The word copal comes from the Nahuatl word “copalli,” which means incense. Several kinds of trees are classified as copal, including plants from the Bursera and Fabaceae species and the Protium copal and Pinus pseudostrobus tree. The resins from these trees have been used medicinally, for religious ceremonies, and as a food preservative for centuries. The resin was also used as a paint binder for holy murals and artifacts. Copal is still used in limpias (cleansings) and as an offering during El Dia de Muertos.
To perform a limpia (cleansing) using copal, combine:
- copal resin of your choice
- ajo (garlic)
- anís de estrella (star anise)
- chilequipin (bush pepper)
- romero (rosemary)
- ruda (rue)
- valeriana (valeriana mexicana / garden heliotrope)
- ocotzocuahuitl (sweetgum / liquidambar styraciflua)
Place all the ingredients in a receptacle appropriate for incense burning. Light and direct the smoke to all areas you would like cleansed.
Copal incense was used as a treatment for headaches and as a cleansing agent after being exposed to disease or pestilence. Ground copal dissolved in water was used to plug tooth cavities, purgative, and anti-inflammatory poultice for spider bites and scorpion stings. It was also used to treat pneumonia and as an expectorant. Infusions made from the bark or resin were used to treat venereal disease.
Bernardino de Sahagún recorded that a pinky fingernail of ground copal could be added to a cup of water and drunk once a day on an empty stomach to treat diarrhea. Fever was treated with brewed bark or a cold infusion made from mashed leaves. Another fever remedy called for simmering a handful of leaves in a quart of water. Strain and drink over the course of the day.
The resin, bark, and leaves were also used to treat congestion and sore throat. A tea made from the leaves and bark was prescribed for immunity strengthening.
Although more than one type of tree is commonly classified as copal, I will concentrate on the medicinal properties and uses of the Bursera. There are more than 100 varieties within this genus. Most have antioxidant, apoptotic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-cancer, anti-viral, anti-protozoal, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Trees in the genus Bursera have flaky bark. The Aztec called this type of tree “cuajiote,” which means leper tree. Resin is collected by “copaleros” They use a Quercus glaucoides (Mexican Oak) leaf under the cuts made into the bark with a quixala knife to keep the resin clean as it excretes. To collect the resin, copaleros use Agave angustifolia leaves as a sort of funnel. Resin is collected from July to September, but each tree is only harvested every two or three years. Fresh resin has a piney smell. Its main component is α-pinene, which is anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial. It also functions as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, thus aiding memory.
In general, copal is classified as copal blanco (white copal made from the bark), copal oro (golden copal made from the resin), copal negro (black copal made from beaten bark), copal lágrima (copal in tears is resin collected from cuts made into the bark), and copal de piedra (rock copal made from resin the tree produces to defend against insects). Other types of copal refer to specific varieties of Bursera.
Copal from the Bursera bipinnata is called copal cimarrón, copal chino, copal santo, palo copal, torote blanco, copal amargo o perlate. Resin from Bursera bipinnata is used for wound treatment in Guerrero. Copal from this tree is classified as hembra (female) and is often used in religious ceremonies.
Bursera copallifera or jorullensis is known as copal ancho, copal de penca, c’uájtsutacu (Tarasco) and copalcuáuitl-patlahoac (Náhuatl). The essential oil from this variety is high in germacrene D and α-humulene, giving it antimicrobial, insecticidal, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial properties. It is also an effective appetite suppressant and has anti-tumor properties. Leaf extracts are useful in the treatment of breast cancer. Bursera copallifera was traditionally used to treat uterine ailments, and its bark was used to reduce dandruff. An infusion is made from the leaves to treat migraines, bronchitis, and dental pain. Incense from this particular variety is used in limpias in Michoacan and to cleanse the “aire” (or bad vibes) in Mexico state.
A tea infusion uses four teaspoons of dried leaves or eight teaspoons of fresh leaves. Add this to a cup of boiling water and let it steep for ten minutes. Strain and drink before bed.
To prepare an ointment, add a fistful of copal resin to a liter of water and boil for three minutes. Rub it on the affected area when it cools to room temperature.
Bursera cuneata is commonly known as copalillo, cuerecatzundi, cuerica-tzunda, cuiricatzunda (Purépecha). In addition to α-pinene and germacrene D, it also contains β-caryophyllene, which has anti-inflammatory, antihistaminic, antimicrobial, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties. It effectively reduces anxiety, pain, cholesterol and is used in the treatment of osteoporosis and seizures.
Bursera excelsa is commonly known as tecomahaca or copalquín in Náhuatl. Resin from this variety is high in germacrene D and β-caryophyllene. Traditionally, its resin is applied to skin blemishes and used to remove thorns. It was also smeared on the umbilical cord to hasten its drying on newborns.
Bursera fagaroides has three varieties, elongata, fagaroides, and purpusii. This fragrant bursera is commonly known as aceitillo, copa, cuajiote amarillo and jiote (Náhuatl). This resin has large amounts of α-pinene, β-phellandrene, a citrus-smelling insecticide, and germacrene B and D. It has also been found to be an effective anti-tumor compound. This variety is used to treat stomach issues and as an anti-inflammatory in Oaxaca. Studies have shown that it is effective in the treatment of giardiasis.
Bursera linanoe (Indian lavender tree) was the variety referenced by Francisco Herandez as Copalcuáuitl or copalquahuitl, meaning copalli tree, now commonly called copal blanco. It has also been known as xochicopalli, esencia, linanué, madera, linalcojtli, ollinallin, and olinalá. Resin from this tree is made up mostly of linalyl acetate, which is often used as a food additive and slows microorganisms’ growth. Smoke from the resin, root, or wood from this variety was thought to be effective in treating any illness caused by “cold” influences, including headache and twisted uterus. Studies have found this variety to have anti-tumor properties.
Bursera microphylla is also known as elephant tree, copalli del monte, torote, torote blanco, tecopalquahuitl (Nahuatl), copal, xochicopal, cuajiote colorado or cuajiote amarillo. Resin from this variety is rich in α-pinene, β-pinene, phellandrene, limonene, which effectively treats cancer and bronchitis, cineole, effective in treating respiratory tract diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and β-caryophyllene. Traditionally, the smoke from burning the resin was used to cure stomach, heart, brain, and uterine issues. One remedy called for the resin to be mixed with ant and children dung. An ounce of this concoction was prescribed three times a day for delirium fevers. The Seri use its resin for headaches, sore throats, tooth pain, and wound healing. Dried stems and leaves are made into a tea to relieve painful urination and reduce congestion. It is also used in the treatment of venereal diseases.
Bursera penicillata is also known as Bullockia inopinata, Bursera graveolens, torote incienso, palo santo, caraña, crispín, copal lemon, and torote copal. The bark is soaked in alcohol and used as a rub for rheumatism. The flower buds are used in mixtures to bring on menstruation.
Bursera schlechtendalii resin has high amounts of heptane, β-phellandrene, sabinene, antioxidant and antimicrobial, and myrcene antibiotic, antimutagenic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and sedative effects. It is also effective in treating tumors.
Bursera simaruba is commonly known as chacaj or chakaj (Tojolabal), yaga-guito (Zapotec). Its resin contains α-pinene, β-pinene, β-caryophyllene, germacrene D, and germacrene B. This variety was used to treat fever and chickenpox, and measles traditionally. A decoction made from the leaves is used to reduce pain and inflammation and treat breathing issues like asthma or cough. It is used as a wash for fungal infections and wounds and as a rub for rheumatism, gout, and sunburn. It is also used as a tea to treat intestinal infections, gastritis, diarrhea, dental pain, and kidney inflammations.
Bursera glabrifolia is also known as copal blanco and is considered a macho (male) copal. Smoke from its resin is used in limpias (cleanses) for respiratory issues and muscle pain. In Oaxaca, it’s used in remedies for fever, rheumatism, and the common cold. Studies have shown that this variety has antitumor compounds useful in the treatment of cancer. The essential oil obtained from the leaves is an effective insecticide as well as having antibacterial properties.
Bursera morelensis is also known as aceitillo. Skin infections and wounds are treated with infusions made from the bark in Puebla. This variety has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antifungal properties.
To use to cleanse a sickroom, combine:
- copal resin
- dried caléndula (calendula)
- ajo (garlic)
- dried diente de león (dandelion)
- dried ruda (rue)
- dried leaves from the pirul (Peruvian peppercorn tree Schinus molle)
- dried hierbabuena (spearmint)
- dried romero (rosemary)
- dried albahaca (basil)
- dried manzanilla (chamomile)
- dried cola de caballo (common horsetail Equisetum arvense)
- dried toronjil (lemon balm)
- dried llantén (broadleaf plantain)
- dried malva (mallow)
- a few drops of higuerilla (castor oil)
Add the ingredients to a receptacle appropriate for burning incense. Light and allow to burn. You can waft the smoke with a branch of fresh ruda (rue) to make sure it reaches every corner.
Interested in natural remedies? Uncover herbal remedies from traditional Mexican sources for healing and wellness in the Exploring Traditional Herbal Remedies in Mexico series.