Balm of Gilead Trees at McGraw Ranch

Specimen Details

Leafless Balm of Gilead trees grow beside a ranch house in a rural mountain landscape
View of main ranch house at McGraw Ranch with Balm of Gilead Trees, 1936.

Photo by McGraw Family. In the NPS Cultural Landscape Inventory report

  • Location: McGraw Ranch, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
  • Species: Balm of Gilead (Populus candicans)
  • Landscape Use: Ornamental Planting
  • Age: Estimated planting 1912
  • Condition: Good


McGraw Ranch is a former cattle ranch and guest ranch nestled in the Cow Creek valley on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. The ranch’s buildings and landscape features are associated with the development of ranching and tourism in the Rocky Mountains. Settled as a cattle ranch in 1884, McGraw Ranch was converted into a guest ranch in 1936. In 1988, the National Park Service bought the property, and continues to manage the site as a research facility and recreational area.
Leafy trees grow beside a grouping of log structures at the edge of a pond, with mountains in the background
A view of the pond, log cabin, bunkhouse, and main house at the ranch ca. 1912, soon after the McGraw family signed a lease for the property. In the early years of ownership, the ranch did not change significantly and the McGraws used the property as a summer house.

Photo by McGraw Family. In the NPS Cultural Landscape Inventory report

In 1909, the ranch was purchased by John and Irene McGraw who moved to Colorado from Pennsylvania. To create a sense of familiarity in their new home, Irene McGraw planted several Balm of Gilead trees that reminded her of the family garden back east. In addition to evoking the familiarity of east coast vegetation, the Balm of Gilead trees provided shade around the main house and adjacent cabins. The practice of introducing vegetation native to the east coast to western locations speaks to a broader tradition of using species to ‘tame’ western landscapes. It is also part of the millennial story of plant migrations with people, all around the world. Like McGraw, many homesteads in the west feature trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers that are not native to the region, but have been used to create a sense of home for those migrating from the eastern locations.

While two of the original Balm of Gilead trees have fallen down, several trees continue to grow in their original locations at the southwest corner of the main house, in front of the log cabin, and on the east side of the main house. These trees are complimented by other trees and shrubs planted by the McGraws, including lilac and groupings of spruce.

Botanical Details

The rounded leaves on a Balm of Gilead tree are elongated and glossy.
Balm of Gilead

U.S. Forest Service / Michelle Baumflek

Balm of Gilead is a medium-sized deciduous tree that can grow up to 70 feet tall. Its dark green, egg-shaped leaves typically measure 3-5 inches long and 2-5 inches wide. A member of the cottonwood family, the seeds of Balm of Gilead ripen in early summer attached to a cotton-like substance that aids wind dispersal. As Balm of Gilead trees age, their bark slowly turns from light brown to grey, with ridged edges becoming more prevalent over time. The native habitat of Balm of Gilead trees is moist riparian areas that can stretch northward into boreal and mountain forests. It is considered the northern most New World hardwood. Given its prevalence in colder climates, its root system is shallow.

The resin form Balm of Gilead is understood to be antibacterial and antifungal. Because of these properties, the buds have been used to make cough syrups and first-aid salves to treat small wounds. It is not known whether Irene McGraw’s choice of the Balm of Gilead trees at McGraw was related to these medicinal properties.

Aerial view of ranch with a row of cabins and buildings, pond, scattered trees, and pathways
McGraw Ranch at Rocky Mountain National Park, now the Continental Divide Research Learning Center (CDRLC) has many accommodation options for researchers and guests. The Balm of Gilead trees were planted near the Main House, seen here at the right.

NPS / Chris Kennedy

Rocky Mountain National Park

Last updated: January 26, 2022