A Wilderness Solution – “Balm of Gilead”
Treat Dry Skin with an Amazing Alaskan Tree
by Katina Jacobson of ‘Fresh Picked Alaska‘
Anyone who has lived through a winter in Alaska knows how dry it can be. We’re talking cracked dry skin and dandruff—even our pets feel the effects. You know what is amazing though? Our wilderness provides a solution! If you need to heal up your dry skin (or other skin related problems) you can go out and find a balsam poplar tree. Pick the buds to infuse some oil, and use it as lotion to heal any skin ailments you might have. At first I was very skeptical but I have personally tested it out on a patch of eczema and dry skin and it healed amazingly well.
How To Identify Balsam Poplar Trees
In Alaska, balsam poplar trees are fairly easy to identify in comparison to some other trees. The buds are very large and coated in a sticky yellow/orange resin. Though on cold winter days they won’t feel so sticky. The best time to pick them is in winter or early spring before break up and before the tree sap begins to run again (which usually starts sometime after the days regularly come in at above freezing temperatures). Pay attention to make sure that the buds are still closed. If you pick buds that have already split, the moisture level will be too high (which will affect the final product).
The only confusion there may be while identifying balsam poplar buds is when comparing them to black cottonwood. These two trees are very difficult to tell apart, especially in the winter. Thankfully for us, the buds from both trees can be used for oil infusions. In fact, some people do call the black cottonwood a balsam poplar because the two trees are so similar (despite not being the same species).
These trees tend to grow near water—they’re prolific near where I live by the Kenai River. We have one here that is around 50-60 feet tall, but smaller counterparts grow everywhere, and are sometimes munched down by moose. You will find them among the very young birch and willow saplings. Aside from the tell-tale bud size (1/2-1” or longer), if you taste a twig, it will have a bitter taste similar to aspirin.
Buds from most other trees and shrubs are much smaller than balsam poplar, which is what makes them so easy to identify.
The best way to harvest these medicinal buds is to go out after a late winter or early spring wind storm and find a fallen branch. If you can’t find a fallen branch just make sure to spread your picking out so that you are not taking too many buds from each tree. I like to focus on picking from saplings. To pick, just hold each bud at its base and bend it to the side or slightly twist and it should break off fairly easy. If you accidentally get a bit of branch here or there, it is fine to throw it in the jar with the buds (often the small twigs have a bit of resin on them as well, but do try to only pick the buds).
Infusing oil with poplar buds is very easy, and anyone can do it from home. You will want to put your buds in oil as soon as possible after you are done picking to keep them from rotting inside before infusing. There is not an exact science to this, many people have different ways of doing it. I usually pick a half quart jar full at a time, and then I fill the jar almost to the top with oil.
Next step is to turn a crockpot on warm, then set your jar of buds and oil in there for a few hours.
Alternatively, you can use a double boiler to heat it, and let the water in the main pot simmer under the oil for an hour or so. Some people like to just set the jar in a warm place for 6 weeks. However, from my own research, I’ve come to the conclusion that using quick heat is best for extracting this resin. The heat helps the buds release more of the resin and also prevents any possible mold issues from moisture in the buds. If you do decide to do a slow infusion on a window sill, be sure not to use a sealed lid. It would be best to cover with a cloth or paper towel with a rubber band or jar lid ring. Having a breathable material over the jar allows any moisture, that may come out of the buds, to escape. Once your oil has been infused, strain out the buds. You now have a natural healing oil!
You can use this oil, as is, on your dry skin, but if you want something less messy and easier to use, you will want to add beeswax to it. You can use the salve recipe below for any other infused oils as well.
1/2 cup infused balsam poplar bud oil
1 Tablespoon beeswax
4 oz jar (or container of choice)
I highly recommend using local beeswax if you can. It is always a great idea to support your local economy and help our small farms make a living.
To make a balm use a double boiler to melt down the beeswax. Add in your infused oil and stir it a bit to mix. Pour mixture into your jar and let it cool completely before screwing on the lid. Store in a cool, dry place. How easy was that?
Now that you have your own healing balm, here are some amazing ideas for using it:
- Cracked, inflamed and painful dry skin
- Sunburns (it is said to act similarly to aloe vera gel)
- Sore muscles and joints
- Arthritis pain
- Eczema, psoriasis
- Insect bites
- Headaches or migraines (using on temples and neck may help)
- Skin injuries (to help disinfect and promote quicker healing)
- Dry pads on your pet’s paws
- Phlegm build-up during cold season (use as a chest rub)
Cautions: Do not use poplar buds if you are sensitive to aspirin. Pregnant women should not use anything with poplar buds because it contains salicin which is turned into salicylic acid (a form of aspirin) by the liver.
Disclaimer: No part of this site is intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any illness. Please discuss your personal health, including any options or ideas you may read on the internet (on this site or others) with your personal, qualified health practitioner. The Alaska Life is not responsible for any adverse outcomes associated with using or misconstruing advice or information on this site.
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