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  • Writer's pictureGranny Bonnet

The Balm of Gilead

A few years ago, when we were still working, Hubby and I used to take our regular walks after we returned home and frequently after dark. We would complete quite a large circuit, walking just by the loom of light cast by the night sky: just about enough illumination to safely negotiate unlit country lanes.

Often as we returned past a little gravel loke towards the house, our sense of smell would be almost overwhelmed by wafts of sweet perfume. Ruling out the heady delights of honeysuckle, our puzzlement as to where the scent came from was always heightened by the mystery of knowing there were no other blossoms about that could pervade the night air so completely.

The riddle was solved several years later when I delivered a package to the house in the loke and noticed on the driveway some freshly fallen twiggery dislodged by the wind. What particularly caught my eye were the small resinous leaf-buds, covered in a brown, gummy substance and on closer examination, I found them to be the elusive source of the fragrance, and it turns out, the main ingredient of Balm of Gilead.

The tree itself is a Balsam Poplar and with its inconspicuous green catkins is pretty non-descript with nothing to particularly commend its appearance.

Poplar wood is not a timber valued for its beauty and is not grown much commercially in the U.K though it is widely spread in North America where its value lies mainly in its use for packaging and pallets. There are, I discovered one or two different varieties, one of the commonest in America being the Black Cottonwood.

Though tall, 'our' tree, keeps semi-anonymous company with some Lombardy Poplars and still manages to surprise us with its heady perfume, particularly when the breeze is from the West.

Note: The buds of Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera) are collected and infused to prepare Balm of Gilead which is high in salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. Cough syrups and first-aid salves are used to heal small wounds, cuts, and scrapes. It's biblical name refers to a Middle-Eastern region famous for herbs and spices and the term 'Balm of Gilead'' has come to figuratively signify a universal cure.

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