- Family Leguminosae
- Myroxylon pereirae syn. M. balsamum var. pereirae
- Balsam Tree, Balsam of Peru, Balsam of Tolu, Tolu Opobalsam, Tolu Balsam,
- Spanish: Bálsamo, Bálsamo de las Indias, Bálsamo Negro del Perú, Bálsamo de Cartagena
- Nahuatl: Bálsamo de Peru Huitziloxitl
It can cause contact allergies and some serious complaints if taken internally.
Kidney damage may occur if extensively used internally, or even externally. There have been some reports of systemic toxicity in infants after they absorbed it when it was applied to the nipples of nursing mothers to treat scabies.
Indigenous to Mexico, Panama, Sri Lanka, and Jamaica, the tree now grows wild in tropical forests and is cultivated in Central and South America, India, west Africa and Ceylon. This member of the “bean” family is an everygreen tree, growing to 100 feet with gray bark, compound leaves dotted with oil glands, white pealike flowers, and yellow seed pods. The flowers are fragrant and white, and its leaves are evergreen. A thick, aromatic, reddish brown resin (balsam) exudes from the bark of damaged tree trunks. This is softened and purified through a process of melting and sweltering. Fresh, the resin smells strongly of vanilla or benzoin.
To extract the resin, the bark from scorched, ten-year-old tree trunks is removed just above ground level . The scorching is done by flame afterwhich the balsam is collected in cloths placed on the scorched area. Another method of extraction is from V-shaped incisions made in the trunk and a vessel is secured under the incision to collect the resin which is then purified by melting, straining, and solidifying.
It is said that the tree was so named because the balsam was originally shipped to Spain from Callao in Peru; and, over the years, balsam and its essential oils have been used to flavour foods, soft drinks, and chewing gum.
Since the time of the Incas, Peruvians have used balsam to relieve fevers, colds, coughs, bronchitis, inflammation of the mouth and pharynx, and any tendency toward infections.
The Aztecs cultivated the tree in their royal gardens and made compresses with the mashed leaves to speed the healing of wounds.
The sap was highly prized by the Spanish clergy who used it in sacramental ointments. Papal bulls of 1562 and 1571 forbade the destruction of the balsam trees.
In a 16th century book by a Spanish physician (Nicol s Monardes), Peruvian Balsam was described in the manner by which it was used by indigenous people of Mexico. They collected balsam on wax dishes held under incisions made in the bark. He wrote enthusiastically that it was one of the best resins to come out of the Americas, prized for its use in a wide variety of ailments, lemony aroma, and sweet taste.
- mildly laxative
- speeds healing
- resins (up to 80% mainly cinnamic acid)
- volatile oils (50-65% mainly benzyl benzoate and benzyl cinnamate as well as some with nerolidol)
- cinnamein (50-70% in Peruvian balsam, 10-30% in Tolu balsam)
Although not generally advised, it is taken internally as an expectorant and decongestant to treat emphysema, bronchitis, and bronchial asthma. It is also taken to treat sore throats and diarrhea.
Externally, it is applied to skin infections, wounds, burns, hemorrhoids, as well as in the treatment of eczema and itching and scabies. It is particularly useful for infected and poorly healing wounds, burns, decubitus ulcers, frostbite, leg ulcers, and bruises. It is strongly antiseptic and stimulates the repair of damaged tissue.
The undiluted oil has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and used, as an expectorant, in aromatherapy, and to treat respiratory infections.
Long used as a liniment, it helps headaches, toothaches, and rheumatic symptoms, as well as for uterine and umbilical venous bleeding.
Homeopathic uses include chronic mucous membrane inflammations of the respiratory and urinary organs.
In Guatemala, balsam has been used to treat itching skin, but it is considered an irritant for sensitive skin. Guatemalans also use the dried fruit in a decoction after childbirth.
In Mexico, balsam is a popular treatment for asthma, catarrh, and rheumatism.
On the island of Chira, off Costa Rica, the resin is used to treat toothaches by applying it to the cheek.
Powdered resin and bark are available in capsules or tablets. No contraindications are noted although a study done in Greece found that balsam can cause contact dermatitis in some people.