Balm of Gilead

Latin Names: Commiphora gileadensis, Commiphora opobalsamum

Other Names: Balsan (Arabic), Mecca Balsam (English), Balsamon (Greek), Bosem (Hebrew), Basham (Persian)

Taxonomy: Vegetable kingdom, Burseraceae family

Part Used: The dried resin; also the resinous wood, seeds and bark

Basic Qualities: Hot and Dry. Balsam wood is the least hot in potency, the seeds are hotter / more potent than the wood, and the resin is the hottest, being Hot in the first stage of the third degree. Balm of Gilead does not produce excessive heat in the body, however (Avicenna).

Other Qualities: Opening, detoxifying.

Taste: Strongly aromatic, astringent, not sweet, and a little biting to the tongue (Dioscorides)

Humoral Dynamics: Sanguine – Promotes healing and tissue regeneration. Phlegmatic – Dries turbid dampness with its fragrant odor, disperses cold. Choleric – Heals and detoxifies ulcers. Melancholic – Disperses cold, pain and spasm, clears the channels; improves stomach and digestive functioning.

Tropism: Wounds and ulcers; the bones and joints; the head and sensory orifices; the nerves; the chest and respiratory tract; the stomach, liver and digestive tract; the urinary tract; the female uterus.

Constituents and Pharmacology:

Medicinal Properties: Abortifacient, antiasthmatic, antioxidant, antirheumatic, antispasmodic, antiseptic, antitussive, aromatic, astringent, balsamic, carminative, cicatrizant, detoxifier, diuretic, emmenagogue, expectorant, hepatoprotector, pectoral, stimulant, stomachic, tonic, vulnerary.

Cautions and Contraindications: Do not take if pregnant or breast feeding.

Medicinal Uses: Healing wounds and ulcers, stopping cough and asthma, treating sciatic and rheumatic / muscular aches and pains, treating convulsions and epilepsy, digestive stimulant and detoxifier, stimulating menstruation, expelling the fetus and placenta, dizziness and vertigo, and as a general tonic.

Other Uses: Incenses, aromatics and perfumery; religious uses – anointing oils.

Preparation and Dosage: Balsam, or Balm of Gilead, is an aromatic resinous substance, and so the usual methods and precautions apply in preparing and administering it as medicine. Being a resin, it melts easily with a little heat, although too much heat, or too prolonged heat, will evaporate or dissipate its volatile aromatic constituents. However, the sap or resin is, usually with the aid of low or moderate heat, dissolved in a base oil, which can then be thickened into a balm or unguent with the addition of thickening agents like beeswax. Being a resinous substance, Balm of Gilead is readily dissolved in alcohol, which supports and enhances the volatile, penetrating nature of its aromatic principles. Being a resin, Balm of Gilead can also be used as a binding agent in the making of herbal pills, tablets or electuaries.

Herbal Formulation: Being heating and drying in nature, Balm of Gilead is best used in combination with other herbs and medicinal substances of a warming, pungent and spicy nature.

Classic Combinations: Balm of Gilead is a key ingredient in the Unani herbal formula Jawarish Jalinoos (see Description, below).

Description: In the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah famously asks, Is there no Balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wounds of my people? - Jeremiah 8: 22. This famed passage from the Bible underscores the tremendous importance that Balm of Gilead and other aromatic healing substances have had in the physician’s healing art since time immemorial. In general, balms, or aromatic healing substances, tend to have the following properties:
The aromatic principles they contain, which usually consist of essential oils and oleoresins, tend to have a cleansing and antiseptic property. This was intuited by primitive man when he smelled the foul odor emitted by septic wounds and ulcers; why not fight the foul odor of infection or putrefaction with the clean, fresh odor of these aromatic healing substances?

Many, if not most of these aromatic healing substances are saps or resins, or are very resinous in nature. And so, they have cicatrizant or vulnerary properties that speed up the healing of wounds and the regeneration of tissue. This is a classic case of the Doctrine of the Signatures; trees or plants, when they get wounded, emit sap or resin, which then forms a protective scab that promotes the healing of the plant’s wound. Why not utilize that same awesome healing power on humans?

Because volatile aromatic constituents have a penetrating, dispersing and opening energy to them, they can be used to open up and relax sore and stiff muscles, to disperse congested energy or congested humors like phlegm. If they are powerfully aromatic enough, they can even open the sensory orifices and restore consciousness in cases of fainting or syncope, or even to bring someone out of an epileptic fit. Their penetrating and opening aromatic properties can even enter into the meridians and subtle energetic channels of the body to disperse and dissolve rheumatic, arthritic and muscular aches and pains with regular use.

In addition to their medicinal uses, aromatic healing substances like Balm of Gilead can have other uses as well: in cosmetics, in incenses or perfumes, and some can even be used as spices and condiments in cooking. In short, aromatic substances like Balm of Gilead are very, very useful because of their unique and distinctive properties and virtues. Other aromatic substances that are used in herbal medicine and traditional healing systems include Myrrh, Frankincense, Mastic Gum, Asafoetida, Poplar buds, and various kinds of natural Turpentine.

When one thinks of Balm of Gilead, Biblical imagery and associations usually come to mind. Yet I discovered another aspect of this legendary healing substance when I visited India. Thanks to Unani Medicine, one can still find, in the herbal pharmacies of that country, ancient medicinal preparations that go all the way back to the time of the legendary Roman physician Galen. In fact, one of the popular Unani remedies sold there was Jawarish Jalinoos, which could be translated as “Galen’s Tonic Electuary”, with an electuary being a medicinal paste or jam – and yes, this medicine was formulated by the great Galen himself. It just so turns out that Balm of Gilead, in addition to being famous from the Bible, was one of Galen’s favorite healing herbs. Jawarish Jalinoos is taken by those with a sluggish, torpid stomach, liver and digestion, with a tendency towards type two diabetes or metabolic syndrome. And one of the medicinal uses of Balm of Gilead, which is an important ingredient in Jawarish Jalinoos, is to cleanse the entire digestive tract, and to stimulate a sluggish liver, stomach and digestion.

The principal ingredient in Jawarish Jalinoos is Mastic Gum (Pistachia lentiscus), which is present in two and a half times the doage of all the other ingredients: Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), Indian Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi), Chinese Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia), Spanish Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), Ginger (Zingiber officinale), Galangal (Alpinia galanga), Cloves (Eugenia caryophyllata), Black Pepper (Piper nigrum), Long Pepper (Piper longum), Myrtle leaves (Myrtus communis), Gentian root (Gentiana lutea), and of course, Balm of Gilead (Commiphora opobalsamum). Add to this a little Saffron, and mix all the finely powdered ingredients together with enough honey to make a paste, and you have Jawarish Jalinoos, or Galen’s Tonic Electuary. In Unani Medicine, it is used to treat a weakness or sluggishness of the four principal organs: the brain, the heart, the stomach, and the liver, as well as type two diabetes and metabolic syndrome. And this very same medicine, which was available in the Roman Empire of Galen’s day, is still available in the herbal pharmacies of modern India.

Avicenna, in volume 2 of his Canon of Medicine, quotes Dioscorides in his description of Balm of Gilead:
The balsam tree is noted, similar in size to the medlar tree or azarole… with leaves like rue but a good deal paler and much more flourishing. It grows only in Judea in a certain valley, and in Egypt…
Dioscorides goes on to tell us about how the balsam resin is produced, and how to tell genuine resin that is of high quality from that which is inferior or false:
Balsam is the resin exuded by the tree when it is cut with iron nails in the heat of the hottest days. But so little of it is exuded that every year they can get no more than six or seven congii (units of approximately three liters), and a weight of it is sold in that place for double its weight in silver. The best resin is new, with a strong smell, pure and not inclining to sweetness, easily soluble, smooth, astringent, and a little biting to the tongue… It is prepared in various ways… These are easily discerned for if the unmixed is dropped on a woolen cloth and afterwards washed out it leaves no stain or spot on it, but that which is counterfeited sticks. The pure, when put into water or milk, is easily diffused and turns like milk, but that which is counterfeited swims on the top like oil, turning round or diffusing itself like a star. But in time the pure will also turn thick and test worse than any.

Those are deceived who think that it is pure when it is dropped into water, goes down to the bottom first, and afterwards, easily diffusible, rises up again. The wood is called Xylobalsamum, and the best liked is new with slender stalks – red, sweet smelling, with a smell somewhat resembling Opobalsamum. Suitable use is made of the fruit, too. Choose that which is yellow, full, great, heavy, biting in taste, and hot in the mouth, somewhat similar in taste to Opobalsamum. From the town of Petra a Balsamodendron opobalsamum seed… is brought with which they counterfeit this fruit. You may discover this because it is bigger, and empty with no strength, and tastes of pepper.

Avicenna tells us that, in general, Balm of Gilead has an opening property, and is useful in treating diseased organs in the bodily cavities. He says that it purifies and heals ulcers, especially when used with Orris root (Iris florentina); it can also remove pieces of crushed bone. When prepared as a syrup, Avicenna tells us, Balm of Gilead is useful in treating pain and tenderness of the sciatic nerve. In its boiled down form, he tells us, it is useful in treating those suffering from convulsions. Balm of Gilead, says Avicenna, is also useful in purifying the head and its ulcers, as well as treating epilepsy, light headedness, and day blindness. The branches and seeds of Balm of Gilead, Avicenna tells us, are useful in treating pain in the chest or ribs, severe asthma, difficult or labored breathing, and pneumonia; the seeds are good for treating cold pneumonia and coughs. Balm of Gilead, as we have seen, is good for treating a weakness of digestion; in its boiled down form, it eliminates indigestion, cleanses the stomach, strengthens the liver, and treats acute abdominal pain. Avicenna also says that Balm of Gilead has a diuretic effect (many warming and drying medicinal substances do have a diuretic effect that counters fluid buildup); the herb or its vapors, says Avicenna, are good for removing excessive cold and dampness from the uterus, as well as for expelling the fetus and/or the placenta. Balm oil is useful in treating fevers with chills, and Balm of Gilead and its oil in treating snake bites, as well as other kinds of poisons.

The Roman writer Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, also gives us his description of the Balsam tree, or Balm of Gilead. He tells us that there are three different varieties of this plant: The first variety has thin, capillaceous leaves; the second variety was a crooked and scabrous shrub; and the third was taller than the first two, with a smooth rind or bark. Pliny agrees with Dioscorides in telling us that its leaves most resemble that of the Rue, and he also tells us that the Balsam shrub is an evergreen. The balsam sap, he tells us, trickles in thin drops, which are then collected on wool and deposited in a horn, and then stored in earthenware jars. At first, the resin is a rather pale color, but then hardens and becomes reddish. The best quality sap or resin, Pliny tells us, is that which trickles forth before the appearance of the fruit; the sap or resin that is pressed from the seeds, the rind, or even the stems of the plant is much inferior. Dioscorides ascribes many medicinal properties and uses to Balsam, such as expelling the menstrual flow and being an abortifacient, provoking urination, assisting breathing and conception, being an antidote for snakebite and Aconite poisoning, as well as for treating pleurisy, pneumonia, cough, sciatica, epilepsy, vertigo, asthma and intestinal colic. Galen undertook costly voyages to travel to the lands in which Balsam is produced.

Balm of Gilead is indeed a much storied and fabled medicinal substance; because it was so precious and costly, it was also a great cash crop for those living in Middle Eastern nations in which it could be cultivated. Balm of Gilead was, according to the Old Testament, one of the gifts that the Queen of Sheba brought to give to King Solomon. And so, Balm of Gilead is also indigenous to the Arabian peninsula and to Yemen, where it is known as the Mecca Balsam. It was also cultivated in Egypt, up until the Middle Ages, especially in the town of Ain Shams. The great Roman general Pompey paraded the Balsam tree through the streets of Rome as spoils of war after his conquest of Judea, and when Vespasian invaded the Holy Land, two battles took place at the Balsam groves of Jericho, with the last one being to prevent the desperate Jews from destroying the precious trees. After the Roman destruction of Judea, groves of Balsam trees provided a rich source of revenue for the Romans.

Related Species: With Balm of Gilead being such a famed and fabled plant, and so rich in biblical legend and lore, it is no wonder that early American settlers and frontier herbalists applied the name to a very resinous and aromatic healing herb that was used by the American Indians. And so it was that an indigenous American species of Poplar tree, Populus candicans, also known botanically as Populus balsamifera, or the Balsam-bearing Poplar, became known colloquially as Balm of Gilead. The medicinal part of the tree was the resinous buds, which appeared in the early spring before the leaves burst forth. In the American Southwest, the resinous buds of another species of Poplar, the Cottonwood tree (Populus fremontii), were also used in a similar fashion, being chewed to relieve colds and coughs, as well as phlegm congestion in the head, nose and chest. Because these various species of Poplar trees are all members of the Salicaceae or Willow family, they are also rich in natural salicylates, or aspirin-like compounds, which have analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects, in addition to the balsamic and decongestant properties of their aromatic constituents. In Europe, the resinous buds of the Black Poplar (Populus nigra) are used medicinally for the same purpose.

There are various ways of preparing and using the resinous, aromatic buds of Balm of Gilead and other Poplars medicinally. First of all, you can simmer Balm of Gilead buds in hot water and collect the warm, liquid resin that floats to the top, skimming it off the surface; this pure resin preparation is called Tacamahac. Or, if you wish, you can infuse the buds in a heated vegetable oil like Olive oil or Grapeseed oil; the resins will leech out and dissolve in the oil, which can then be strained off, cooled and bottled. This medicated oil makes for a good, soothing massage oil, or for a decongesting vapo-rub for the chest and lungs, or for inflamed or arthritic muscles and joints; it is also good for mosquito bites, rashes and other inflamed skin lesions. If you wish to do so, you can then thicken this medicated oil with a little beeswax until it gets to be the consistency of an unguent or balm, which you can then massage into the skin, in much the same manner as the medicated oil.

Although this American namesake is not botanically related to the original Balm of Gilead, there are other balsamic healing resins from other Middle Eastern trees and shrubs in the same Commiphora genus that are used extensively in the traditional healing systems of East and West.

The first, and probably the best known, is Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), which, as biblical lore says, “yields a bitter perfume”; traditionally, it is associated with embalming. Medicinally, it has cicatrizant and vulnerary properties that speed the healing of wounds and the regeneration of tissue; it also has antiseptic and astringent properties that disinfect wounds and bind them together. Digestively, Myrrh is a bitter tonic that also has disinfectant and astringent properties on sore or inflamed gastrointestinal mucosa; it also stimulates intestinal persitalsis. Myrrh also has uses in incenses and perfumery. Myrrh is an important ingredient in the famous Swedish Bitters, where it is combined with Saffron and Aloe, and in other medicinal alcoholic extracts, or tinctures. It can also be used in healing salves and unguents.

Secondly, there is a closely related species, Commiphora mukul, known in Ayurvedic and Unani Medicine as Guggulu, and in the Bible as Bdellium. Modern research has shown that the phyto- or plant sterols it contains are useful in lowering blood cholesterol levels, but in Ayurvedic medicine it forms the basis for many different Guggulu preparations, which have various therapeutic applications, but which, in general, are best known for treating various types of arthritis and rheumatism. Although these Guggulu preparations are original or indigenous to Ayurvedic medicine, Unani Medicine has assimilated them as well. If you are suffering from arthritic and rheumatic pains and debility, I highly recommend that you try them. The subtle, volatile properties of the aromatic principles in these Guggulu preparations penetrate into arthritic joints to dissolve and flush out pathological rheumatic humors, and to speed healing and regeneration.

1. Balm of Gilead
2. The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, Vol. 2, pp. 82 – 86. Compiled and edited by Laleh Bakhtiar, @2012 by Laleh Bakhtiar. Published by Great Books of the Islamic World, Inc., distributed by Kazi Publications, Inc., Chicago, IL, USA.
3. - Balm of Gilead

DISCLAIMER:  The information in this article is for educational purposes only, for general health maintenance and prevention, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical disease or condition. The reader assumes all personal responsibility and liability for the application of the information contained in this article, and is advised to seek the services of a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her symptoms or condition persist or worsen.