Herb to Know: Balm-of-Gilead


Content Tools

Abies balsamea, Cedronella canariensis, Liquidambar orientalis, Populus ‘Candicans’
• Families Pinaceae, Lamiaceae, Hamamelidaceae, Salicaceae
• Trees, tender herbaceous perennial

“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” —Jeremiah 8:22

Although a handful of different plants today share the common name balm-of-Gilead, the identity of the original healing herb of Gilead remains a mystery. Maud Grieve, in A Modern Herbal (1931), asserts that it was a species of Commiphora, small, thorny trees of Africa and Asia that yield myrrh, an aromatic oleoresin traditionally used to treat digestive, ­respiratory, and reproductive disorders as well as to make ­incense and perfume. Scholars, however, contend that although the balm was a product of the mountainous region of ancient Palestine and an important article of trade there, no plant growing there today could produce such a substance.

Whatever the identity of the first balm-of-Gilead, the common name has remained popular over the centuries. Here are four species from four different families—three trees and a herbaceous perennial—with little in common save an aromatic scent and the name balm-of-Gilead.

Abies balsamea (AY-beez ball-sum-EE-uh) is an evergreen tree of the pine family (pictured above) that is native to eastern North America and hardy in Zones 3 to 5. In the wild, it may grow as tall as 125 feet, but in cultivation, it’s usually shorter. Numerous dwarf cultivars also are available. Also called balsam fir, this tree is widely grown for pulpwood and, because of its spicy fragrance and classic shape, for Christmas trees. Needle-stuffed souvenir pillows of the North Woods once proclaimed, “For you I pine; for you I balsam.”

Tea made from the needles has been used to treat colds and asthma. Canada balsam, an oleoresin gathered from blisters in the bark, has been used to relieve the pain of hemorrhoids, burns, and sores; some people are allergic to the resin, however. Native Americans used it to seal the seams of their birch-bark canoes, and scientists used it to mount specimens on microscope slides.

Cedronella canariensis (seed-roh-NELL-uh kuh-nare-ee-EN-siss) is a tender perennial (hardy to Zone 9) of the mint family native to the Canary Islands. It’s also called Canary balm. It may grow as tall as 5 feet with a spread of 3 feet. The 4-inch-long, three-parted leaves have a sweet, cedarlike fragrance when brushed. Loose spikes of pink, lilac, or white two-lipped flowers bloom in summer.

C. canariensis has no ther­apeutic uses; however, the leaves can be infused to make a beverage tea or dried for ­potpourri. In colder areas, you’ll need to winter this balm-of-Gilead indoors or grow it as an annual.

Liquidambar orientalis (lik-wid-AMM-burr ore-ee-en-TAL-iss) is a deciduous tree or large shrub of the witch hazel family with deeply lobed leaves and spiny, woody round fruits about an inch in diameter. Although it reaches only 20 feet tall in cultivation, it may grow as tall as 90 feet in the wild. Native to Turkey, this tree is also called Turkish or Oriental sweet gum for the gummy resin obtained from its bark. (The generic name, Liquidambar, meaning “liquid amber”, also refers to the resin.) The resin, also known as Levant storax or styrax, has been used to loosen a cough, treat diphtheria and gonorrhea, flavor tobacco, candy, and chewing gum, and as an ingredient of perfumes.

Populus ‘Candicans’ (POP-yew-luss KAN-dih-kanz) is a fast-growing, hardy (to Zone 2) deciduous tree of the willow family with aromatic, triangular dark leaves that are whitish underneath. It may grow 60 to 80 feet tall. Botanists disagree as to its origin (it may be a ­hybrid between the balsam poplar, P. balsamifera, and the eastern cottonwood, P. deltoides) as well as to its correct name (P. xgileadensis, P. x jackii ‘Gileadensis’, and P. balsamifera ‘Balm of Gilead’ are a few of its synonyms). Alternative common names include Ontario poplar and hybrid tacamahac. (To confuse matters further, some people call P. balsamifera balm-of-Gilead.) P. ‘Candicans’ has been known in North America since the mid–eighteenth century. This attractive, round-headed tree has two serious drawbacks as an ornamental: the abundant “cotton” it produces when in flower and its tendency to sucker.

Traditionally, the sticky winter buds were boiled to extract the resin, which was then mixed with lard and used as a salve for cuts and burns. An alcohol tincture of the resin was used to treat toothache and diarrhea, and a bud tea was taken for coughs. Like willows, poplars contain aspirinlike compounds that are effective in reducing fever, pain, and inflammation. The dried buds are used in potpourri.


• Bear Creek Nursery, PO Box 411, Northport, WA 99157. Catalog free. Populus ‘Candicans’.
• Forestfarm, 990 Tetherow Rd., Williams, OR 97544-9599. Catalog $3. Abies balsamea.
• Goodwin Creek Gardens, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. Catalog $1. Cedro­nella canariensis.
• Logee’s Greenhouses, 141 North St., Danielson, CT 06239. Catalog $3. C. canariensis.
• Louisiana Nursery, 5853 Hwy. 182, Opelousas, LA 70570. Catalog $6. Liquid­ambar orientalis.
• Mellinger’s Inc., 2310 W. South Range Rd., North Lima, OH 44452-9731. Catalog free. A. balsamea.
• Miniature Plant Kingdom, 4125 Harrison Grade Rd., Sebastopol, CA 95472. Catalog $2.50. L. orientalis.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON Canada L0C 1A0. Catalog free. C. canariensis.