrs. Luckadoo, to make Balm of Gilead bud salve. I’m happy to see that this tradition has survived, and has even been picked up by survivalists and preppers, which should be indication enough of the salve’s effectiveness. Unfortunately in my family, as in so many, plant medicines were abandoned in the mid-20th century in favor of modern pharmaceuticals. WWII took many young men out of Appalachia to corners of the world they would never have dreamed of seeing, and afterwards my family jumped at the new educational opportunities that appeared. Today only one aunt and an uncle remain in Appalachia. So Balm of Gilead bud salve was something I had to learn for myself.
“Balm of Gilead” refers to the aromatic resin inside the buds of poplar and cottonwood trees (Populus sp.). The exact species used depended on what was locally available and what was considered “best” according to local tradition. Fortunately there is some species of Populus to be found nearly everywhere in North America south of the arctic, even in cities. The trees put out their buds at the end of winter, and often sufficient can be collected from fallen branches and twigs after the winter storms. The resin is orange and sticky and has a lovely, warm smell that reminds me of vanilla and amber. It is antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and contains the same painkilling salicilin from which aspirin was originally made. Back in my great-grandparents’ day, the salve was used for just about everything, from cuts and bruises to arthritis to boils, burns, and chapped lips. In my house we use it for all those things (except the arthritis which we have mercifully so far been spared).*
It’s a very simple concoction–buds are added to oil and the resin allowed to infuse into it, either by the heating method or by letting the oil sit for two months to a year. Add beeswax (about 1 part for every 8 parts oil), and if desired some Vitamin E, pour into containers and you’re done. Of course you could add essential oils but I think the smell of Balm of Gilead is perfect and healing all by itself. (Note: I’ve seen some webpages referring to BoG salve as “black salve,” but they are two different things. What makes a black salve black is the addition of carbon, so you could make your BoG salve into a black salve if you want. It’s not the traditional form but the great things about salves and what makes them so fun to play around with is that you can tinker with the ingredients.) Because this is a resin, remember that it will leave a residue that’s very difficult to remove from the vessel used to infuse the oil and especially whatever stirring implement you use.
Even though I had to revive a lost salve-making family tradition, whenever I make Balm of Gilead bud salve I think of the deep Appalachian woods, of Carrie, Maggie, and Mrs. Luckadoo, and feel how deep my roots go.
*As usual I’ll have more than my little family can use so the extra will be available at the Worts & All Etsy shop, in case you don’t feel like making your own.