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What is Peru Balsam?

By C. Ausbrooks
Updated May 17, 2024
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Peru balsam, also known as Peruvian balsam or balsam of Peru, is a tree native to Central America, particularly El Salvador. The tree's name derives from the products made with its resin that were once shipped to Europe from the ports of Lima, Peru. It is not, however, native to the area. Balsam of Peru is commercially valuable for its thick, fragrant resin that has been used as an herbal remedy for centuries.

In appearance, Peru balsam trees are tall and graceful with glossy, evergreen leaves and a smooth, straight trunk. The wood of the Peruvian balsam is valuable in many parts of the world and is similar in composition to mahogany. The trees average about 65 feet (19.8 meters) in height, although some have been known to reach up to 115 feet (35 meters). Fragrant white flowers appear on the end of the tree's branches, and the resin found within the trunk can be harvested for 30 years or more.

Peru balsam resin is tapped from the tree's trunk after it has reached at least 20 years of age. A single, fully-grown tree will produce about 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of resin per year. The resin smells of cinnamon and vanilla, and is frequently used as a food additive and flavoring agent in products such as chewing gum, cough syrup and soft drinks. It is most popular, however, for its use as an herbal medicine.

Traditionally, Peru balsam resin was used by the indigenous tribes of Central America and Mexico for treating external wounds, colds and flu, rheumatism and asthma symptoms. In the 17th century, the resin was first exported to Europe, where it was used as an anti-fungal and antibacterial agent. It was included in the German Pharmacopeia as a treatment for wounds, ulcerations, bedsores, scabies, lice and ringworm. Balsam of Peru was first documented in the United States Pharmacopeia in 1820 for treating diarrhea, dysentery, bronchitis and laryngitis. A Pharmacopeia is a book published by a government or medical society containing a list of all accepted drugs and medications, along with articles on their use and preparation.

In modern times, resin from the Peru balsam tree is most commonly used in topical preparations for wounds, ulcers, skin lacerations and parasites. It is found in commercial anti-dandruff products and hair treatments, and as a fragrance in soaps, lotions and perfumes. Other documented uses of the resin include the treatment of coughs, sore throat, respiratory problems, emphysema, pruritis, purigo, eczema, low blood pressure, hemorrhoids, leucorrhoea, headache, abscesses, excessive mucus, fungal infections, worms, gout, colic, dandruff and venereal disease.

Peru balsam is widely available around the world in the form of essential oil or as a pure gum. These products are intended for external use, although they can be taken internally in small amounts. Balsam of Peru essential oil is also used in aromatherapy for treating nervous tension and various stress-related ailments.

For topical use, the recommended dosage is one part resin or oil combined with three parts carrier oil, such as olive or almond oil. The mixture is applied twice daily to rashes, wounds or skin parasites. For internal use, five to ten drops of Peru balsam essential oil is dissolved in a cup of warm water and taken twice per day for treating respiratory ailments. Although the substance is generally safe when taken appropriately and no drug interactions have been reported, it's always a good idea to consult a qualified medical practitioner before taking any new herbal remedy.

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