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For other uses, see Balsam (disambiguation).

Balsam (also: turpentine) is the resinous exudate (or sap) from living trees and shrubs. Some balsams have been known since Biblical times.


Balsam is a solution of plant-specific resins in plant-specific solvents (essential oils). Such resins can include resin acids, esters, or alcohols. The exudate is a mobile to highly viscous liquid and often contains crystallized resin particles. Over time and as a result of other influences the exudate loses its liquidizing components or gets chemically converted into a solid material (i.e., by autoxidation).[1]

Some authors require balsams to contain benzoic or cinnamic acid or their esters.[2]

Resins are difficult to classify because of their amorphous nature.[2] Even the term "resin" is not sharply defined.[3] Several attempts were made to differentiate between waxes and other classes of substance, particularly fats, resins, and high molar mass polymers, by using several criteria. These primarily physical definitions are to some extent arbitrary and are not generally accepted.[4]

Plant resins are sometimes classified as mixtures with other plant constituents, for example as pure resins (guaiac, hashish) gum-resins (containing gums/polysaccharides), oleo-gum-resins (a mixture of gums, resins and essential oils), oleo-resins (a mixture of resins and essential oils, e. g. capsicum, ginger and aspidinol), balsams (resinous mixtures that contain cinnamic and/or benzoic acid or their esters), and glycoresins (podophyllin, jalap, kava kava).[2]

There is also rubber (latex), which consists of 1,4-polyisoprene.[5]

Non-plant natural resins include fossil and mined resins (amber, Utah resin, asphaltite), and animal resins (shellac).[1]


Some balsams, such as Balsam of Peru, may be associated with allergies.[6][7]

Balsam of Mecca[edit]

The perfume extracted from the sap of the tree Commiphora gileadensis (synonym: Commiphora opobalsamum) is designated in the Bible by various names: bosem, besem, ẓori, nataf, and, in rabbinic literature, kataf, balsam, appobalsamon, afarsemon. It was the only tropical, and the most expensive, spice grown in Israel.[8] It was known to Pliny (Historia Naturalis 12:116; 13.18) as opobalsamum.[9] It is also known as Balsam of Mecca.[10]

In their struggle against the Romans, the Jews strove desperately to destroy the balsam orchards and prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy. The Romans, however, captured them and, in his triumphal march in Rome, Titus displayed balsam trees brought from Judea. The orchards in Jericho and En-Gedi henceforth provided the Romans with an important source of revenue (Historia Naturalis, 12:25).[8]

Apparently, the balsam of the Bible also signifies some remedy compounded of balsam sap and other ingredients. The Balm of Gilead is mentioned as having healing properties. Balsam was an ingredient of the incense (ketoret) burned in the Tabernacle.[8]

The Egyptian town of Ain Shams was renowned for its balsam-garden, which was cultivated under the supervision of the government. During the Middle Ages the balsam-tree is said to have grown only here, though formerly it had also been a native plant in Syria. According to a Coptic tradition known also by the Muslims, it was in the spring of Ayn Shams that Mary, the mother of Jesus, washed the clothes of the latter on her way back to Palestine after her flight to Egypt. From that time onwards, the spring was beneficent, and during the Middle Ages balsam-trees could only produce their precious secretion on land watered by it.[11]

At present the tree Commiphora gileadensis grows wild in the valley of Mecca where it is called beshem. Many strains of this species are found, some in Somalia and Yemen. As a perfume it is hardly used today. It serves in the Orient as a healing agent for wounds and as an antidote to snakebite and the sting of scorpions.[8]

List of balsams[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Klemens Fiebach; Dieter Grimm (2007), "Resins, Natural", Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry (7th ed.), Wiley, p. 2 
  2. ^ a b c Andrew Pengelly (2004), "Essential oils and resins", The constituents of medicinal plants (2nd ed.), Allen & Unwin, p. 102 
  3. ^ Gerd Collin et al. (2007), "Resins, Synthetic", Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry (7th ed.), Wiley, p. 1 
  4. ^ Uwe Wolfmeier et al. (2007), "Waxes", Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry (7th ed.), Wiley, p. 3 
  5. ^ Heinz-Hermann Greve (2007), "Rubber, Natural", Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry (7th ed.), Wiley, p. 1 
  6. ^ Edward T. Bope, Rick D. Kellerman (2013). Conn's Current Therapy 2014: Expert Consult. Elsevier Health Sciences. Retrieved March 6, 2014. 
  7. ^ "Balsam of Peru induced contact allergy", Accessed: October 11, 2007
  8. ^ a b c d Jehuda Feliks (2007), "Balsam", Encyclopaedia Judaica 3 (2nd ed.), Thomson Gale, p. 95 
  9. ^ "opobalsamum", Oxford Latin Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 1254 
  10. ^ Lumír O. Hanuš et al. (2005), "Myrrh-Commiphora Chemistry", Biomed. Papers 149 (1): 3–23, PMID 16170385 
  11. ^ C. H. Becker (1986), "ʿAYN SHAMS", The Encyclopaedia of Islam 1 (2nd ed.), Brill, p. 788a