Herb to Know: Balm-of-Gilead

| December/January 1996

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.

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