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Poplar: Folklore, Variations, Magical & Ceremonial Uses

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Written by: Dawn Black (Witchipedia)


Reviewed by: Tina Caro

With several different species native to North America, the poplars (Populus spp.) are fast-growing trees, often referred to by landscapers as “weed trees” found throughout the temperate regions of North America.

The poplar trees are an important group of lumber trees, however its light, flexible, slightly porous wood and quick growth makes it a very useful tree for manufacturing paper, pallets, and kitchen items and poplar logs are used for growing shiitake mushrooms.

The tree is also good for coppicing and has the potential for efficient, renewable bioenergy supply. As a pioneer species, poplars can reclaim damaged land and even help remove certain toxins from the soil.

The early spring buds of several species of poplar yield the reddish-brown sticky resin known as Balm of Gilead.

Poplars include several species referred to as poplar, aspen, and cottonwood.

There will be overlap between articles, but I do feel they all deserve their own page.


Black Poplar, also known as Populus nigra, is a majestic tree with a rich history in folklore and traditional medicine. Its dark, deeply fissured bark hides a hidden treasure of medicinal compounds.

Lombardy Poplar, characterized by its towering column-like shape, has been used for centuries in windbreaks and for timber due to its rapid growth.

Grey Poplar, scientifically called Populus canescens, boasts silver-gray leaves and has a significant presence in European mythology and magic.

The Tulip Poplar, or Liriodendron tulipifera, is not a true poplar but is often included in discussions due to its similar name.

Some Poplar Species

Black Poplar 

Populus nigra a large cottonwood native to Eurasia and Northwest Africa.

Lombardy Poplar

Popular with landowners who want a quick screen, is a cultivated variety of this species.

Grey poplar 

Populus x canescans is a hybrid between white poplar and aspen known for very fast growth.

White Poplar 

Pupulus alba, aka Silver Poplar, Abele, is medium sized native to the Iberian peninsula, Morocco and North to central Asia. It likes moisture, is tolerant to salt and has reputation for an invasive root system. White poplar is a troublesome invasive species in parts of North America.

Its distinctive two-toned leaves (whitish dull pall green on the back, shiny bright green on the front) make it an attractive tree in the landscape and also reminds us of the duality of life and death.

Willow-Leaved Poplar or narrowleaf cottonwood 

Populus angustifolia, Native to Central North America, a source of Balm of Gilead.

Ontario balsam poplar 

Populus balsamifera, Native to Northern North America and a source of Balm of Gilead.

Western balsam poplar or black cottonwood 

Populus trichocarpa Native to Western North America, a source of Balm of Gilead.

Balm of Gilead tree 

Populus x gileadensis or Populus × jackii is a cross between balsam poplar, Populus balsamifera, and the eastern cottonwood, Populus deltoides,

The tulip poplar or tulip tree 

Liriodendron tulipifera is not a closely related species. This species provides a high-quality hardwood often sold as poplar wood (aka yellow poplar wood or tulipwood) but this wood is more finely grain than that of Populus species.

History and Folklore

Greco-Roman lore mentions Leuce or Leuka, as the most beautiful of the Oceanids who was loved by Pluto.

When she died, he turned her into a tree, the White Poplar, which is held to be sacred to him and a tie to the underworld. White poplar represents a peaceful afterlife and remembering the dead.

Native AmericanPoplar associated with protection and strength
Norse MythologyYggdrasil, the world tree, believed to be a poplar
Celtic TraditionTree of transformation and bridging realms
Chinese FolkloreSymbol of longevity and protection from evil
Greek MythologyAssociated with the goddess Persephone
Table 1: Folklore and Mythology

The poplar is also associated with Heracles who is said to have crowned himself with white poplar to celebrate his return from the Underworld. (Robert Graves The Greek Myths) Crowns of white poplar were presented to winners of his ceremonial games.

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Pausanias said that the Eleans (Olympia, Greece) used White Poplar wood for sacrifices because (he speculated) Heracles had brought them the custom. Some shrines from the Roman period show a poplar motif in decoration and some statues show Heracles crowned with poplar.

Lucian The Works of Lucian of Samosata, Volume III and Dialogues of the Gods the story of the sisters Phaethon, son of Helios who was killed attempting to drive the chariot of the sun. The sisters mourned and were turned into poplars and continued to cry tears of amber.

Robert Graves mentions the white poplar in The White Goddess as one of three trees of resurrection, along with alder and cypress.

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In the Victorian language of flowers, White Poplar symbolizes time.

The resin of several North American species of poplar has been used historically by North America’s indigenous population for a number of healing purposes.

Christian European colonists thought the sweet smelling, powerful healing balm used by the native people they encountered in the New World reminded them of the Balm of Gilead mentioned in the Bible.

So, the healing resin exuded by the group of poplars known as the balsam poplars is still known as Balm of Gilead today.

Harvesting Balm of Gilead Buds

Balm of Gilead is obtained from the early spring buds of one of the balsam poplar species (Populus angustifolia, Populus balsamifera, Populus trichocarpa and Populus x gileadensis), many of which can be found along riverbanks.

All rules of the respectful harvest should be followed (don’t take the first you see, don’t take the last you see, take less than half of what you find, take only what you need, use everything you take).

Over-harvesting of leaf buds can kill a tree, so refrain from taking more than 1/3 of them. Taking the terminal tip of any branch can hamper a tree’s growth as well, so avoid doing this.

Poplars and cottonwoods can grow really tall and tend to keep their branches near the top, but poplars are, after all, notorious for shedding and you’re likely to find windfall branches all over, especially after a storm.

Since poplar is considered a weed tree by many and tends to shed a big mess at flowering time, you can often find stumps with lots of young whips shooting up all around it, right at picking height.

The best time to gather the buds is in the early spring, on a dry, sunny day when it is quite cold. Be aware that the red resin will stain your fingers any container you put the buds in and plan accordingly. They may be stored, unwashed, in the refrigerator or freezer until you are ready to process them.

To extract the resin into an oil for future use in making salves, fragrance oil or ritual oil, cover the buds with oil in a pan or crockpot, cover and heat gently, for 2-3 hours, stirring gently every 15 minutes or so.

You could also do a cold extract by allowing the buds to macerate in oil for several weeks in a warm, dark place.

Strain the oil and store in a cool dry place. Vitamin E or Gum Benzoin may be added as a preservative. Oil prepared this way will last for several months, up to a year.

Magical and Ceremonial use of Poplar

Poplar corresponds to the energy of Jupiter. It is sacred to Heracles, Pluto, Zeus and Melkarth.

White Poplar leaves are suitable for altar decoration for Samhain, celebrations in honor of Hades, ancestral rites, funerals and any ceremony related to the underworld, life cycles, death and rebirth.

Poplar leaves and wreaths are suitable graves decorations. In the absence of White Poplar, other poplar species have bi-colored leaves and can be substituted, though their appearance will not be as striking.

Poplar wood can be used to make good all-purpose wands and is a good choice for a backing to a magick mirror or a box to store divination tools as it may enhance their efficacy.

Divination ToolCarve runes or symbols on poplar twigs for divinationEnhance intuitive and psychic abilities
Ritual StaffCraft a ceremonial staff from poplar woodChannel and direct energy during rituals
Sacred FirewoodBurn poplar branches or wood in sacred firesPurification, protection, and spiritual connection
Healing PoulticeCreate a poultice with poplar buds or leavesAid in physical healing and pain relief
Wishing TreeTie ribbons or small tokens on a poplar treeManifest desires and make wishes
Table 2: Poplar Magical and Ceremonial Uses

Balm of Gilead buds or their resin may be burned as an appropriate incense for any of the above occasions and also for spells related to attraction- from love spells to attracting employees and reconciliation and soothing the pain resulting from arguments, rejection and betrayal.

It is also useful for Necromancy and any ceremony involved in presenting offerings to Gods, ancestors or spirit beings as the scent is said to be very pleasing and attractive to spirits.

Balm of Gilead resin may be used in anointing oil or dressing oil for any and all spells related to attraction, reconciliation and soothing injured feelings and damaged relationships. It is also suitable for anointing tools to be used in the service of spirit.

As a fragrance, Balm of Gilead resin may be used to make the wearer more attractive, to draw a lover to you or to encourage a wandering lover to reconcile.

A Balm of Gilead buds and bits of resin may be added to sachets and container spells or used in sympathetic spells for attraction and reconciliation.

Dress your money with Balm of Gilead oil before you send it out into the world to encourage it to return to you.

The keywords for Balm of Gilead buds and resin are attraction, reconciliation, and balm. They can be used for spells to attract and to sooth (or balm) any feelings or tensions that lead to a split.

They are useful for love spells, but also for getting jobs (and getting back on the payroll after a layoff), reconciling with friends you’ve argued with, attracting wealth, attracting customers.

Poplar for Healing

The buds of the balsam poplars, called Balm of Gilead buds, yield a sticky reddish-brown resin with many healing qualities. It is rich in salicin, a natural anti-inflammatory and analgesic also found in Willow, Meadowsweet and, of course, aspirin. Balm of Gilead also has anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties.

As a topical ointment, it serves as a broad-spectrum antibiotic and also has anti-inflammatory and analgesic qualities because it is rich in salicin.

A healing oil can be made by extracting the resin from the buds into a carrier oil which can then be used as-is or thickened into a salve to use as a first-aid wound salve as you would an antibiotic ointment, a general balm for skin irritations, chafing, diaper rash, atopic dermatitis and weather-chapped skin and as a massage oil for sore muscles and strains, general inflammation and joint pain.

Additional herbal ingredients may be added to enhance or efficacy of your balm. It is said that Balm of Gilead improves the action of other herbs, pulling them deeper into the tissues so they can work more efficiently.

An infusion or tincture of the buds can be used to combat coughs, bronchitis, sore throat, hoarseness and laryngitis. The taste is not as pleasant as the smell, so it is often made into syrups or lozenges.

Black poplar has a history of use for medicine in Europe as well. All poplars produce salicin and other healing compounds. A decoction of the bark can be drunk for relief from rheumatism and gout and an infusion of the buds drunk for the treatment of kidney and urinary tract infections. A tincture diluted in water can be used for coughs and colds.


If you are allergic to aspirin, you may react to poplar.

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About Morningbird (Witchipedia's Founder)

I am a homesteading hearth witch who grew up along the shores of the Hudson River and has lived among the Great Lakes for the past 20 years. Together with my musical husband and youngest child, I steward a one-acre mini homestead with herb, vegetable and flower gardens, chickens, ducks, geese and rabbits, and areas reserved for native plants and wildlife. 

I have three children; two are grown, and I have been practicing magick alone and with family and friends for over 30 years.

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