A small growing tree, the balm of Gilead (botanical name, Commiphora opobalsamum) is a member of the Burseraceae plant family and genus Commiphora. This tree usually grows up to a height of four meters (12 feet) and has spreading branches akin to wands. The bark of the tree is reddish-brown. Balm of Gilead bears small and meager leaves that are split into groups of 3.
The flowers of the tree are petite and have a reddish hue. They develop into berries that are of the size of a pea and have a reddish-grey color. During summer, the balm of Gilead tree emanates a resin-like juice that has a sweet fragrance.
Balm of Gilead is one tree which is not only rarely grown, but also very difficult to cultivate. The Turks hold this tree in such high esteem that they have put a ban on its import. In fact, they have been growing this tree since the time of Prosper Alpin, who had authored the "Dialogue of Balm". Royal ladies highly valued an ointment prepared with the resin exuded by the tree. It is highly valued as a cosmetic.
The tree has also been praised in the Bible as well as in the works of famous ancient botanists and physicians like Claudius Galenus (Galen) and Pedanius Dioscorides.
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Even the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs and Turks highly valued the authentic balm of Gilead, which was hauled out from this low growing tree. There was a time when the sweet-aromatic resin of this tree was such extremely precious that the guards kept a vigil over the trees cultivated in gardens adjacent to the Egyptian city of Cairo.
The herb owes its popular name to the Greek term balsamon, denoting 'fragrant oil'. Gilead makes mention of the cultivation of this tree in ancient times on Mount Gilead (according to the Bible, it means the mount of witness or hill of testimony) located in Israel.
The Bible mentions about the balm of Gilead in Jeremiah and Genesis. According to legend, it is believed that this tree was gifted to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba.
In his writings, ancient Roman author and naturalist Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny) has recorded that the generals of Vespasian originally introduced the balm of Gilead into Rome. On the other hand, Titus Flavius Josephus narrates that the Queen of Sheba took the tree from Arabia to Judea to gift it to Solomon.
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As the tree was cultivated on Mount Gilead for its sweet-scented juice, the tree got its popular name Balm of Gilead. Afterward, the tree was named opobalsamum, its dried out branches was called xylobalsamum and the dehydrated fruit of the herb was christened carpobalsamum.
A 12th century physician in Damascus, Abd-Allatif observed that the balm of Gilead tree actually had two barks - the outer bark being thin and reddish, while the inner bark of the tree is green, compact and having an extremely fragrant.
During the summer heat, the tree emanates a sweet-scented juice on its own in resinous drops. When incisions are made on the bark of the tree, the process of exuding the juice is facilitated.
In fact, the collection of juice is directly related to the humidity in the atmosphere - the more humid the air is, more juice is exuded by the tree. In earlier days, after the oil was isolated from the sweet scenting resinous juice, a process undertaken with extreme confidentiality, it was taken to the stores of the rulers under heavy protection.
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Generally, around 10 per cent of oil is yielded from the total amount of juice. Then again, a poor variety of oil is also possibly extracted by boiling the leaves and wood of the balm of Gilead tree in water.
The wood of the balm of Gilead tree is available in small pieces - several types of wood are known to be sold commercially. Although the fresh wood exudes a sweet scent, as the wood dehydrates, it loses its aroma. The wood of balm of Gilead is very rarely found in Europe and America in its pure state. This is one reason why the use of the wood of this tree has been discontinued.
The resinous juice.
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When the resin from the balm of Gilead is raw, it is dense, white in color and having a potent aroma. As it is exposed to the air, the liquid resin turns solid, but it remains soluble in alcohol. In earlier days, this tree was highly valued for its fragrance and the royal ladies used it as a beauty aid - cosmetic.
In addition, practitioners of herbal medicine also recommended the balm of Gilead for treating diseases related to the urinary tract. Presently, authentic balm of Gilead is rare and its supplies possibly come from related trees (P. balsamifera) found in North America.
Chemical analysis of the sweet scented resinous juice exuded by the balm of Gilead shows that its major constituents include a cluster of compounds that have resemblance to aspirin or salicylates, which are effective in providing relief from pain as well as inflammation.
The fragrant oil obtained from the resin possesses an expectorant and antiseptic properties. Herbal medicine practitioners prescribe a tincture prepared with the balm of Gilead to cure aching throats, bronchitis and laryngitis. It is also applied externally as a salve and the salicylates present in the tree are known to alleviate inflammation and pain caused by arthritis and rheumatism.
In fact, the same substances that ease pain are also found in the bark of the American poplars. There was a time when these pain relieving substances were taken orally as an alternative for quinine with a view to lower temperatures in fevers.
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The balm of Gilead trees are cultivated only in a small part of the globe, especially the regions bordering the Red Sea. This species is mainly grown in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Sudan. Although the tree is cultivated rarely and it is quite difficult to grow this species, balm of Gilead has also been introduced into Italy.
Balm of Gilead has a preference for damp soil having a pH of 7. The plants of this species require sufficient sunlight with a view to allow the process of photosynthesis - converting carbon dioxide into sugars in the presence of sunlight. It has been found that some plants of this species require more sunlight compared to others. Therefore, it is best to grow balm of Gilead in full sun.
This tree produces a fluid balm that is cloudy white, dense, grey and scented. The liquid balm turns solid when exposed to air. Chemical analysis of the balm has shown that it encloses a resin that is soluble in alcohol and a principle that has resemblance to bassorin.
The standard dosage of the solid extract of the tree is 5 grains to 10 grains. The tincture prepared with the solid extract should be taken in dosage of one to four drachms, while the dose of the fluid extract is 1 to 2 drachms. The normal dosage of the extract from the balm of Gilead tree bark is 5 grains to 15 grains.