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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.