Holy See “Vatican City”

Balsam

Myroxylon balsamum, Myroxylon toluiferum, and other Balsam species

Photo of leaves on a balsam tree

General Description / Cultural Significance

Balsam, Myroxylon balsamum, is among the plants incorporated in papal incense and therefore incredibly meaningful to priests in Vatican City, the capitol of the Catholic Church. Since antiquity, incense has been used in the Christian faith to bless, sanctify, and purify. In the bible, it was notably one of the gifts from the three wise men to Jesus. White resin produced from balsam is used to create a strong fragrance and thicken the smoke of burning incense, which rises and represents ascension to heaven. The fragrance of balsam represents the “aroma of Christ.” The oil of balsam is also mixed with olive oil by a priest who consecrates it by saying a prayer, at which point it becomes a precious and holy gift. 

This resin used in these rituals is obtained from the sap of the Balsam tree, which leaks and hardens, and is then powdered and used as incense. Peru and Tolu species of balsam are used as frankincense, and mixed with other species such as Balm of Gilead or pine. Balsam is also often distilled and used in perfumes. Currently, the essential oil of frankincense is popular, as it is thought to relieve stress and improve both heart rate and breathing.  It is also widely thought that balsam brings spiritual, emotional, and physical healing, as well as comfort.

Climate Change/Conservation Status

In 2020, Pope Francis committed the Vatican to reducing its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 and strongly urged other countries to work to do the same. He backed the Paris agreement and also stated that the Vatican aimed to reach 75% waste recycling by the year 2023, and they are moving to substitute all cars with electric or hybrid models in the city-state. As a moral authority, the pope holds much power, and so his practical changes and his general stance regarding the climate crisis is encouraging for the rest of the planet.

More broadly, the Italian region’s temperatures have already been rising and they have been facing heavy precipitation patterns. Extreme weather has become far more frequent. Tornados and floods have been causing damage and death. The melting of Italian glaciers and subsequent rise in sea levels is a major threat to low-lying coasts. More changes must be made in order to reduce carbon emissions and alter the intensifying course of these weather patterns.

As far as balsam goes, the tree is endangered in some parts of the world. The IUCN listed it as threatened in 2017. According to a few reports, balsam is threatened due to the high demand for essential oils and incense. Resin over-harvesting and drought conditions, as well as unprotected forests in Somaliland are a problem, as this region sells frankincense to other countries and is a major source for the Roman Catholic Church. Farmers who produce frankincense are also exploited for their labor and underpaid. Better sustainability standards are needed in order to protect this sacred species, and fair trade prices are needed to protect the people farming it.

As climate change is an unprecedented threat to all living systems of earth, it is implicated in any negative changes with balsam plants in the natural ranges where they grow.

Alternate Names
Gum olibanum
Santos mahogany
Tolu balsam

Sources
Chester, Jo. “What Are the Ingredients in the Incense at Catholic Mass?” Classroom, September 29, 2017. https://classroom.synonym.com/what-are-the-ingredients-in-the-incense-at-catholic-mass-12083766.html

Emmons, D.D. “What are the Three Holy Oils?” Simply Catholic. https://simplycatholic.com/what-are-holy-oils/

“How climate change will devastate Italy.” The Local, December 1. 2015. https://www.thelocal.it/20151201/five-ways-climate-change-is-affecting-italy/

Meehan, A. (1907). Balsam. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. From New Advent: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02226a.htm

Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, Research for World Sensorium, Published on World Sensorium original website.

Pullella, Philip. “Pope commits Vatican to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.” Reuters, December 12, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/climate-change-un-summit-pope/pope-commits-vatican-to-net-zero-carbon-emissions-by-2050-idINKBN28M0RP

Sadowski, Kathy. “Threatened/Endangered Essential Oil Species.” Earth to Kathy, 2017. https://www.earthtokathy.com/threatened-endangered-essential-oil-species/

Yager, Maria and John Yager. “A Call for Conservation.” Incense-Making, 2008. https://incensemaking.com/conservation.html

Zavada, Jack. “What is Frankincense?” Learn Religions, September 12, 2020. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-frankincense-700747