Yes, today I’m writing about trees. Cottonwoods, to be exact. Growing up in the upper Midwest, cottonwood trees, specifically, the populus deltoides variety, are a staple part of the landscape.
A large shade tree that loves the wet areas near rivers and streams, the tree grows rapidly and boasts bright green leaves in the summer and golden yellow in the fall. The Native American populations have revered the tree throughout the generations, as they used the large portions of the trunk for dugout canoes, the bark for medicinal tea, and the young sprouts and inner bark were eaten for the high nutritional value (Forney, NDSU, Nature at Confluence). Pioneers use the tree similarly, but also as a sign of hope, as the sighting of a cottonwood tree would often mark nearby water and firewood sources on their trek across the prairie (Forney).
The cottonwood tree also contains something called salicin, which is often used in anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and anti-microbial medications (Forney, NDSU). The populus deltoides species native to my area contains specific compounds that have anti-rheumatic, disinfectant, and antiseptic properties (NDSU). The Balm of Gilead is one such medicinal use. The Bible speaks of the Balm of Gilead. Balms, or fragrant ointments, were often used in the ancient world to soothe and heal wounds. The Balm of Gilead referenced in Genesis 37:25, Jeremiah 8:21-22, and Jeremiah 46:11 probably did not identify a specific balm but rather was a symbolic way of identifying the deep wounds the Israelites had inflicted upon themselves because of their disobedience (Bolinger).
I spent almost every day this summer walking in a wooded area by the river close to home. I honestly can’t tell you how many cottonwood trees are in that area, but I can assure you that it is a lot. Not only have I seen the shimmering cottonwood leaves, but I have also heard them. If you have never heard them, cottonwoods have a very distinct rustling sound in the wind. If you have heard them, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
It is a sound I know well from childhood. Nearly every summer weekend of my childhood, we would travel 30 miles to my grandparent’s house. The weekends were spent playing cards, riding Grandma’s three-wheeled bike, canning, shucking corn, and generally being together with family. Every night, my sisters and I would climb the stairs of that tiny house. Most nights, we would have the windows open with fans running to cool the hot upstairs. But, in the early spring and late fall, the windows would be open, and you could hear the night sounds and the murmur of the adults still down below in the kitchen visiting and playing cards. The sound that usually rose above all others was the rustling of the giant cottonwood trees that lined the streets near their house. I didn’t realize it then, but the sound was a balm to my soul. The sound signified connection, love, joy, and acceptance in my life. As I have grown older and life has brought me struggles and difficulties, I have often struggled to experience these same things, even when surrounded by those I love.
This summer, as I walked each morning among the cottonwoods, I experienced a quieting of my soul, for the first time in a long time. I experienced a reorientation of my heart toward God. I experienced connection, love, joy, and acceptance from the Holiest of Holies. The cottonwood trees provided the Balm of Gilead that I needed to begin healing some deep wounds, some caused by my own disobedience, others caused by the disobedience of others. God does speak to us, sometimes through the soft rustling of the cottonwood.
For those interested in making actual Balm of Gilead, a super easy recipe can be found on this website (https://learningherbs.com/remedies-recipes/balm-of-gilead/). Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until spring!
Contributed by Liz Hunt
Bolinger, H. (July, 2020). What is the Balm of Gilead. Retrieved on October 1, 2022 from https://www.christianity.com/wiki/christian-terms/what-is-the-balm-of-gilead.html
Forney, J.M. (n.d.). Cottonwood tree facts. HGTV. Retrieved on October 1, 2022 from https://www.hgtv.com/outdoors/flowers-and-plants/trees-and-shrubs/all-about-cottonwood-trees.
Gallagher, J. (2010). How to Make Balm of Gilead or Cottonwood Oil. Retrieved on October 1, 2022 from https://learningherbs.com/remedies-recipes/balm-of-gilead/.
NDSU (n.d.). Cottonwood. Retrieved on October 1, 2022 from https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/trees/handbook/th-3-111.pdf.