balm of Gilead (gĭlˈēəd) [key], name for several plants belonging to different taxonomic families. The historic Old World balm of Gilead, or Mecca balsam, is a small evergreen tree ( Commiphora gileadensis, also once called C. opobalsamum ) of the family Burseraceae (incense-tree family) native to Africa and Asia and the source of the commercial balm of Gilead; it is referred to in the Bible in Jer. 8.22. The Ishmaelites from Gilead were bearing balm when they bought Joseph from his brothers. Balm of Gilead is still in high repute for healing in some countries.
The American balm of Gilead is a hybrid species of poplar ( Populus × jackii ) of the family Salicaceae (willow family) which has large balsamic and fragrant buds. The tree occurs in the wild where the ranges of its parents, the balsam poplar ( P. balsamifera ) and eastern cottonwood ( P. deltoides ), overlap, and was formerly a favorite dooryard tree of the northern states. The buds were used in domestic medicine. The balsam poplar has also been called balm of Gilead and tacamahac.
The name balm of Gilead has also been used for the balsam fir and for a herbaceous aromatic, shrubby plant ( Dracocephalum canariense or Cedronella canariensis ) of the family Labiatae (mint family) native to the Canary Islands and cultivated in parts of the United States.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.