How to Make Balm of Gilead Salve from Foraged Cottonwood Buds

How to Make Balm of Gilead Salve from Foraged Cottonwood Buds

Last spring, as the cottonwood buds sprang forth from their branches, with their lovely scented resin, I decided to finally write an article about foraging cottonwood buds and how to prepare a tincture and infused oil with them. You can see the video here, too.

It’s almost time to get out there and harvest another batch to last us through the next year! I had some of the infused oil leftover, so I decided to get it used up and made some more of the incredibly pain relieving Balm of Gilead salve. I’m going to share my recipe with you!

Here’s where you can find out how to make an herbal infused oil. And…if you want to tincture your buds, you can learn about tinctures here.

Now, let’s get on to this beautiful Balm of Gilead recipe! You’ll love it!

First of all, I want to mention that there’s about a 99% chance you have a cottonwood tree growing somewhere near you. They grow wild across our continent, and they especially love water sources. Therefore, check for these trees near creeks, lakes, ponds, and river areas. You can find out more about how to identify cottonwood trees in my article. If you prefer videos, see the link above.

What is Balm of Gilead?

Modern day Balm of Gilead in our North American continent comes from the Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera), the narrowleaf balsam poplar (Populus angustifolia) or the black cottonwood tree (Populus trichocarpa). Although there are hundreds of other poplar species in the Northern hemisphere, these species are the best to use.

These plants’ spring buds contain the highest levels of the chemical methyl salicylate, which is a precursor to acetyl sailcylate, the pain relieving chemical in aspirin. Read more about how all the chemicals work in our body here, along with how to make your own natural aspirin. You can also see a video on how to make natural aspirin here.

Balm of Gilead is actually an ancient perfume mentioned in the Old Testament. The term has come to mean a healing cure that does all things. The ancient plant also contains a balsam resin. My modern-day version is excellent as a pain reliever and for soothing skin issues such as eczema and psoriasis.

Click here, and I’ll send you your FREE Herbal Remedy Guide and Cheat Sheet! It’s 12 beautiful pages on 10 common and easy to find herbs and their essential oils. It’s perfect for your home apothecary or kitchen!

The Chemistry of the Resin: Why it Works

Due to the chemistry of the resin in the buds, your herbal oil will be analgesic (pain relieving), anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, febrifuge (fever reducing), stimulating, expectorant (expectorates mucus and is helpful for the respiratory system). You can see and print out an herbal glossary here.

What this means is that Balm of Gilead salve is:

  • Healing to wounds,

  • Soothing to the skin,

  • Helpful for joint pains from arthritis and rheumatism,

  • Muscle soreness,

  • A great chest rub, very helpful for coughs. The tincture can be taken internally and is helpful for general aches and pains, loosening mucus from your lungs, and headache and fever.

  • Supports the health of the skin and is great for soothing eczema or psoriasis

It’s a wonderful infused oil to combine with St. John’s Wort infused oil or other herbal infused oils for synergistic effects, too.

Here’s a picture of the little buds from a cottonwood tree. These are the baby leaves before they unfurl, so be sure not to over harvest from one single tree.

How to Make Balm of Gilead

First of all, you’ll need to infuse your oil with the fresh buds in order to extract the resin into the oil. I like olive oil for this plant, and I also let it infuse for a very long time…around three months. You can also infuse your herbal oil with the warm method, which is faster. Here are complete directions for making an herbal oil infusion.

You can make the balm without using essential oils, as the infused oil is that good. And there’s a BIG difference between essential oil and infused herbal oil, by the way. Many people get these terms mixed up or use them interchangeably. However, they’re completely different.

Essential oils are volatile oils that are found in some plants. They have special chemical compounds that allow them to be extracted by steam distillation or sometimes chemical solvents. Herbal infused oils are very simple to make and involve simply soaking herbs in the carrier oil for a period of time.

Being an aromatherapist as well as an herbalist, I like to make synergy blends with essential oils that act to enhance the medicinal actions of the plant properties. And, it’s a BIG plus that they add lovely scent and sometimes color to your salves.

In the case of this Balm of Gilead salve, I chose essential oils that are also pain relieving, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, warming, and smell amazing too. Just know that the essential oils are optional. You’ll still have an amazing salve even if you don’t use them.

Ingredients for Balm of Gilead

1) One cup of the Balm of Gilead infused oil

2) 1/4 cup organic beeswax

Optional essential oils:

35 drops Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)

35 drops Ginger Root (Zingiber officinale)

35 drops Copaiba Balsam (Copaifera reticulata)

20 drops Birch essential oil (Betula lenta) OR Wintergreen essential oil (Gaultheria fragrantissima)

20 drops German Chamomile (Matricaria reticulata)

SAFETY NOTE: If you’re on blood thinners or on any medications, be sure to check with your doctor before using birch or wintergreen essential oils. Pregnant and nursing women should also avoid these oils. This essential oil blend is not recommended for use by children under 15 (adult-sized).

As for the herbal salve itself, omitting the essential oils, If you are allergic to aspirin, do a patch test on your skin of the resin from the buds before using.

NOTE: German chamomile is a “blue” essential oil, and this comes from the high content of chamazulene, a wonderful chemical that soothes soreness.

About the Color of the Balm: The resin infused oil is a lovely golden color. If you don’t use a blue essential oil, your salve will be a more goldish color. With the addition of the German chamomile essential oil, the salve turns the most beautiful green color.


Step 1) Using a double boiler system, add your oil and beeswax to your jar or bowl and gently melt them together.

Step 2) Remove the liquid mixture from the heat. Add your essential oils if using and stir very well.

Step 3) Pour the mixture into your jars or tins where you’ll keep your salve. Let the mixture completely harden and set up before moving them around. This might take up to an hour or more, depending on how warm your home is.

To Use Your Balm of Gilead:

Simply rub a bit into sore areas of your body. The back of your neck, shoulders, and temples are helpful for tension headaches. Rubbing into your joints like knees, fingers, elbows, etc. can be very helpful too. And of course, using it as a soothing chest rub, perhaps with a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil, can do wonders for your breathing during a cold or flu.

The Scent of the Balm:

If you don’t use essential oils, the scent of the resin will emerge strongly. It’s a lovely scent, strong and quite pleasing. It smells like a cross between frankincense and something sweeter, to me, with camphoraceous overtones.

Even if you don’t use the essential oils in the blend, you’ll still enjoy the scent of this natural healing balm!

And aren’t plants just amazing? These leaves used to be those little resinous buds for our herbal medicine making. I hope you enjoy making Balm of Gilead!

Final Thoughts About Balm of Gilead:

This is one of my favorite seasonal salves to make, and I love that I can harvest these buds in the early spring. Often, they’re the first things I’m able to harvest from new spring growth! It’s a welcome trip to go gather my beloved resin-filled cottonwood buds for making plant medicine.

If you have any questions, please do leave them in the comments. And if you know of anyone who might enjoy this article, please share this with them!

You might also enjoy these related articles:

Best Pain-Relieving Herbs

Foraging and Identifying Cottonwood Poplar Trees

Foraging and Identifying St. Johns Wort and How to Make the Infused Oil

Survival Food: Lambsquarters

Foraging for Juniper Berries and What to Do With Them

Foraging for Chaparral and How to Use It

15 Tips for Foraging and Wild-Harvesting Safely

And here are videos from my YouTube channel you might enjoy:

How to Make Your Own Natural Aspirin from Willow Bark

Body Balancing Adaptogen Tea Recipe

DIY Herbal Remedy for a Deep, Restful Sleep

How to Formulate Your Own Custom Herbal Tea Blends

Foraging Poplar Buds for Balm of Gilead: Join me as I forage for the buds!

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Hugs, Health, and Self-Reliance,


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Disclaimer: I’m not a medical doctor. I’m a certified level 2 aromatherapist and a practicing herbalist. In no manner, stated or implied, is any statement or language here meant to treat, cure, prevent, or diagnose any disease. These statements haven’t been evaluated by the FDA.

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