The Tolu balsam (Myroxylon balsamum (L.) Harms) is an arboreal species belonging to the Fabaceae family.
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
M. balsamum species.
The following terms are synonymous:
– Myrospermum balsamiferum Ruiz & Pavon apud Lopez;
– Myrospermum pereirae Royle;
– Myrospermum punctatum (Klotzsch) Walp .;
– Myrospermum sonsonatense Oerst .;
– Myrospermum toluifera (Kunth) DC .;
– Myroxylon balsamum var. balsamum;
– Myroxylon balsamum var. pereirae (Royle) Harms;
– Myroxylon balsamum var. punctatum (Klotzsch) Harms;
– Myroxylon hanburyanum Klotzsch;
– Myroxylon pereirae (Royle) Klotzsch;
– Myroxylon punctatum Klotzsch;
– Myroxylon toluifera Kunth;
– Myroxylon toluiferum A.Rich .;
– Toluifera balsamum L .;
– Toluifera balsamum Baill. var. balsamum;
– Toluifera balsamum var. pereirae (Royle) Baill .;
– Toluifera pereirae (Royle) Baill .;
– Toluifera balsamum var. punctata Baill.
Within this species, two subspecies are recognized:
– Myroxylon balsamum subsp. balsamum;
– Myroxylon balsamum subsp. pereirae (Royle) Harms.
The term Myroxylon is of uncertain etymological origin.
The specific epithet balsamum comes from the Greek βάλσαμον bálsamon balsam (derived from the Hebrew basam, perfume, spice) and connected to the Aramaic busma and the Arabic basham: which produces balm, balsamic substances with a strong aromatic smell.
Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
The Tolu balsam is a plant widespread in tropical areas and Polynesia but native to the tropical forests of southern Mexico, through the Amazonian regions of Peru and Brazil.
Its habitat is that of evergreen tropical humid forests at medium-low altitudes from 100 to 690 meters.
Myroxylon balsamum is a large, slow-growing tree that can reach 45 meters in height.
It has a round crown with dense foliage and yellowish bark with a pungent odor.
The leaves are alternate, petiolate, of 8-20 centimeters, including the petioles; the petioles are 1-4 centimeters long and the rachis 5-15 centimeters. The rachis and petioles are pubescent. The leaflets are acute to sharp at the apex, obtuse at the base, glabrous, with entire margin and glandular oily points.
The flowers are white, pubescent and have about 10 stamens.
Plants planted from seed bloom at the age of 5 in the period from February to June.
The fruit is a flat winged pod, narrow obovate 8 centimeters long and 1-2 centimeters wide, yellow to brown in color when dried; falls to the ground between November and January.
Myroxylon balsamum is a slow-growing rainforest tree that can reach a height of 45 meters, although it usually keeps smaller.
It is a multipurpose tree, producing a precious gum-resin, precious wood, and a wide range of medicinal and other uses.
It is generally believed that the best form of the gum comes from the Myroxylon balsamum pereirae subspecies.
This gum has a long history of use by the local population as a medicine and is also widely used in modern herbal medicine, such as incense, perfume, etc.
The plant is normally used in its natural state but can also be grown for ornamental purposes in the tropics, especially as a shade tree along the sides of roads.
The plant grows best in areas where annual daytime temperatures are between 22 and 28 ° C, but can tolerate 16 – 32 ° C.
When dormant, the plant can survive temperatures as low as around -1 ° C and prefers average annual rainfall in the range 2,000 – 2,700 mm, but tolerates 1,350 – 4,000 mm.
It grows best in a sunny location, tolerating some shade.
From the pedological point of view, it prefers well-drained soil, even if poor, and slightly acidic, with a pH between 5 and 8 even if the optimal one is 5.5 – 6.5.
After planting, the seedlings grow up to 2.5 meters in height in the first two years.
Trees can reach a height of 10 meters in 10 – 12 years and 20 meters in 25 years.
Trees are not a profitable source of balsam until about their 15th year of age and with proper management, they can produce rubber for 30 – 40 years.
Rubber harvesting begins on 20-30 year old trees with a minimum diameter of 12 – 15cm and the plants start flowering when they are about 5 years old.
On average, 20-year-old trees produce about 3 kg of rubber per year.
However, wild populations still provide the main sources of balsam. Tire harvesting is often drastic and can cause severe injury or death to trees.
Propagation can occur by seed; it propagates mainly through natural regeneration, but the seed can also be planted with a mixture of clay and organic matter to a depth of 5 mm, covered with fine soil and watered daily. Sprouting beds or containers should be partially shaded. The seeds germinate in 15 – 30 days with a success rate of over 50%.
The seedlings are ready for planting in 5 months.
It should be noted that natural regeneration is abundant mainly under the canopy of parent trees, where the seeds reach up to 80% germination. Few of these seedlings ever reach maturity due to the low light levels in the forest.
The fruits must be soaked in running water for 24 hours to soften the pericarp and facilitate the extraction of the seeds.
The presence of high coumarin levels in the cotyledons and embryonic axis appears to have no effect on the germination of this species, but appears to act as an allelopathic factor.
Customs and Traditions –
The Tolu balsam is obtained from the plant of Myroxylon balsamum, in reference to the Colombian town of Tolù. Toluene was first extracted from this balm in 1841.
A yellowish liquid is extracted from the plant which is used in medicine and aromatherapy.
The extracts of this plant are used in medicine for the immune system, respiratory, urinary, central nervous system and skin diseases and in cosmetics.
The balsam of Tolu and the balsam of Peru are the products of the resin of the species. They are extracted from different varieties in different ways. These are marketed through a number of intermediaries and exporters; its destinations are Germany, United States of America, England and Spain, where it is used in the production of cosmetics and medicines (for diseases of the skin, bronchi, lungs and respiratory tract, and in the treatment of burns and wounds).
This tree was planted for balsam production in West Africa, India, and Sri Lanka.
As for food uses, the aromatic and slightly bitter gums obtained from this plant are used as a flavoring in soft drinks, confectionery, ice cream and chewing gum.
Essential oil is used to flavor baked goods.
From a medicinal point of view, Myroxylon balsamum has a long history of use by the local population, who used the leaves and fruits in the treatment of asthma, colds and flu, rheumatism and for external use.
The lymph has been used to treat colds and lung diseases, abscesses, asthma, bronchitis, phlegm, headache, rheumatism, sores, sprains, tuberculosis, venereal diseases and wounds. Many of these traditional uses have been confirmed by modern research.
In fact, it has been documented that the balm of both varieties has antiseptic, antiparasitic and antibacterial properties, as well as promoting the growth of epithelial cells.
In studies, plants have been reported to inhibit Mycobacterium tuberculosis and the common ulcer-causing bacterium, H. Pylori (in test-tube studies).
The essential oil contains benzoic and cinnamic acid esters. These are believed to be the main active constituents of the balm.
Modern herbal medicine enhances the Tolù balsam, which is obtained from the subspecies M. b. balsamum, as a weak expectorant used in cough mixtures and as an inhalant for phlegm and bronchitis.
Tolu balsam was included in the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1820 and is used just as much as Peru balsam.
Additionally, it is a cough suppressant and respiratory aid used in lozenges and syrups for cough, sore throat, and as a steam inhaler for respiratory ailments.
In addition to being used in perfumery and for medicinal purposes, the balsam is also used as an adulterant for the finest “balsam of Peru” obtained from Myroxylon balsamum subsp. pereirae.
The balm extracted from the trunk is used as an ingredient in commercial cosmetic preparations such as perfume.
The essential oil extracted from the balm obtained from the plant is used as an ingredient in commercial cosmetic preparations such as perfume.
The oleoresin extracted from the trunk is used as an ingredient in commercial cosmetic preparations as a film former, masking agent and hair conditioner.
Balsam gum contains about 60% cinnamine, an essential oil extracted by steam distillation.
This is used as incense in churches and as a hair set and thickening agent.
The oil is also used in the high quality perfume, cosmetics and soap industry; its fragrance is attributed to vanillin, coumarin, cinnamic and benzoic acids.
As for contraindications, according to some clinical studies published in recent years, this balm can cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Allergic reactions reported are generally rashes and dermatitis when the conditioner comes in 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 benzoic acids in the gum, to which some people are very sensitive.
Among the other uses of Myroxylon balsamum we mention the agroforestry ones.
This species is in fact a good shade tree and also fixes atmospheric nitrogen and is sometimes grown to provide shade in coffee plantations.
It is recalled that this species has a symbiotic relationship with some soil bacteria, these bacteria form nodules on the roots and fix atmospheric nitrogen. Some of this nitrogen is used by the growing plant, but it can also be used by other plants growing nearby.
The powdered bark is used as a deodorant for the armpits.
As for the woody part, the heartwood is reddish brown, which becomes intense red or purplish on exposure, and has a spicy scent; it is clearly demarcated by the very pale yellow color of the sapwood. The texture is medium to fine; the grain is intertwined; the gloss is medium; it does not have a distinct taste but a slightly distinctive aroma. Wood is moderately difficult to work with, but can be finished with a natural polish without problems and is very resistant to fungal decay. It is used for floors, furniture, cabinet making, turning and railway sleepers.
Preparation Method –
A yellowish liquid is extracted from the Myroxylon balsamum plant which is used in medicine and aromatherapy.
It is used for food purposes; the aromatic and slightly bitter gums obtained from this plant are used as a flavoring in soft drinks, confectionery, ice cream and chewing gum.
Essential oil is used to flavor baked goods.
As for the extraction of rubber, there are different ways.
In one system, numerous V-shaped incisions are made in the bark, being careful not to encircle the tree; in this way the balm flows through the incisions, into the vessels.
With another method, a 15 – 25 cm section of bark is removed from the tree about 30 cm above the ground; the wound is covered with a cotton cloth to absorb the liquid. When the natural flow ceases, sunburn stimulates it. The soaked rags are then boiled in water and pressed.
Another method is to burn the trees at the base. Strips of bark are torn, crushed and placed in hot water to soften the conditioner and make it easier to flow. The cooled balm sinks to the bottom and can be separated.
Finally, a fourth method used is that in which sections of the tree trunk are beaten with a wooden club and then vertical incisions are made in the bark 8 cm wide. A few days later the incisions are heated with fire to stimulate gum flow, but the incisions are not burned. The rags are placed over the incisions and removed when saturated. Rough presses are used to extract rubber from rags.
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– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– Useful Tropical Plants Database.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (ed.), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Advice and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore.
Warning: Pharmaceutical applications and alimurgical uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not represent in any way a medical prescription; therefore no responsibility is taken for their use for curative, aesthetic or food purposes.