Peruvian Balsam

Three closely related species of evergreen tress make up this tropical S American genus. They yield balsams with a cinnamon-vanilla aroma, which have long been used in medicine, perfumery, and food flavoring. Myroxylon balsamum is widely cultivated for these purposes. It is often planted as a windbreak or shade tree, and tolerates both moist and dry, alkaline conditions. Balsam trees were cultivated by the Incas. The first European to record their medicinal uses was Nicolas Monardes in 1565, who noted that balsam was collected by either cutting the bark or by boiling the branches in water. Following the Spanish conquest, balsam was exported to Europe for medicines and perfumery. It was also approved fro use in anointing oils; papal bulls of 1562 and 1571 declared it sacrilege to destroy balsam trees. Tolu balsam (M. balasamum) is named after Santiago de Tolu, Columbia; the resin differs only slightly in chemistry from the oily, fluid balsam of Peru (M. balasamum var. perierae), originally shipped from Callao, Peru. Both contain benzoic acid, which is a common cause of allergic reactions. Tolu balsam is collected from V-shaped incisions in the tree bark and solidifies to a yellow-red or brown, crystalline consistency. A different method is employed for Balsam of Peru; the bark is beaten, left a few days, then burned off; balam exudes from the wounded areas and is soaked up by rags, which are boiled in water to separate the balsam into an oily layer. Myroxlon is from the Greek Myron, "myrrh", and Xylon, "wood".

Taken from the bark of the Myroxolon balsum tree, native to El Salvador, balsam of Peru smells like cinnamon and vanilla due to its high amounts of cinnamein (a combination of cinnamic acid, cinnamyl cinnamate, benzyl benzoate, benzoic acid, and vanillin). It also contains essential oils that are much like those found in the peel of citrus fruit. This wonderful-smelling substance is used in perfumes and toiletries. It also has mild antibacterial and antifungal properties and is added to wound healing ointments.

Spreading, evergreen tree with fragrant bark and glossy, leathery, pinnate leaves, to 15cm (6in) long, divided into 5-13 ovate, pointed leaflets, which have undulating margis. The foliage has a balsam-citrus scent. Downy clusters of small white flowers are followed by leathery, winged fruits, 11cm (4¼in) long, containing 2 seeds.

Common Name:
Peruvian Balsam
Other Names:
Tolu Balsam, Baálsamo, Balsam of Tolu, Balsam Tree
Botanical Name:
Myroxylon balsamum syn. M. toluiferum
Native Location:
Mexico, Panama, and Peru; widely naturalized.
Well-drained soil with added sand and leaf mold, in sun, with ample water when in growth; M. balsamum var. pereirae tolerates alkaline and poor soils. Balsam trees are resilient, tolerating heavy tapping and often reaching 100 years old.
By seed sown when ripe; by semi-ripe cuttings in late summer.
Oleo-resin is collected at any time of the year, but mostly during the dry season, by wounding the bark; it is used raw, or processed into extracts, oils, syrups, and tinctures. Oil is distilled from oleo-resin. Seed are collected when ripe, and used whole.
12-15m (40-50ft)
5-10m (15-30ft)
Parts Used:
Seeds, oleo-resin, oil, bark
A sweet, acid-tasting, aromatic herb that acts as an antiseptic and stimulating expectorant.
Medicinal Uses:
Mainly as a pleasant-tasting ingredient in friar's balsam and cough mixtures; also as a base for lozenges (oleo-resin).
To treat hemorrhoids, coughs, colds, fever, and wounds.
Possible Side Effects:
Balsam of Peru's side effects include skin irritation and sun sensitivity.
Drug Interactions:
Taking Balsam of Peru with these drugs may cause or increase kidney damage:
Etodolac (Lodine, Utradol) Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) Indomethacin (Indocin, Novo-Methacin)
Ketoprofen (Orudis, Rhodis) Ketorolac (Acular, Toradol) Metformin (Glucophage, Riomet)
Culinary Uses:
Seeds of M. balsamum var. perierae are added to aguardiente (Guatemala).
Economic Uses:
Resin is used in commercial food flavoring (mainly for chewing gum, ice cream, candy, soft drinks, and bakery products). Oil is used in perfumery.
The Encyclopedia of Herbs by Deni Bown Copyright © 1995,2001 Dorling Kindersley Limited pg. 285
The Essential Herb-Drug-Vitamin Interaction Guide by George T. Grossberg, MD and Barry Fox, PhD Copyright © 2007 by Barry Fox PhD. Pg 56