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In the 16th century, Spaniards began shipping the thick resin of balsam of Peru to Europe from the ports of Peru, which resulted in the confusing name. However, this stately tree thrives chiefly in the region of El Salvador bordering the Pacific coast. But today, it also grows wild throughout Central America, in southern Mexico, and in parts of northern South America.

Because it is easily grown from seeds or cuttings, and because of its graceful form, the balsam of Peru is often grown in the tropics as a shade tree and is used for shade on coffee plantations. The tree averages 50 to 65 feet in height. The leaves are evergreen and divided into glossy, oblong or oval, 2 to 3 inch-long leaflets, which are sprinkled with transparent dots. The clusters of fragrant white flowers form at the end of the branches.

But the commercial value of balsam of Peru doesn’t come from its leaves or flowers. No, it’s the balsam itself, which is a thick, lusciously fragrant resin that smells like cinnamon when fresh, and like vanilla when aged. This resin is found in the trunk of the tree and has been sought for centuries. The Indians of Central and South America knew that the balsam was effective for stopping bleeding and promoting healing. They also used the leaves as a diuretic and to expel parasites. It was the Indians who introduced the tree’s medicinal properties to the Spaniards, who, recognizing it as potentially lucrative item of trade, began sending it home.

Today, balsam is traded vigorously. The resin is used in antiseptic and fungicidal ointments for skin diseases like scabies and ringworm, just to name a few. In the United States, it is used in dental cements as well as suppositories for the relief of hemorrhoidal itching. It is also extensively used in perfume toiletry items, and to flavor cough drops. Balsam of Peru is one of nature’s wonder trees.