Most people know of frankincense and myrrh, both are famous resins that are usually well known. But not many know of copaiba, sometimes known as copal. Made from trees of the Copaifera genus, this is a previously common tree in the Americas but illegal harvesting and logging has put many of these trees at risk of extinction. Try to only purchase any copaiba from a reputable dealer, that is only using sustainable sourcing for their products. There is not just one sort of copaiba tree that produces this useful resin but all in the genus, and they are all fairly similar looking. The first documented that we know of is the Copiafera officinalis, but the other species also produce the resins that are so useful. It does produce fruits and has lovely flowers but the sap is the most important part, which it is harvested like maple syrup, then dried and used in its raw dried form or processed into oils.
Mainly it’s historical usage was for medicinal reasons, but it has more uses than just as medicine too, it is used in biodiesel production and as an oil for painting and ceramics. The oil made from the resin is also used to help restore old artwork, since it ads shine to older dried out paintings. In herbal medicine it has been known for generations among the tribes of the Amazon basin as a treatment for itchy bug bites, as an aid to healing wounds that reduces scarring, and to staunch blood flow. It is currently widely used in Brazil and other parts of South America, and is sometimes known as balsam of copaiba. In Peru it was used to reduce inflammation and for treating possible bacterial infections. Further up in the Americas, the Mayans used it as an aid in vision ceremonies, generally as incense, and to ritually cleanse the body, usually with the smoke. It is still used in some Mexican churches for its ritual purification properties. There is less documented usage of this in the eras prior to the “discovery” of South America, since most of the knowledge was passed down through oral traditions. Once Europeans arrive, documentation begins. There could be a reference as early as 1534 when Petrus, Martyr of Anghiera reported to Pope Leo X that he found a resiniferous tree that was not a pine used by the natives of the New World, which they called copei. The next mention of copaiba is by a Portuguese monk, possibly the monk Manoel Tristaon, who wrote about it in 1625. He mentions that –
“Cupayba. For wounds. Cuypaba is a fig tree, commonly very high, straite and big; it hath much oile, within; for to get it they cut the tree in the middest, where it hath the vent, and there it hath this oil in so great abundance that some of them doe yield a quarterne of oile and more; it is very clear of the color of oile; it is much set by for wounds, and taketh away all the skarre. It serveth also for lights and burne well; the beasts knowing the vertue thereof doe come and rubbe themselves thereat. There are great store, the wood is good for nothing.”
Copaiba was brought back from the New World by the Jesuits, and it was known for a while as Jesuit’s balsam because of this. Doctors in the US used this a disinfectant, diuretic and a natural laxative up until about 1910, but then it fell out of popularity as a treatment, but was continued to be used in cosmetics and soap making, and is still allowed by the FDA in small amounts in food as a flavoring component. Copaiba is used frequently in most places it is used to treat respiratory inflammation and infection, skin issues (like psoriasis), and to help in wound care so that they heal without, or with minimal, scarring.
But what makes this resin so awesome? Well it is actually a very well known chemical that is called Caryophyllene. This is a chemical that occurs naturally in many plants, like in cloves, rosemary and hops, it gives black pepper it’s spiciness and it is a great anti-inflammatory. Even though you can get caryophyllene in other plants, copaiba is the highest natural concentration of this chemical. Copaiba also contains pinene, that is great for respiratory issues since it is an expectorant, as well as other sesquiterpenes, diterpenes, and terpenic acids. These are all make up the chemicals that make this resin a great antibacterial and anti-fungal, if taken internally it can be a diuretic as well. There is a long tradition of taking small amounts of the oil in Brazil, somewhere between 5-15 drops generally is prescribed. I think it is too easy to over dose on this depending on the strength of the copaiba oil acquired, and overdosing can produce nausea and other unpleasant side effects like rashes.
The resin can be bought whole and used as incense, or it can be crushed and added to salve recipes. I find it is easiest to use it as an oil since it takes less steps to use it. This is an oil that can irritate the skin a bit, like peppermint or cloves, I would suggest doing a test patch on your skin to see if any reactions occur.
This is a great massage oil for stiff and inflamed muscles, and can be mixed into just a carrier oil, or you can make a balm yourself with the oils.
Copaiba Massage Oil
- 1 oz Carrier oil
- 15-30 drops Copaiba oil
Mix well and store in dark, light proof container. Massage into sore muscles or painful areas. If you want to increase some of its soothing powers clary sage, cinnamon, clove, frankincense. For perfuming or soap making it goes well with jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang or vanilla since these are all scents that can relax and aid with reducing stress.
Since it is so relaxing a smell, as well as reducing inflammation, this is a great bath soak addition.
Copaiba Epsom Salt Soak
- 5 cups Epsom Salts
- 10-15 drops Copaiba
- 10 drops Sweet Orange (Bergamot would work too)
- 10-15 drops Ylang-ylang
Mix well, and store in airtight container, use about a cup in a warm bath and soak for up to 20 minutes. Relaxing glass of wine and music is optional! This is a great way to unwind after a long stressful day or week, or to ease muscles that are in pain or have been overworked.
I would not suggest substituting the dried resin, these should be done with oils and you will have better results. It is also a lot easier. You can purchase pure copaiba resin that has not been processed, again make sure it is from a sustainable source. If you want to use it as incense you can place some of the resin on a burning coal so that its aroma can fill a room. If you would like to use the resin in a preparation, I would suggest grinding it as fine as possible, preferably in a mortar and pestle since electric grinders will introduce heat and damage the oils.
- 1/2 oz Beeswax
- 2 oz Copaiba resin, ground as fine as possible
- 4 oz Oil (Olive, Jojoba, Coconut, etc)
Add the beeswax and the copaiba to a pot on a stove, keep an eye on this as it melts on low heat stirring to incorporate the resin and the wax. Be careful not to burn the mixture, it just needs to melt smoking is a bad sign. Once it is melted drizzle in your oil while stirring, you want this to combine completely and evenly. Pour into containers while still warm and allow to cool. Once this has cooled it will thicken and be a great salve to use for bug bites as well as burns, cuts, and abrasions to help with healing without a scar, or to help a scar heal further and fade faster. It can also be used as a topical anti-inflammatory for sore muscles. If you don’t want to use the resin, you can use 20 drops of copaiba oil to make this as well.
ProTip: In salve making you should keep a dedicated salve pot and it should not be your favorite one, or your favorite spoon. Recently I discovered Korean-style chopsticks work best for salve making since they are metal and flat.
Remember do your research and educate yourself before using anything, make sure there won’t be interactions by checking places like WebMD. Though there are quite a few sites that recommend taking this oil internally I would not suggest doing so without making sure with your doctor if that is safe, always remember if you are in doubt about anything you are taking in the slightest, ask a professional!