The Popular Poplar
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  • Photos and Story by Beverley Gray

  • Photos and Story by Beverley Gray

  • Photos and Story by Beverley Gray

  • Photos and Story by Beverley Gray

The Popular Poplar

From Tree to Treatment

This story originally ran in the Spring 2014 (V8i1) issue of Yukon, North of Ordinary.


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“Every tree and plant in the meadow seemed to be dancing, those which average eyes would see as fixed and still.” – Rumi, a Sufi mystic and Persian poet

As northerners, we celebrate the first crocuses of the season that bravely sprout from the cool soils, decorating meadows and hillsides with bright purple. Before you know it, tasty vitamin C- and A-rich fireweed shoots emerge, usually in stride with juicy, light-green spruce tips, also full of vitamin C. Almost overnight, tender, nutrient-rich dandelion leaves unfurl throughout our garden beds and lawns. These can be steamed, enjoyed in salads, or added to a stir-fry, soup, or sandwich.The snow still rests on the Boreal forest floor, but soon enough it will start to melt and northerners will be busy keeping up with the rapid unveiling of wild plants that can be foraged for use as food and medicines.

 In late winter, early spring, before the snow disappears and while the air is still cool, I like to harvest the winter buds of Populus balsamifera, known as the balsam poplar tree. I have learned from experience that gathering the buds on a warm spring day can be a sticky situation. Everything gets covered in gooey resin to the point where you pick a bud and it’s difficult to get off your fingers and into the gathering bucket. There is a reason apiarists call the balsam buds “bee glue.” The bud resin is so sticky that bees gather it onto their thighs and use it to seal up crevices in their hives.

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  The large pointed buds are covered in a fragrant, sticky, orange sap that is very emollient. When kept in oil, such as olive oil, buds can be made into a salve or cream to help soften, soothe, and protect the skin. Remedies made with the buds also help heal cuts, cracks, and wounds, and act as a demulcent, helping soothe and protect irritated or inflamed tissue. 

  A salve made with the winter buds is sometimes called “Balm of Gilead,” but I’ve renamed it “Boreal Balm” after our boreal-forest locale. In the early 1900s, my great-great-grandfather made and sold a healing ointment from poplar buds. He named it “Mitchell’s Genuine Balsam,” and it was mainly used for healing the wounds of livestock and horses.

  Poplar buds contain compounds that reduce pain and inflammation and can also treat eczema, psoriasis, and weird and itchy skin conditions, as well as cracked feet and hands. When used topically over the lung area, a balm from the buds helps clear  respiratory congestion. Infuse a few buds in boiling water and drink it as a tea, or use the steam to help clear a lingering cough.

  When preparing a medicinal oil with the buds, you’ll notice the aroma is bright and uplifting and will leave your house smelling like a fresh, spring forest. An oil or salve will maintain the fragrance for years if kept in an airtight container. 

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  Poplar trees are part of the willow family and can be used as an effective medicine. Gather the inner bark in the spring and use it to make a tincture that contains anti-inflammatory salicin and is a natural remedy for fevers, rheumatism, arthritis, and sometimes diarrhea. When gathering the inner bark, never strip the bark off the tree as you can kill it. I prune a few branches to make my yearly tinctures. The inner bark is strong medicine and can be very stimulating in high dosages and should not be given to children. The early leaves still have lots of aromatic resin on them and can be used the same way as the buds for poultices, washes, and salves.

  So, before the forests make the transition from winter to summer, get out and engage with those poplar trees and bring home what you need to create lovely aromatic oils or salves to help with all your bumps and bruises. Y

Caution: Poplar buds and trees can cause an allergic reaction in people with tree allergies. If you are not sure if you have an allergy, rub a bud on the inner side of your wrist—if it itches, you may be allergic. In this case, it is best not to use any medicines made from this tree. Use oil or butter to rub the bud resin off your skin. 


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Boreal Healing Oil

This can be used as a massage, body, or batoil, and act as a base for medicinal salves, ointments, and creams.

1 part poplar buds

2 parts olive oil

Place the buds and olive oil in the top pot of a double boiler. (Make sure to put enough water in the lower saucepan, as overheating the herbs and oils will compromise the quality of the oil.) Warm slowly and let simmer for 30–60 minutes, stirring continuously. Strain through cheesecloth, let the mixture cool, then bottle and label it.


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