Resins: Sacred Scents

Resins: Sacred Scents

Resins and balsams are one of the original sources of fragrance compounds used in perfume. Resins are derived from the sap that collects in “wounds” on a tree. In commercial harvesting, it is common to score the bark of resin producing trees to allow the drops or “tears” to accumulate and collect once it has hardened. It is speculated that ancient cultures made the connection between the fragrant nature of some types of burning wood and the sap in those trees. Not long after this, it was likely that the leap was made to harvest this material from living trees.

In addition to their fragrant properties, resins and balsams were commonly valued both as medicines and as materials for religious ceremonies. Resins were frequently burned in holy places and in some cultures, such as the Egyptians, were part of the embalming process as well.

One of the most common forms of resin is a balsam, which is defined as a solution of plant-specific resins in plant-specific solvents such as resin acids, esters and alcohols. These differ from hardened, pure resins as they are generally more of a viscous liquid as opposed to the solid form associated with most resins. There are a number of types of balsams, generally categorized by the additional plant-based compounds found in the mixture.

Some examples:

pure resins (guaiac, hashish),

gum-resins (containing gums/polysaccharides),

oleo-gum-resins (a mixture of gums, resins and essential oils),

oleo-resins (a mixture of resins and essential oils, e. g. capsicum, ginger and aspidinol),

balsams (resinous mixtures that contain cinnamic and/or benzoic acid or their esters),

glycoresins (podophyllin, jalap, kava kava),

fossil resins (amber, asphaltite, Utah resin).

You can shop some of our favorite resinous perfumes here.

Balsams have a long history in traditional herbal medicine practices, with many of the more well known medicines of the ancient world up into the Middle Ages were derived from balsamic compounds. These mixtures were used as balms to treat wounds due to the length of time they would last on the skin and the fact that some resin compounds have antiseptic properties. Some of the more notable historical balms include:

Balm Of Gilead (also known as Balm of Mecca or Balsam of Matariyya)

Balm of Gilead was a rare perfume used medicinally, that was mentioned in the Bible, and named for the region of Gilead, where it was produced. The expression stems from William Tyndale's language in the King James Bible of 1611, and has come to signify a universal cure in figurative speech. The tree or shrub producing the balm is commonly identified as Commiphora gileadensis. Some botanical scholars have concluded that the actual source was a terebinth tree in the genus Pistacia.

Balsam of Peru

Balsam of Peru is used in food and drink for flavoring, in perfumes and toiletries for fragrance, and in medicine and pharmaceutical items for healing properties. It has a sweet scent. In some instances, balsam of Peru is listed on the ingredient label of a product by one of its various names (Black balsam, China oil, Honduras balsam, Indian balsam, Peruvian balsam, Peru balsam, Surinam balsam, balsams Peru, balsam Peru oil, Oil balsam Peru, Peru balsam oil, among others) but it may not be required to be listed by its name by mandatory labeling conventions.

Tolu Balsam

This is another South American balsam, extracted from the Myroxylon balsamum tree. It is similar to (and frequently confounded with) the balsam of Peru. It is a brownish, sticky, semisolid mass. An essential oil is also distilled from the balsam. The balsam contains a fairly large amount of benzyl and cinnamyl esters of benzoic and cinnamic acid (benzyl benzoate, benzyl cinnamate).

No discussion on resins and balsams would be complete without mentioning two of our favorite fragrant resins here at the Haus – Dragon's Blood and Frankincense!

Dragon's Blood

Dragon's blood is a bright red resin which is obtained from different species of a number of distinct plant genera: Croton, Dracaena, Daemonorops, Calamus rotang and Pterocarpus. The red resin has been in continuous use since ancient times as varnish, medicine, incense, and dye.

Dragon's blood in pigment and incense forms

The resin of Dracaena species, "true" dragon's blood, and the very poisonous mineral cinnabar were often confused by the ancient Romans. In ancient China, little or no distinction was made among the types of dragon's blood from the different species. Both Dracaena and Daemonorops resins are still often marketed today as dragon's blood, with little or no distinction being made between the plant sources; however, the resin obtained from Daemonorops has become the most commonly sold type in modern times, often in the form of large balls of resin.

The Haus Has a number of Dragon's Blood blends that you can find here.


Frankincense is tapped from the scraggly but hardy trees by striping (slashing the bark) and letting the exuded resin bleed out and harden. The hardened streaks of resin are called tears. Several species and varieties of frankincense trees each produce a slightly different type of resin. Differences in soil and climate create even more diversity of the resin, even within the same species.

Olibanum (or Frankincense resin)
Frankincense has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula for more than 6,000 years.  Its use was characteristic in religious rites throughout Mesopotamia and the Eastern Mediterranean from the earliest antiquity.

Frankincense was reintroduced to Europe by Frankish Crusaders, although its name refers to its quality, not to the Franks themselves. Though it is better known as "frankincense" to westerners, the resin is also known as olibanum, or in Arabic al-lubān (‏لبان‎, roughly translated: "that which results from milking"), a reference to the milky sap tapped from the Boswellia tree.

Here are some great Frankincense blends you can find in the shop now.

Due to their complex nature, resins are some of the most useful compounds in perfumery and fragrance blending.  Their scents run the gamut from strong, woody and herbal notes to soft, almost creamy profiles.  They are essential in the creation of incense blends and in the case of Frankincense, can impart an almost citrus-like aspect to a blend.  We are big fans of using resins as scent foundations here at the Haus, both for their natural profile and the fact that they just smell really darn good!
You can shop some of our favorite resinous perfumes here

1 comment

  • Marilyn

    I would love to see more Dragon’s Blood oils in your shop!!!! Cozy Dragon?, anyone? Mahogany and Dragon’s Blood?? Please :)

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