Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 31, 2010

There is a Balm in Gilead

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:12 pm

My ever patient wife granted my request without hesitation but she did show a little consternation. I asked her to smell my finger. I once had an uncle who would occasionally request that we pull on his extended pinkie finger to see what happened, but that was different. I have never pulled that particular trick on anyone – especially on my lovely wife. One wouldn’t continue in a married state if that wasn’t the case. Therefore, she complied without explanation and took a tentative whiff of my extended index finger. “It smells like beer,” she exclaimed.

She shot me a slightly perturbed glance as I laughed a bit too hard at that answer. I didn’t know what to expect, but that certainly wasn’t it. She smelled it again and said “Yes, beer – well, what is it?”  “It’s Cottonwood resin,” I answered. “Oh really,” she dead-panned without requesting further explanation.

All of this followed the better part of the day in which I kept smelling my own fingers. While out enjoying a beautiful spring afternoon I came upon the swollen buds of a Cottonwood tree (see above) and decided to take a few pictures, just in case I had nothing else to talk about in my next blog. If the day yielded nothing further, then I could at least talk about exploding buds and how much we malign cottonwood trees etc., etc. If I later happened upon the tracks of, say, …a Mountain Lion or something, then I could shift my attentions to that subject (yes, this is how I carefully plan out my topics).  I reached up to pull the bud bearing branch down to my level and noticed the bud scales were coated in thick yellow lacquer. A bit of this sticky substance rubbed off on my finger and thus the sniffing began. To me, the fragrance almost had a citrus-like quality and offered a pleasant scent befitting the best of potpourris. Needless to say, I did not encounter any Puma paw prints, but that was of no consequence. I was already on a scent.

Eastern Cottonwoods are the most common local representative of the Populus family in this neck of the woods. So, this is the species (P. deltoides) I am talking about in reference to this bud question. Their large winter buds, covered with 5 or 6 scales, are normally shellacked with a shiny resinous coating. This layer not only acts to protect the bud contents from the weather but also serves as a great species identifier. There are a few other members of the popular family that have similar buds, such as the Black Cottonwood and the Balm of Gilead, but they are not from ‘round these parts.

For a very brief time in early spring, just before the buds are “ready to blow”, this resin becomes soft and drippy and literally beads up on the scales (see above). At this time of year, the cottonwoods (as well as those other species) offer us a rare product in the form of these golden droplets.

People have harvested this time-limited resin for centuries for both practical and therapeutic reasons. Native use included making a sticky glue to attach sinew-bound arrow and dart tips as well as the feather fletching. Healing salves, infused with oils, are still made with cottonwood resin as the primary ingredient. The raw stuff has anti-microbial properties and smells good to boot (like beer or citrus depending on who you talk to). The Balm of Gilead tree got its name based on this wonderful resinous balm – even though the real Balm of Gilead does not come from members of the popular tribe. Regardless, the generic name for all Populus bud resin is Balm of Gilead.

Heck, even honeybees gather Cottonwood bud resin to make “bee-glue” – a mixture of wax and resin – to seal up air holes and gaps in the colony wall. Better known as propolis, this anti-fungal material is tough and water-resistant.

The only drawback to this bud resin is that it doesn’t exist in harvestable condition for long. The resinous bud scales peel off and drop within a week. As soon as the buds open and begin to expose their catkins (see below and here) and/or leaves, the resin-of-the-gods is no longer available. I know it’s hard to believe that a phrase like “resin-of-the-gods” could ever be applied to a lowly Cottonwood tree, but I guess you’ll need to get used to it.

Knowing all this, I’ll wager that you might give your neighborhood cottonwood another look. Don’t hesitate, this soothing offer ends soon. Go ahead, smell that finger (but don’t pull on it!).

1 Comment »

  1. I first smelled the spicy aroma of balm-of-Gilead cottonwoods while working in the Great Swamp of NJ. Had no idea what it was. Bothered me for years. Every spring this strong spicey scent filled the air. The first spring after I landed my current job in the Adirondacks, I smelled it again, and my mission to identify it resumed. Soon, I discovered a balsam poplar right outside the front of the building – with large, very sticky buds. One whiff and I knew I had discovered it. It’s a beautiful thing.

    Comment by Ellen — April 1, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

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