Peruvian balsam is an evergreen tree that grows up to a height of 50 feet (15 meters). The bark of Peruvian balsam (botanical name, Myroxylon pereirae belonging to genus Myroxylon) is gray and it bears compound leaves that are speckled with oil glands. Peruvian balsam, a member of the 'bean' family, produces white flowers similar to those of the pea and the seed pods have a yellow hue.
As the name of the plant suggests, it is native to South and Central America, especially Panama, Mexico and Jamaica, and it grows naturally in the tropical forests. Presently, this plant is also cultivated in several countries in South and Central America, western Africa, India and Sri Lanka. The species bears fragrant white flowers, while its leaves are evergreen, denoting that the trees have leaves all through the year. Peruvian balsam exudes a dense, fragrant and reddish-brown resin or gum from the bruised bark of its trunk. The gum or balsam is collected, made softer and distilled by means of a process that includes thawing and boiling. Freshly collected resin of the tree has a potent aroma that is similar to that of benzoin or vanilla.
While Peruvian balsam prospers mainly in El Salvador, in the area along the coasts of the Pacific Ocean known as the Balsam Coast, this magnificent species is generally known as the balsam of Peru. In effect, the confusing geographical name to the species was given way back in 16th century, as the Spanish shipped the dense resin (balsam) of the tree from the ports in Peru to Europe. Presently, Peruvian balsam is found growing in wild all over most regions of Central America, in the southern regions of Mexico as well as in areas of northern South America.
Peruvian balsam may be grown without any difficulty from its seeds or cuttings. This species is occasionally cultivated in places having tropical climatic conditions in the form of a shade tree and is frequently grown on coffee plantations for shade. On an average, Peruvian balsam grows up to a height of 50 to 65 feet, but sometimes it also grows much higher. The evergreen leaves of the tree are divided into shiny, oblong-shaped or oval leaflets, each measuring about two inches to 3.5 inches in length. Each leaflet of the tree is sprinkled with tiny, transparent specks.
However, the commercial value of Peruvian balsam is not owing to its leaves, flowers or magnificence. On the contrary, it is the balsam or mastic - the dense, pleasantly aromatic resin (in effect, when fresh its smell resembles cinnamon and vanilla when mature) exuded by the trunk of the tree, which people have sought after for several centuries. Native Indians inhabiting Central and South America, counting the powerful Incas who ruled over Peru, were aware that the balsam or resin was useful in stopping haemorrhages as well as healing wounds, cuts and burns. In addition, members of the Incas tribe also employed the leaves of Peruvian balsam in the form of a diuretic as well as to force out parasitic worms from the body. Early settlers from Spain came to learn about the therapeutic properties of Peruvian balsam from the Native American Indians and were quick to identify the tree as a potentially profitable item of trade and, hence, started shipping the trees home.
Presently, the commerce in balsam is robust. The resin is used as an active ingredient in several fungicidal and antiseptic balms that are used to treat various skin ailments or complaints like scabies (an itching attributed to parasitic mites) and ringworms (a fungal contagion). The resin forms an important component in dental cements as well as in suppositories that are commercially available in the United States to ease itching caused by hemorrhoids. In addition, Peruvian balsam is also used to add essence to cough drops as well as to scent toiletry items.
There are two different processes by which the resin of Peruvian balsam may be extracted. According to the first method, the bark from the trunk of charred, 10-year-old tree is taken out just above the level of the ground. Flame is used to scorch the bark and subsequently the balsam or resin is gathered in cloths positioned on the charred area. The second method involves making an incision in the shape of a V in the tree trunk and a vessel is placed beneath the incision to amass the resin. Later, the resin is distilled by thawing, filtering and solidifying.
It is believed that the Peruvian balsam has been named so since the balsam or resin of the tree was initially shipped from Callao in Peru to Spain; and since then, balsam as well as the essential oils enclosed by it have been employed to add essence to soft drinks, foods, and chewing gum. Even since the period when the Incas ruled over Peru, Peruvians have employed balsam to ease fevers, bronchitis, colds and coughs as well as to treat inflammation of the pharynx and mouth and any propensity to develop infections.
Even the Aztecs, an ancient ethnic group in Mexico, cultivated Peruvian balsam in the gardens of their royals and prepared compresses using the pounded leaves of the tree to accelerate healing of wounds. The clergy in Spain also valued the sap or resin exuded from the bark of Peruvian balsam and used it in ceremonial lotions. In 1562 and 1571, the Papal bulls had banned the obliteration of the Peruvian balsam trees.
A 16th century Spanish physician Nicolas Monardes wrote a book describing Peruvian balsam in the way the herb was used by the native people of Mexico. He wrote that the Mexican people collected the resin on dishes made of wax and placed under the incisions made by them on the bark of the tree trunk. Monardes enthusiastically described balsam as among the most excellent resins to be found in the Americas and added that it was valued for its aptitude to treat a wide assortment of diseases.
Peruvian balsam possesses potent antiseptic properties and fuels restoring the harmed tissues. While internal use of this herbal medication is not advised generally, it is sometimes taken internally in the form of an expectorant as well as a decongestant to cure bronchitis, emphysema and bronchial asthma. In addition, it is also used internally for treating aching throats as well as diarrhea. Topically, Peruvian balsam is applied to skin disorders as well as wounds, burn injuries, hemorrhoids and in curing eczema as well as scabies and itching. Peruvian balsam is especially effective in treating infected and sluggishly healing wounds, burn injuries, frostbite, decubitus ulcers (bedsores), leg ulcers and bruises. As mentioned earlier, Peruvian balsam is a potent antiseptic and promotes the restoration of harmed tissues.
The concentrated oil extracted from Peruvian balsam possesses anti-fungal and anti-bacterial attributes and is used in the form of an expectorant (to draw out phlegm) in aromatherapy. This oil is also employed to cure infections of the respiratory tract. Peruvian balsam has a long history of being used in the form of salve to treat headaches, toothaches as well as rheumatic symptoms. It is also used to stop bleeding from uterus and umbilical veins.
Peruvian balsam is also used to prepare homeopathic remedies, especially those that are used to treat persistent inflammations of the mucous membrane of the urinary organs and the respiratory tract. People in Guatemala, use Peruvian balsam to cure skin itching. However, this herbal remedy is known to aggravate irritation in sensitive skin. In addition, Guatemalans employ the dehydrated Peruvian balsam fruits in the form of a decoction following child birth. Peruvian balsam is very popular among the Mexicans who use this herb to treat catarrh, asthma as well as rheumatism.
People inhabiting the island of Chira, off Costa Rica, employ the resin exuded by the bark of Peruvian balsam to cure toothaches. They apply the resin to the cheeks for this purpose. In addition, the resin is also available commercially in the form of tablets and capsules.
Peruvian balsam is indigenous to Central America and it is found growing naturally in the tropical forests. Presently, Peruvian balsam in cultivated in Central and South American nations and also in India and Sri Lanka. When the bark of this tree is bruised, it exudes a dense, reddish-brown resin or balsam that is used therapeutically.
Chemical analysis of Peruvian balsam has revealed that the tree encloses resins of which a maximum of 80 per cent is cinnamic acid, cinnamein (50 to 70 per cent in Peruvian balsam and 10 to 30 per cent in Tolu balsam) and volatile oils (50 to 65 per cent benzyl benzoate and benzyl cinnamate, in addition to some amount of nerolidol).
Although Peruvian balsam is effective in treating a number of health conditions, people using herbal preparations with this plant ought to be cautious regarding its side effects. For instance, using this herb internally may result in contact allergic reactions and a number of grave complaints. Such adverse side effects may also happen when the formulations prepared with the herb are used externally. In effect, there have been a number of complaints regarding systemic toxicity in babies owing to the use of this herb when the kids have absorbed it after applying it to the nipples of nursing mothers to cure scabies.