The black-to-reddish-brown, upright, pointed, and sticky winter buds of Mat-heh Metoos/ balsam poplar have long been used as mas ki kee/ medicine (a.k.a Balm of Gilead). The buds, known in Cree as osimisk:
- contain and are covered with yellowish waxy resins (sometimes, in some regions called tacamahac) containing terpenes and phenolics with disinfectant properties;
- are rich in flavonoids, aromatic acids, and esters; and
- are credited with having anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiseptic, antimicrobial, astringent, vasodilator, and expectorant healing properties.
How to Use
Practice Caution—Check for possible Allergy; Use Sparingly—overindulging in some bud concoctions is said to be be Fatal; Do Not use dried osimisk—they will be rotten.
~ •• ♦ •• Handy Osimisk Curative •• ♦ •• ~
· Pick a black-to-reddish winter bud of Mat-heh Metoos, avoiding any larger, brighter green osimisk with partially opened outer scales (which conditions indicate damage or fungal rot).
· Pop the strongly aromatic osimisk in mouth.
· Chew for a tarry and hot quick-release: of vitamins to prevent scurvy; of antibiotics to treat gingivitis; or for relief of a sore throat and cough. The waxy-feeling coating that is released by chewing will remain in the mouth for some time.
~ •• ♦ •• Mus-ca-ke-wâbo/ Tea •• ♦ •• ~
· Carefully pick a small handful of black-to-reddish, sticky Mat-heh Metoos winter buds into a container, getting as little gummy residue on hands as possible (it turns brownish and is hard to remove). Avoid the larger, brighter green osimisk with partially-opened outer scales (indicative of damage or fungal rot).
· Heat 2 cups water to a boil in a pot.
· Add the whole, fresh osimisk (do not crush or chop).
· Simmer osimisk and water about 5–10 minutes.
· Remove pot from heat and let steep until Mus-ca-ke-wâbo is cool enough to drink. The buds should sink to the bottom, the resins will float on top.
· Drink Osimisk Mus-ca-ke-wâbo to relieve respiratory congestion and sore throat. Expect the resins to leave an oily coating in the mouth.
· Thoroughly scrub the pot after use to remove bud fragments and resin that coat the inside.
Use sparingly—overindulging might be be fatal.
~ •• ♦ •• Aromatic Osimisk Inhalant •• ♦ •• ~
· Boil a small handful of osimisk (as described for above Mus-ca-ke-wâbo) in about 2 cups of water to steaming.
· Pour oil-infused water into bowl.
· With head covered by a towel, close eyes and lean face to withing about 10 inches over the steaming bowl (have towel envelope the bowl to bring steam towards face).
· Inhale the osimisk-infused steam for about one minute to open the sinuses and soothe sore throat and cough.
· Repeat 2 to 4 times, as necessary.
Be Careful—take precautions to avoid accidental scalding and burns.
~ •• ♦ •• Osimisk Tincture •• ♦ •• ~
· Fill bottle or jar almost to the top with freshly picked, whole buds (of the kind and quality described for Mus-ca-ke-wâbo above).
· Cover in hard liquor—the osimisk resins are soluble in alcohol but not in cool water (nor in wine and vinegar).
· Cap and shake well.
· Store away from direct sunlight for 2 weeks.
· Remember to check daily: topping up liquid as needed (keeping the buds covered by liquid prevents molding); and giving the mix a good shake each day.
· After 2 weeks, strain through a cheesecloth into a clean dark bottle, preserving liquid and discarding buds.
· Take internally for demulcent, counter-irritant, and nutritive effects, but use in small amounts, a few drops in a spoonful of syrup or sweetened liquid at a time should suffice—if taken several times a day, about 15 drops total would be a reasonable limit (too much will cause ‘griping pains‘); definitely do not exceed 60 drops (see Mus-ca-ke-wâbo warning above).
Be Aware: Tinctures are much stronger than teas, so dilute in use to avoid harmful effects.
~ •• ♦ •• Osimisk Salve •• ♦ •• ~
· Harvest deer suet and render tallow (see “Wiyin” for a discussion of animal fats, including suet, as well as instructions on how to make tallow and lard—under the headings ‘Àkwukepime’ and ‘Rendering Lard’).
· Melt tallow in a pan (or double boiler if available), reducing heat to very low.
· Gather buds. Do not wash them (try to collect them in dry weather, if possible, to avoid introducing water into the salve).
· Place the osimisk in the pan over very low heat, ensuring they are covered by the melted fat just enough to stir them a little. If the buds are wet, leave the lid off the pan just long enough to evaporate the water. If buds are dry, cover the pan with a lid to retain the volatile resins.
· Warm the osimisk to infuse the salve for at least two hours (or even a few days), stirring occasionally.
· Strain out the buds through a sieve and several layers of cheesecloth, retaining the clean salve.
· While still warm and liquid, pour the salve into clean tins or jars to cool. Once the salve has solidified, place a lid on the container for keeping.
Apply as a topical treatment for its emollient, vulnerary, and antirheumatic effects in relieving: sunburn, sores, and rashes (including eczema); the pain of rheumatism and muscle fatigue or bruising; and in soothing an irritated scalp while revitalizing hair.
~ •• ♦ •• Infused Oil •• ♦ •• ~
· Gather Mat-heh Metoos buds (keep dry as for salve above).
· Fill glass jar halfway with the osimisk.
· Pour olive oil over the osimisk to within 1 in (2.5 cm) of top of jar (roughly 2 parts olive oil for every 1 part buds). Initially the osimisk may float, but eventually all will sink (which will prevent mould).
· Cover jar with cloth securely tied around lip.
· Let steep for 6 weeks, giving the mix a good stir every few days for the first 3 weeks and checking regularly to ensure the buds are covered by liquid and not molding.
· After steeping, decant the oil through a cheesecloth into a clean bottle or jar and cap for keeping.
Used the aromatic Osimisk Oil as a perfume, massage or bath oil, and as a wash for sprains, inflammation, or muscle pains.
Excerpt from Morris Mattson, The American Vegetable Practice, Or, A New and Improved Guide to Health vol. 1 (Boston: Daniel L. Hale, 1841), 251:
Mentions in the popular press over time—some more believable than others—that might refer to products with Populus balsamifera as an ingredient.
Advertisement, New York NY Daily Tribune (15 February 1843):
Advertisement, Burlington VT Free Press (13 May 1853):
Partial transcript (with emphasis as in source): “The Balm of Gilead, Especially to Females, In every conceivable condition of life, it recommends itself as far superior in point of efficacy to any of the numerous compounds concentrated under the comprehensive name of ‘Sarsaparillas.’ It acts as a fine TONIC, corrects the line of the stomach, strengthens the digestive organs, stimulates the liver to healthy action sufficient to throw off the impure and poisonous secretions, imparts purity, richness and vitality to the blood, circulates it freely, neutralizing and removing impure deposits, strengthens the nervous system, restores the constitution to all its strength, and imparts a glow of health and beauty of complexion.
This is a Vegetable Spirit, pleasant to take, and perfectly safe to be used in any state of health FEMALE OF CHILD.”
Advertisement, Knoxville TN Daily Chronicle (14 February 1871):
Advertisement, Lancaster PA Daily Intelligencer (8 December 1881):
Advertisement, Missouri Valley IA Times (25 December 1902):
Advertisement, The Coeur D’Alene Press (14 January 1907):
“The Home Doctor,” from the Carson City NV Daily Appeal (8 May 1911), 4:
Advertisement, [Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council] Winnipeg MB Voice (10 December 1915):
Advertisement, Burns, Harvey County OR Times-Herald (6 Mach 1920), 3: