The Healing Power of Herbal Balms and Salves.

photo of calendula blossom
A resinous Calendula blossom in full bloom. Calendula in salves is soothing, healing, and safe for very sensitive skin.

Winter brings many changes to Berks County. I like the cold, crisp clarity, the brilliant night sky, the way you can see such a distance through the woods to far landscapes. But it also brings cracked, dry, sore hands and skin. This is the time of year when I begin making herbal Balms and Salves. Plus, in spring, I’ll need them for my gardening hands.I was thinking about new formulas when I read that animals injured in Australia’s bushfires were being treated with Manuka Honey as a way of treating burns and preventing infection due to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits. Manuka is a special kind of honey produced in New Zealand and Australia by bees who pollinate the flower Leptospermum scoparium, commonly known as the manuka bush. But honey, wherever it comes from, is one of the world’s oldest Balms. Today, It is usedvwidely in skincareproducts and even in hospitals.

Interestingly, mud is another. Descriptions of the use of mud and plant extracts to heal wounds and burns date to 1500 BC. In 2016 in Syria, mud was used to treat people suffering the burns inflicted by napalm bombs in the absence of any available medial alternative.

The word Balm comes from Balsam, a resinous sticky substance produced by trees in the Commiphora family, known as Gum Trees. The biblical phrase There is a balm in Gilead refers to a Middle eastern tree from the region of Gilead known as Balm of Gilead. The sap of this it’s berries was used to make a famous Balm for the skin. The word Balm came to mean a universal cure. Even here in Berks, we have a gum tree: American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua  Sweet gum trees. It also produces a medicinally valuable resin. treat bedsores, topical herpes.

In 1872, Robert Chesebrough patented petroleum jelly under the name Vaseline in 1872 as a first aid salve. Other brands such as Mentholatum and Bag Balm followed. While these products are effective and still widely used, they can prevent healing in some cases because it seals the skin and can drying out your pores by keeping out air and moisture. Today, Natural brands made with beeswax instead of petroleum have are available- Burt’s Bees being wildly popular.

Like many gardeners I make natural balms and salves from local beeswax and the plants I grow. The ingredient that we can’t get locally is plant oil even though PA does have substantial sunflower seed farming, none of that is used to make food or cosmetic grade oil. Balms and salves are easy and fun to make at home and children can participate and they can suit a wide variety of purposes from cracked, dry skin and lip balm to nerve pain, joint and muscle pain, bronchial congestion, and more.

The general steps to making a balm are: To begin, steep herbs such as comfrey, sage, calendula, lavender or rose in olive oil or any oil of your choice to extract all of the healing compounds from the plants. Next, melt beeswax and blend it with the oils and other ingredients such as cocoa butter and essential oils. Pour the hot blend into containers and let it cool to a thick paste.
It’s a very simple process, but there is also very much to learn. See my website for details about classes and start healing.

Karen Palcho is a Berks County artist, educator, gardener and fermenter whose interests are rooted in transforming earth based raw materials and plants into things that are beautiful, tasty and useful. She teaches classes in fermentation, botanicals, and art. For more information, visit

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