Salve made from balsam poplar buds (pictured) is anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, analgesic and a tried, trusted remedy for chest congestion, cuts, burns, eczema and psoriasis. It also aids dry, cracked, chapped, scaly skin, bruises, and sore muscles and joints. Credit: Courtesy of Jenna Rozelle

This story was originally published in February 2022.

There is this idyllic world in my mind’s eye, where most of my foraging is done, communally, with many hands making light work. In reality, I’m almost always working alone.

Picking balsam poplar buds has been an exception to that and has become one of my favorite memories because of it. I was lucky enough to have a job at Baer’s Best bean farm in South Berwick, helping out for many winters with their heirloom bean operation, and the owner, Charley, was generous enough to let me forage and hunt around the farm.

It was one of those days in March when the world is thawing so eagerly that you can barely hear over the roar of melt and birdsong, one of those days when you can’t bear to stay inside a minute longer. So I took a walk around the farm on my lunch break.

I circled behind the pond and was going to cross the wet meadow to check out Lover’s Brook when I caught a whiff of something. Not a flower blooming, but something pungent. It took me a minute of looking down, then around, for the source of the smell before I looked up.

It’s funny how often I’m not so much ignoring the elephant in the room but just genuinely failing to see it. In this case, the elephant was the biggest balsam poplar (Populus balsimifera) tree I’d ever seen, surrounded by a grove of clonal saplings running the edge of the pond and creeping out into the meadow. The smell was wafting from the leaf buds, full of resin, being warmed in the spring sun.

My mother and grandmother were coming to see me on the farm the next day, so I told them to wear clothes they didn’t mind gumming up. I strung up two extra picking baskets and put them to work. We picked from the young, flexible trees for a few hours, chatting, blackbirds joining in, my dog laying in the warm grass, pinking his belly in the sun, and I recognized that ideal world I’d been imagining.

This is a typical habitat for balsam poplar — the wet meadow beside the pond, and while they are not the most abundant tree in Maine, they do occur in every county. I see them most often in human-disturbed places, and especially on edges of things like meadows, marshes, bogs, lakes and ponds, even at higher elevations.

They resemble their other more common poplar relatives, and hybrids also exist, but a key to look for this time of year is a bead of golden resin exuding from each bud. If you’re not sure, pick a bud and roll it hard between two fingers until it breaks apart. It should open up to show a bright orange resin, so sticky that you’ll have to peel your thumb and finger apart. Now smell it, and if your eyes go wide and you can’t help but smile, you’ve probably got the right stuff.

Balsam poplar resin, and closely related resins of trees such as cottonwood, are prized wherever they’re found. They’re used as healing salves, balms and ointments, sometimes all lumped together under the name “Balm of Gilead,” which is made from another species entirely, but used in the same manner, and touted as a “universal cure.”

While this may be a romantic reach, the salve does deserve its reputation for versatility. It’s anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, analgesic and a tried, trusted remedy for chest congestion, cuts, burns, eczema and psoriasis. It also aids dry, cracked, chapped, scaly skin, bruises, and sore muscles and joints.

Every community seems to have its own favorite method of making the salve, so ask some people in your neighborhood if there’s a recipe floating around and use that one to keep it alive, but this will get you started in the meantime.

Collect your buds on a warm, late winter day so that your hands won’t freeze, but the sap will still be semi-solid. You can collect into early spring until the leaves emerge, but the warmer and later it gets, the stickier the job, and this slows down the collecting considerably. If possible, collect buds from fallen limbs, or trees that have been felled by wind, snow or beavers — this way you can pick all of the buds, whereas collecting from a living tree, you should take no more than 25 percent, and never the terminal bud.

Poplar Bud Infused Oil

1 part poplar buds

2-3 parts extra virgin olive oil (or oil of your choice)

Put your buds in a clean glass jar.

Pour oil over the buds and cover.

Let steep on a dark, cool shelf, anywhere from six weeks to a year or more.

Stir or shake the jar every few days for the first few weeks.

Strain and use as a topical oil, or make into a salve. (below)

Balsam Poplar Salve

1 ounce beeswax (about 2 tablespoons)

1 cup poplar bud infused oil

Gently melt beeswax in a pot (the resin will stick to pots and utensils, choose them accordingly!)

Add infused oil (strained)

Stir and warm until fully melted and incorporated

Pour into clean glass jars or tins.

Cool completely, label and cover.

Keep in all corners of the house, car and campsite and gift to family and friends.

Note: People with aspirin allergies should avoid poplar buds and products.

Jenna Rozelle

Jenna is a wild foods educator, writer and outdoor enthusiast. She offers guidance to people and businesses who want to safely and ethically incorporate wild foods into their lives. She lives in southwestern...