A Breath of Life

Poplar bud in springSpring is in full-swing here now. In the southern reaches of Manitoba, some trees have leafed out almost fully and many of the ornamental fruit trees are in full bloom. At home around the lake, however, things are moving just a little slower. The first blush of green is only now enveloping the forest and I find it fascinating how only a few hundred kilometers can make such a difference in to the rate of renewal after winter’s chill.

As with many natural processes, day-length does play a role, but the story here is much longer and more complicated than that. In fact, the stage for each spring’s grand entrance is set the previous fall.

The shortening autumn day signals to the tree that it’s time to enter into a period of dormancy, sort of a forced vacation, where all systems shut down to preserve the tree’s tissues and protect it from freezing temperatures and water loss. Before it enters into this stasis, the tree uses the last of its growing resources to form the buds for the following year, encasing these primordial leaves in waxy scales that hold them in place until they get the go ahead to continue development.

After everything shuts down for the winter, the process shifts into a sort of time-release mechanism. Each species has it’s own mandatory vacation period, a set number of cold days it must endure before any warming will trigger the growth of new leaves. That period, however, is usually shorter than the average Canadian winter. So if we get a sudden early warming, like we did this year in March, it can trigger the start of new leaves, which can then be a death sentence if the forest is then hit with another cold snap. Alternatively, really warm autumns or warm winters can delay the onset of budding by pushing back the point at which the ‘mandatory cold period’ started. This reliance on temperature to maintain their cycle may make it very difficult for trees to adapt to the rapid changes in climate patterns we’re starting to witness.

Here in Manitoba’s boreal, however the wave of green is sweeping across the landscape as it always has this time of year. It happens so fast, that if you’re not paying attention, you can miss the in between stages and those are the best parts.

My absolute favourite time is when the Balsam Poplar’s (Populus balsamifera) buds (pictured above) begin to swell to bursting. They’re full of sticky, volatile oils that fill the air with a warm heady scent, that’s a pleasant mix of vanilla, cut fir boughs and Vicks Vaporub. I’ll never forget my first experience with a Balsam Poplar stand in full bud. It’s an amazing smell that washes through you, leaving you both calm and invigorated all at the same time.

Balsam poplar buds in oil

Soaking up the sun – Steeping balsam poplar buds in oil, the beginnings of Balm of Gilead

The healing effect may not just be limited to your sense of well-being. For centuries, Aboriginals and European immigrants alike have used poplar buds for medicinal purposes, typically warming them in some sort of fat to draw out the oils and then using the resulting salve on everything from wounds, eczema, and rashes to lining the inside of the nose to clear up airways. I learned how to tease the benefits from the bud from a woman living in the farmlands north of Swan River, Manitoba.

After steeping the buds in a good-quality oil in the sun for several days, strain off the liquid and thicken it with beeswax. The result is known as Balm of Gilead and makes a nice skin cream that smells wonderful.  Beyond it’s fragrance, the oils also contain salicin, a compound similar to aspirin that has been used as an analgesic by many cultures.

Whether it’s grounded in chemistry or not,  I still believe there is nothing better for your health and well-being than getting out an experiencing the first breath of life that is spring in the forest and surrounding yourself in its fragrant, verdant beginnings.

9 thoughts on “A Breath of Life

  1. I like your phrase “a wave of green is sweeping over the landscape.” We’re all green now in Virginia, USA where I live, but it was amazing to watch the band of green creep slowly up the mountains from the valleys in March and April.

    • Thanks, Jo Ann! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It would be neat to watch this phenomenon on from elevational perspective. We’re very flat here so I can’t see it from your point of view, just a gradual fading of green as I drive further north. Soon, the difference will be gone. Thanks for stopping by. I was enjoying your blog the other day. I must remember to add you to my list for following.
      Take care!

  2. Ah, thank you Heather for writing about two of my favourite things… The smell after a Spring rain (*sigh* SO,OO sweet and lovely) and something my Mom always spoke about: making Balm of Gilead with her mother and grandmother.
    So have you ever stuck one of those bud covers right into your mouth? Or ever tasted bee propolis? ‘Cause – surprise! – they’re one and the same thing. Dad always called propolis “honeybee medicine” or “bee glue” (depending on the application of course; )

    • Hi Deb,
      Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. It’s been a busy few weeks. I’m glad this could evoke such pleasing memories. I must admit, I’ve never tried to taste the buds or bee propolis. I’ll have to try that sometime.

  3. Lovely, and full of lilting phrases that echo the spring pulse sweeping north across the land. Thanks for the Balm of Gilead info, Heather, which until now had been only a beautiful name for me without the the added layer of its purpose. Enjoy the renewing!

    • Thanks, Julian. It’s always nice to know when my choice of language is effective. I actually don’t think too much about it as I’m writing, so your feedback is always helpful. I hope your spring has been lovely so far. I think we’re headed into a cold spell for a while, but I don’t mind. Hopefully, it’ll dry out again when I need to do field work.

  4. Came over to grab the link to show my kids who will meet you tomorrow :)…and realized I am way behind. Time flies and the emails pile up while I’m digging in somewhere else…

    Anyway, it’s wonderful to read this tonight as our trees are finally showing some lacy green. As always your artwork is so lovely, the post and enjoyable read and wonderfully informative, and I’m excited to try making the balm.

    • Hi Cindy. It’s even more fun responding to your comments now that I’ve met you and know what your home turf looks like. Don’t worry about falling behind. We all have a lot of balls in the air most days. I hope the green is continuing to grow now that it’s stopped snowing. Thanks again for the wonderful hospitality. I had a lovely time. Hopefully one day, I’ll be able to show you around my backyard.

  5. Pingback: There Is a Balm in Gilead | He Heals My Heart

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