Felling the balm of Gilead


After strong winds brought a dead limb down onto the electric lines leading into my parents’ house, my dad decided that the last of the big balm of Gilead poplars would have to go.

The balm of Gilead, Populus balsamifera, is a strange tree, growing quickly to large proportions, as befits a colonist of floodplains. Limbs shoot out haphazardly at all angles, giving this far-northern cousin of the cottonwood a rather ungainly appearance. But what was a boreal, wet-soil species doing on our dry, Pennsylvania mountaintop? At the end of the 19th century, balm of Gileads were prized for their reputed medicinal properties, and must’ve been sold through nurseries. Though completely unrelated to the Old World trees of the same name, their buds exude a sticky substance with many of the same properties as the resin of their namesake.

Populus Candicans is called Balm of Gilead in America. The buds are used, and called Balm of Gilead Buds, as are those of P. Nigra and P. balsamifera, the product of the last being imported into Europe under the name of Tacomahaca. They are covered with a fragrant, resinous matter, which may be separated in boiling water, the odour being like incense, and the taste bitter and rather unpleasant. They are stimulant, tonic, diuretic, and antiscorbutic. A tincture of them is useful for complaints of the chest, stomach, and kidneys, and for rheumatism and scurvy. With lard or oil they are useful as an external application in bruises, swellings, and some cutaneous diseases. In ointments they are a little inferior to paraffin as a preventive of rancidity.

The bark of P. balsamifera is tonic and cathartic.

Some contemporary herbalists apparently still use balm of Gilead buds. I think my mom experimented with them back in the 70s or early 80s, when she went through a period of enthusiasm for herbs and wild foods, but found them too much trouble.

view of balm-of-Gilead treeWhen my parents bought the place in 1971, there were five of the big poplars growing around the houses. The biggest one stood at the corner of the stone wall in front of the guest house, where I live now, and where my grandparents spent the summers back in the 70s. In a series of photos of the farm from 1919, the Guest House Tree, as we called it, was already fairly good-sized. By the early 70s, its top-most limbs were beginning to die. About fifteen feet off the ground, its massive trunk divided into three, and one of the sections hung dangerously over the house. Poplar wood rots quickly, and Dad and Grandpa knew that they couldn’t waste much time deliberating about it. We were poor; hiring a professional tree removal service wasn’t an option, so they had to do it themselves, with only a small farm tractor to pull the cable.

It was a learning experience. Dad says he didn’t notch one of the cuts quite right, felling one of the trunks too close to the spring house and shaving off the eaves. The cut into the rearmost of the three trunks was notched correctly, but the ground was too soft and wet and the tractor began to dig in. When Dad backed it up a little to try and get a running start, the tree started going back toward the house. So we raced to the barn and carried down several armloads of split wood, which Dad packed into the mud under and in front of the tractor tires for a distance of about ten feet. That gave him just enough traction to pull the tree over in the right direction. “That was a little tense,” he remembers.

talking it overIn the decades since, we’ve taken out three more balm of Gileads that used to stand in a line on the southwest side of the main house, and a tall black locust on the northeast side. The last and youngest of the balm of Gileads stood upslope from the former line of three by about twenty feet, and was probably the offspring of one of them. Though ninety feet tall and close to three feet in diameter at breast height, it may not have been more than fifty years old. It probably had another couple decades of life in it, at least, but its proximity to the house and to electric lines made us unwilling to take the risk.

There was really only one direction the tree could fall without crushing a lot of other yard trees, not to mention the lines and house: down toward the edge of the woods. And it was not at all clear that tree was inclined to go in that direction. Fortunately, though, we’re no longer dependent on an old farm tractor for these kinds of jobs.

bulldozerSo there we were on Black Friday, Dad, my brother Steve and me. It was a beautiful, clear morning with no wind. I had just spent the last three hours working on a thoughtful and sensitive poem, but now it was time to go kill a large tree. Dad had bought a new, 125-foot-long steel cable, and while he and Steve bent and bolted the two ends into sturdy loops, I took the chainsaw to some fallen trees that blocked the bulldozer’s passage along the edge of woods.

A nuthatch worked its way down the furrowed trunk of the doomed tree, and chickadees flitted through its branches. Steve climbed the ladder to wrap a logging chain around the trunk while Dad maneuvered the dozer into position. The cable was just barely long enough. I had been appointed to do the cutting, not necessarily because I am the most adept with a chainsaw, but because Dad is the only one of us who knows how to operate the bulldozer, and Steve has a wife and kid to worry about.

I’ve cut down very few living trees in my life — certainly nothing approaching the balm of Gilead in size. When I made the first, diagonal cut for the notch, the tree began to bleed profusely. I’m not kidding: much to Steve’s and my surprise, several quarts of sap came streaming out of the wound. Then, as I worked on the bottom cut of the notch, I noticed that the top cut was already gapping open by maybe an inch and a half. Holy shit, I said to myself, this tree does not want to fall downhill. As soon as I finished the notch, I signaled to Dad, and he pulled the cable taut.

The wood was very soft, but — fortunately, perhaps — the chain on the larger of our two chainsaws hadn’t been sharpened in a while, so it cut nice and slowly. I didn’t want to overshoot by mistake. Given the width of the tree where I was cutting at a little below waist height, I had to work on the back cut from both sides. When only a two- to three-inch hinge remained at the center of the tree, I put down the chainsaw and picked up my camera. Only then did I give the signal for Dad to drive forward.

going (2)

The tree came down more quickly than I expected. It flattened a couple of saplings on the way down, but otherwise fell pretty much where we had wanted. Steve and I cut the bottom fifteen feet of the trunk into three, enormously heavy logs, partly to free the cable, and partly to clear the end of the “lawn.” We pushed the logs down the slope, which was fun — one of them took out most of a multiflora rose bush — but the rest of the tree’s carcass will remain where it fell, a bonanza for invertebrates and everything that feeds on them. It may also act as a shelter of sorts for shrubs and tree seedlings — deer often seem less likely to browse amid the tangled limbs of fallen trees.

I’d feel bad about cutting down any tree, let alone one as large and unique as a mature balm of Gilead. It’s very strange to look up at my parents’ house and not see that tree looming behind it — kind of like the New York skyline after 9/11. On the other hand, I was happy that everything had gone well, and I was alive to write about it.

“So now that you’ve conquered a tree, doesn’t that make you feel like a man?” Steve asked jokingly. “Yes, it does,” I said. And it did — at least until the adrenalin buzz wore off.


In the silence after
the poplar crashed to earth,
a nuthatch calling.

The entire series of photos from yesterday’s tree-felling is here. Don’t forget to send tree-related links to jadeblackwater [at] brainripples [dot] com by November 29 for the next Festival of the Trees.

10 Replies to “Felling the balm of Gilead”

  1. I remember when my parents took out the dying tree from our backyard. A tiny, narrow back yard in the middle of Detroit, the trunk was a good three feet in diameter. I was amazed at the noise, and the amount of leaves and branches, as I helped haul the smaller ones, and dismember the others. I miss that tree, and sat on the stump after it had gone.

    They never could kill the Tree of Heaven weed that loomed and dropped evil smelling litter near the garage, and engulfed the fence from the neighbor’s side.

  2. It is sad to lose a tree, especially one that’s been such a fixture in your family. A couple of years ago they cut down a tree that had been hanging over my deck for many years, so close it felt like I was in a tree house when I sat out there. In the winter I used to pull the closest branch and shake the snow off of it. It felt like losing an old pet when they sawed it down.

    By the way, I like your haiku.

  3. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one of these trees. I’m glad to hear it came down without a serious hitch. I have considerable acquaintance among independent loggers (it’s one of a very few ways to make a living here), and the process of dropping a tree near a house and powerlines always produces a fairly long story (more exciting than fish stories, in my opinion). It’s really an art without an audience, and if you can’t tell the story, well, you’re a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear.

    I don’t suppose it would be suitable for firewood….but you don’t burn wood, do you?

  4. I’m familiar with that tree-felling adrenalin buzz. Such danger, unpredictability, and excitement, culminating with the can’t-turn-back-now accelerating swish-crash of the actual fall of the tree.

    The haiku at the end was a very appropriate end for your essay.

  5. Zhoen – I’m sure it must have been a much more drawn-out, piecemeal process to remove a large tree from a small lot. Fortunately, this was over rather quickly, like shooting a lamed horse.

    “Tree of heaven” (ailanthus) is becoming a scourge here on the mountain, too – an invasive colonizer that is almost impossible to eradicate.

    leslee – “Losing an old pet” – that’s how I felt when the big old butternut tree next to my front porch fell over back in August 2003. I still miss it.

    Rebecca – Of course, cutting dow a tree in the woods is an altogether riskier proposition, especially since few are as large and heavy as our balm of gilead, and are thus much more likely to twist, kick back, etc. So there are always good stories.

    We do burn some wood, but we have enough downed oak, black cherry and black locust on the mountain to be snobs about what we cut.

    Larry – Thanks. Yeah, I can handle the danger; it’s the sense of loss that’s no fun.

  6. Very moving story….I feel a similar jolt when I visit my parent’s house and look for the towering giant that used to occupy the back yard. It looks sadly barren back there now.

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