Balm of Gilead/Cottonwood (Populus species) bud is just one part of a group of highly medicinal trees. The leaf buds emerge in spring and are covered with a protective resin that leaves a sticky, orange stain on your fingers. This contains a concentration of antimicrobial flavonoids including (but not limited to) kaempferol, fisetin, apigenin and hesperidin. There are also phenolic esters such as caffeic acid that are widely studied for their antibacterial properties. The sheer number of antibiotic, antiseptic and antifungal compounds tucked inside this tree gives it the well deserved title of “Tree of Life”.
The term Balm of Gilead originally referred to the resin from the Arabian Balsam Tree. The fragrant, medicinal properties are found in other trees around the globe even though they are unrelated. The trees that we are referring to in this article are the poplar trees which include cottonwood and quaking aspens.
What are the Signs of Bacterial Infection of the Skin?
Skin can be infected in many ways but the most common bacterial infections are caused by Gram-positive bacteria such as Staphylococcus (AKA Staph) and Streptococcus (AKA strep). They trigger inflammation that can be seen on the surface of the skin with redness, blisters and swelling. Often, a fever will kick in to help the body conquer the infection. There may also be yellow crusted areas on the wound or inflamed tissue. Impetigo is classic bacterial infection seen in preschool children that includes all of the symptoms mentioned above.
There are numerous types of skin infections beyond wounds. Cellulitis is a very common skin infection that includes patches of warm, red and painful. It is often first seen on the legs. Hair follicles are frequent sites of bacterial infection. Folliculitis shows up as a scattered patch of red, itchy bumps that resemble pimples. They are infected hair follicles. Boils fall into this category too. They are red, painful and filled with fluid that start at the base of the hair follicle.
How Does Balm of Gilead Help?
Skin infections, like those listed above, are very responsive to the antimicrobial compounds in poplar buds. It’s success lies in its clustered attack on the bacteria group. The combination of the phenolic esters and the flavonoids give the tender leaf bud protection in its riparian area during the rainy season. This is the time of year when bacteria is increasing in potency. The trees generate their own antibiotics to defend their tender developing leaves. This collection of antibacterial compounds remain locked in the the resin of the bud which herbalists transfer into oils, tinctures and even honeys.
Balm of Gilead can be taken internally to fight off an infection. It is easily spread on the inflamed skin to reduce redness, ease pain and rid the area of the bacteria. Infused salves, oils, honeys and ointments are used topically. Infused tincture, tea and honey can be taken internally.
The Balm of Gilead that is a traditional part of Middle Eastern medicine which has had a meaningful impact on how Western herbalists use the Cottonwood buds. It is added to topical formulas to reduce bacterial infections just as people use over-the-counter triple antibiotics.
Other antibiotic herbs such as Oregon grape are frequently found alongside this resin in tinctures. Herbalists may include lymphatic herbs such as red root or astringent herbs such as yarrow to help drain the infection.
Balm of Gilead is highly concentrated and normally taken in small dosage or in formulas with other herbs (see Western formulas above). Only a few drops of the tincture a few times a day is suggested for mild bacterial infections. It is most often used topically either in salves or ointments. The concentration is commonly between 20-30% of infused oil as part of the formula. The infused oil can be purchased to be used on wounds or to add to other oils as a preservative.
Some people have reported allergic reaction to this resin if they are also allergic to propolis. Although there is no evidence of Balm of Gilead being contraindicated other medication or during pregnancy, be sure to talk to your certified healthcare provider before adding it to your health regime.
Further Research on Balm of Gilead
Merck Manual: Overview of Bacterial Skin Infections