Ingredient in the Spotlight: Peru Balsam

Peru balsam has a stunning sweet and smoky scent, reminiscent of vanilla with a calming and comforting quality. It has a unique nature that is gentle while simultaneously softly enveloping with a pronounced character.

Peru Balsam is a sap secretion produced by wounding the Myroxylon pereirae tree, literally "fragrant wood" in Greek, termed Quina by the indigenous peoples of Central America. The tree grows to heights of fifty feet or more in high altitudes and is mainly cultivated in South America and the West Indies, although it has since spread to other parts of the world. Today El Salvador is the main exporter of Peru Balsam. The name of Balsam of Peru derives from it originally being shipped to Europe from the ports of Callao and Lima, in Peru, even though the species is not indigenous to Peru.

 

The indigenous used this balsam to help heal wounds and even for treatment of asthma and rheumatism. The reverence for Peru Balsam was inherited by Europeans when a mid-sixteenth century papal bull authorised clergy in El Salvador to harvest and use the precious balsam and pronounced it a sacrilege to destroy or injure the trees that produced it. The document described the extraction process in detail.

An incision was made in the tree, "whence it gradually exudes, and is absorbed by pieces of cotton rags inserted for the purpose. These, when thoroughly saturated, are replaced by others, which, as they are removed, are thrown into boiling water. The heat detaches it from the cotton, and the valuable balsam being of less gravity than water, floats on the top, is skimmed off, and put into calabashes for sale."

The odor of Peru balsam resembles that of vanilla with a gentle green olive base note that is earthy and bitter to the trained nose. The complex aroma consists chiefly of cinnamon and vanilla, with a soft and inviting floral wash tone. Its dark colour and thick consistency it resembles molasses and historically was reserved for use in soaps or food flavoring.

The perfumer, however, appreciates its colour as an essential and beautiful aspect of its character, like the flaws in leather. With its rich, sweet dry-down note, the essence imparts a warm, edible quality to perfumes. It blends well with heady florals like ylang-ylang or tuberose, and light or heavy woods like sandalwood or petitgrain.

The Parfum Apothecary highlights the sweet fragrance of Peru balsam most memorably in the solid perfume Delicious, which complements this balsam's vanilla note with rich coffee and spices. It's almost good enough to eat!

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