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Balsam is a solution of plant-specific resins in plant-specific solvents (essential oils). Such resins can include resin acids, esters, or alcohols. The exudate is a mobile to highly viscous liquid and often contains crystallized resin particles. Over time and as a result of other influences the exudate loses its liquidizing components or gets chemically converted into a solid material (i.e., by autoxidation).
Plant resins are sometimes classified as mixtures with other plant constituents, for example as 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), and glycoresins (podophyllin, jalap, kava kava).
The perfume extracted from the sap of the tree Commiphora opobalsamum is designated in the Bible by various names: bosem, besem, ẓori, nataf, and, in rabbinic literature, kataf, balsam, appobalsamon, afarsemon. It was the only tropical, and the most expensive, spice grown in Israel. It was known to Pliny (Historia Naturalis 12:116; 13.18) as opobalsamum.
In their struggle against the Romans, the Jews strove desperately to destroy the balsam orchards and prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy. The Romans, however, captured them and, in his triumphal march in Rome, Titus displayed balsam trees brought from Judea. The orchards in Jericho and En-Gedi henceforth provided the Romans with an important source of revenue (Historia Naturalis, 12:25).
Apparently, the balsam of the Bible also signifies some remedy compounded of balsam sap and other ingredients. The Balm of Gilead is mentioned as having healing properties. Balsam was an ingredient of the incense (ketoret) burned in the Tabernacle.
The Egyptian town of Ain Shams was renowned for its balsam-garden, which was cultivated under the supervision of the government. During the Middle Ages the balsam-tree is said to have grown only here, though formerly it had also been a native plant in Syria. According to a Coptic tradition known also by the Muslims, it was in the spring of Ayn Shams that Mary, the mother of Jesus, washed the clothes of the latter on her way back to Palestine after her flight to Egypt. From that time onwards, the spring was beneficient, and during the Middle Ages balsam-trees could only produce their precious secretion on land watered by it.
Balsam is also known as Balsam of Mecca. At present the tree Commiphora opobalsamum grows wild in the valley of Mecca where it is called beshem. Many strains of this species are found, some in Somalia and Yemen. As a perfume it is hardly used today. It serves in the Orient as a healing agent for wounds and as an antidote to snakebite and the sting of scorpions.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Balsam.|
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