T. balsamum is a tall tree native to South America and grows abundantly on the high plains and mountains of Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru. The species is also known as Myroxylon toluiferum HBK and Myroxylon balsamamum (L.) Harms. The resin, as well as the leaves and fruit, have been traditionally used by the people of Central America and South America to relieve coughs and asthma, and to treat wounds. Its name comes from Tolú (singular); Tolúes (plural), the name of the native precolumbian people that used to be the inhabitants at the same place where now is located Tolú, a small town and municipality in Sucre Department, northern Colombia (South America) by the Caribbean sea. Tolúes were the first reported to be using this resin in early Spanish chronicles. At the height of its popularity a Papal edict forbade cutting of the tree. Tolu balsam entered commercial channels from Colombia and Venezuela. Major producer of Peru balsam is El Salvador which at the close of the 1970’s and 1980’s exported about 48 million tonnes, mostly to the United States. Colombia produces Tolu balsam from M. balsamum var. balsamum.
T. balsamum is a tree growing to 34 m in height and 1 m in diameter. The bark is generally grey and spotted with rough yellow areas. Leaves oddly pinnate, 3-11 leaves, 6-9 cm long and 3-4 cm wide with scattered translucent, glandular oil dots or lines. Flowers are whitish, corolla 5-petalled. Pods winged 8-13 cm long and 2.5 cm broad containing one seed at the tip. The generic epithet is derived from Greek “myron” meaning perfume or sweet oil and “xylon” wood. The trees are not a profitable source of balsam until about the 15th year. Under proper management, trees yield gum for 30-40 years. Gum harvesting begins on 20-30 year old trees with minimum diameters of 12-15 cm. Twenty year old trees yield about 3 kg of gum per year. Wild populations are the major sources of Peru and tolu balsam. Gum harvesting is drastic and may cause serious tree injury or deaths.
The resin is tapped from the trunk of the tree through incisions into the bark and collected when dry. The bark is burned and these specific spots are covered with pieces of cloth that absorb the exudate. The cloth is then pressed and the balsam is purified by boiling. The trees suffer no permanent damage from this process, and can continue to yield balsam for more than 100 years. The colour of the resin is light to reddish brown. Tolu balsam is pliable when warm and fractures in a pattern similar to flint when cold. The dry resin has a complex aroma consisting chiefly of cinnamon and vanilla notes with a slight floral character. The wood is dark brown with a deep red heartwood. Natural oils grant it excellent decay resistance. In fact, it is also resistant to preservative treatment. Its specific gravity is 0.74 to 0.81.
The indigenous use of Balsam of Peru led to its export to Europe in the seventeenth century, where it was first documented in the German Pharmacopeia. It was used as an antibacterial, antifungal, and antiparasitic agent in cases of scabies, ringworm, lice, superficial ulcerations, wounds, bedsores, diaper rash, and chilblains. In Britain, balsam is used topically for scabies, prurigo (chronic inflammation of the skin), pruritus, and acute eczema, as well as taken internally for asthma and bronchitis and to generally lessen mucous secretions. It is one of the main active ingredients of Saunders’ Balsamic Syrup, the cough medicine that was made at the shop in Bradford Museum during its 123 year history.
Tolu has begun to be used in the niche perfume industry notably by Ormonde Jayne Perfumery, which launched its oriental perfume Tolu in 2002 and also recently in 2010 by Esteban which launched Baume Tolu. Both perfumes have a velvety rich quality and Ormonde Jayne’s Tolu Perfume was used by designer Roksana Ilincic to scent her evening dress shows during Fashion Week. Balsam of Peru and balsam of tolu are widely available now in the U.S. natural products market. Allergic reactions reported are generally skin rashes and dermatitis when the balsam comes into contact with the skin – even in small amounts found in soaps, perfumes, and other common body care products. These allergic reactions are attributed to the gum’s benzoic acids, which some people are highly sensitive to.