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What is Balsam?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Balsam is a plant compound which is noted for its strong odor. Several plants produce substances which are classified as balsam, and an assortment of other plants have a similar odor which leads gardeners to refer to them by the same name. The "true balsams" produce a semisolid material which is not soluble in water. Some common examples of trees that bear this compound include balsam pines, balsam firs, balsam poplars, and Balsam of Peru. Some people like to grow these trees and plants as ornamentals and scent enhancers for the garden.

The strong and distinctive scent of balsam is due to the presence of benzoic and cinnamic acid or esters of these acids. Depending on the tree, the tree may freely weep the compound, allowing people to collect the beaded sap, or the tree may need to be cut to release the material, which is usually oily or gummy when it flows from the tree. Over time, the compound hardens, making it easier to handle and transport, and it may be yellowish to brown in color.

Medical preparations have historically been made with balsam because the strong odor was believed to be medically beneficial, especially for respiratory conditions. This belief mirrors a once-widely accepted belief that medicinal preparations had to have a strong odor to be effective. It has also been used in religious ceremonies as incense, or for religious anointing when mixed with oil and other aromatics.

People have also favored the strong odor of balsam for home maintenance and personal care. Branches from the trees were once used to strew floors and decorate halls in buildings which were cleaned infrequently and packed with people who bathed on an irregular basis. The tradition of cutting aromatic branches has endured in many cultures, especially in the winter, when homes often become stuffy, making the fresh scent of pine or fir branches especially appealing.

In personal care, balsam has been mixed into various hair care products, along with soaps, perfumes, and other materials. In the modern era, some people enjoy balsam-scented soaps, and historically, the smell covered up more unpleasant body odors. The soap is especially popular in some regions of the world, and the scent is also included in perfumes and detergents. For people who like to experiment with scents on their own, pure extract is available from specialty purveyors for use in soaps, perfumes, and other personal care items.

BeautyAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a BeautyAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By pennywell — On Jun 28, 2011

@fingered, @simrin - With pure, concentrated balsam oil, use it extremely sparingly since even a small amount will impart a strong flavor. In taste and smell, it has soft tones of vanilla and a subtle clean wood. Try adding a little bit into a spiced fruit cake. It makes a world of difference! I haven't seen any specific recipes calling for balsam though. Does anyone know of some?

By fingered — On Jun 27, 2011

@simrin - If you plan on using balsam as an ingredient in chocolate or brownies, my suggestion would be to melt the chocolate on a double boiler (also known as a bain-marie) and then gradually whisk in the balsam oil to ensure that the flavor infuses properly. Be careful when using balsam because some people are actually allergic to it. Then again, it's so rarely used as a food ingredient in the West that many people might not even realize they're allergic!

By AnnBoleyn — On Jun 25, 2011

@feruze - Balsam essential oil can be used as a fixative or a base note in perfumes. It adds a lovely, soothing smell in the background. The oils have been used for so many centuries, as far back as the ancient Egyptians. In their time it was especially used when embalming bodies, both for its clean smell as well as its ability to kill bacteria.

By bear78 — On Jun 25, 2011

@ysmina-- I don't know the history behind balsam moisturizers but what you said sounds right to me. Many balsam products are made with essential oils, mainly extracted from the balsam of trees and plants anyway.

I actually have one made of fir balsam. Fir and evergreen balsam is used a lot to make creams and lotions because the scent and the oil has a lot of therapeutic benefits. I use it for my ankles and knees because I have a lot of joint pain and it relieves that pretty well. It's really good for colds too. That's probably why Vicks balm is traditionally used when kids have a cold or flu.

The product I have doesn't claim this, but I believe the scent of balsam has an aromatherapy effect as well. Because whenever I use it, I honestly feel more relaxed and calmer. It's a very soothing scent.

By SteamLouis — On Jun 25, 2011

Fir balsam is actually used a lot to flavor foods and drinks. I know of a brewery in Canada which uses fir balsam in their beer. When I was in Europe, I also tasted ice cream which was flavored with balsam sap and it was very different and delicious. I was told that they only use a tiny amount in foods because the flavor and scent is so strong that it would completely overtake all other flavors if too much is used.

Apparently, balsam has been quite popular in European foods. I think in the US, it is preferred more for soaps and perfumes. But Europeans have been cooking and drinking with it for a long time. I heard that the French even made tea with it and so did the French settlers in US and Canada. There might be some who still do.

I think making foods with balsam is a great idea. The ice cream I had for example, was such a different taste for me, I'll never forget it. I really want to try the Canadian beer with balsam too. I think they should also make chocolates or chocolate brownies with fir balsam. It would be a nice refreshing flavor.

Have you tried any other foods with balsam? What was it and where did you have it? I would love to hear about it!

By ysmina — On Jun 25, 2011

I thought that balsam was a kind of moisturizer that is thick with natural ingredients and oils that are good for the skin. Many skin care brands have their versions of balsam moisturizers.

I wonder if these products were first labeled as balsam because of the plant balsam it contained? Am I on the right track here, or are the two completely unrelated?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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