Essence of spring -- in a jar

                                                              JEFF LOWENFELS

Published: March 20th, 2008 01:26 AM  Anchorage Daily News
Last Modified: March 20th, 2008 04:25 AM

The story goes that when Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery, they did so to the drivers of a caravan from Gilead who
were carrying a balm made from the buds of local trees. The balm reportedly had great medicinal value.

Lots of trees vie for the title of the tree that provided the Gilead balm. I am pretty sure our local cottonwoods were not the
source, but in modern times the heavy fragrance given off by cottonwood buds as they open up in early spring is made into
a mixture called balm of Gilead. If you are not familiar with the smell, go out and get a few buds and roll them between your
palms. The sticky oil produces the smell.

I know all this because last summer I swapped a copy of my book "Teaming With Microbes" for a jar of homemade balm
of Gilead. I was told it has great effect on arthritis hot spots, is an anti-microbial, soothes muscle soreness and helps with
chest colds.

Cottonwood balm may have some medicinal properties because the cottonwood is in the same family as willow, the
source of aspirin. All I know is that I had chapped hands, and it was great for that -- and best of all, it smelled like spring.

Unfortunately, I ran out of my little jar of balm of Gilead, and the label has long since faded. What choice did I have? I made
my own. Turns out it isn't that difficult.

To start, go out and collect buds from downed limbs and branches or directly from low-hanging branches. Trust me, it
helps to harvest when it is below freezing (the colder the better) because the buds can really produce a sticky oil. You will
easily see why it was used as glue by early settlers.

Locate a Mason jar with lid and ring and fill it halfway with your freshly gathered cottonwood buds. Then fill the jar to the top
with olive oil. You are going to need to stir the mixture twice a day for the first week or so, and it can get messy. Clearly, a
plate under the jar is in order. Some folks use a paper towel or wax paper in lieu of a lid because water released from the
buds can cause an overflow. It seems to me that the lid that came with the jar makes more sense. Just don't screw it on.

During the soaking process, all the buds must always be covered with oil. They will rot if they are exposed to air, and
rotting buds won't provide the essence you are after. Eventually, the buds will settle to the bottom of the jar; this can take a
week or so. Once this happens, you need to stir only once a day for a few weeks. The result is a fragrant oil that, once
strained of the buds, can be used directly as an oil or added to an unscented cream and used as a salve.

I am going to start a second jar this weekend, but first I am going to send my buds through a food processor so they are
chopped into little bits. Seems to me that this would release more oil and do it faster.

Either way, it will smell like spring.


Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at or by joining
the "Garden Party" radio show from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KBYR 700 AM.
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