by Dan Riegler November 20, 2023 7 min read

What we expect when we buy Copal

When most of us think of Copal, we have an image of a sacred, fragrant resin used for ritual and ceremony in Mesoamerican cultures. A traditional offering, raised to the Gods and ancestors on a pillar of smoke. Not necessarily true! Always read the fine print and make sure you know what you are buying!

 

 Plate 27 Of The Codex Fejéváry-Mayer

 

What we usually get when we buy Copal

Did you know that what is often marketed as "Sacred" White Copal online, is something quite different. Something that has never seen the Americas and whose main use is for varnish? 

Dammar-Gum Damar-Indonesia

Dammar-Gum Dammar

 

Dammar Copal also called Gum Dammar is often sold online as "Sacred White Copal", or "Copal Blanco" from Mexico. However, it is collected from Shorea species trees in Indonesia. Something that irritated me so much I had to write a post about it.

 

There are 2 types of resin named Copal

 The confusion is understandable when we realize there are two very different types of resins that are officially called Copal. Though both types can be burned as incense, they have very different sources, histories, physical traits and applications. They can most easily be categorized as soft and hard Copals.

 

Soft Copals

 In Central America, the word Copal simply means incense. This term is applied universally to all aromatic tree resins used for ceremony and ritual. Mostly soft Copals, these oleoresins contain varying proportions of essential oils which lend them fragrance and soften the resin. Soft Copals originating in Central and South America have a long tradition of use as incense in and in traditional medicine. Most soft Copals are soluble in warm oils and have an affinity with the skin making them useful from a medicinal and cosmetic perspective. 

Soft copals make excellent medicated oils and salves

 Soft Copals are excellent in therapeutic and cosmetic oils, salves, serums and Cremes . A muscle rub is shown above with the addition of St. John's Wort oil.

Hard Copals

 On the other hand, Western language borrowed the word Copal and uses it to mean hard, clear resins that lend themselves to the preparation of durable finishes. Hard Copals are odourless, brittle, translucent or clear and most break with a glass-like fracture. Hard Copals are often semi-fossilized which means they have been buried in the ground for hundreds or thousands of years. Before petroleum-based resins were available we used  tree resins in the production of surface treatments for wooden objects, musical instruments, furniture and decorative coatings as well as for adhesives and in many art forms.

David Rijckaert III / 'The Alchemist', 1649, Flemish School, Oil on panel, 58 cm x 86 cm, P01730. Museum: MUSEO DEL PRADO, MADRID, SPAIN.

The Flemish masters developed methods of incorporating copal in their paints that gave them an enamel-like finish. (David Rijckaert III / 'The Alchemist', 1649, Flemish School, Oil on panel, 58 cm x 86 cm, P01730. Museum: MUSEO DEL PRADO, MADRID, SPAIN. )

Aroma or durability? Ceremony or craft?

 It is up to us to understand the difference between them and to be knowledgeable enough to choose the material best suited to our needs.

 

A short list of soft Copals used in Mexico and Central America

 The number of trees in central and South America that offer an aromatic oleoresin called "Copal" is likely as great as the tribes in these areas. Each region has its "Copal Negro" and "Copal Blanco" harvested from their local trees. The main tree families that provide us with soft Copals in the Americas include Bursera, Protium and Pinus, (Pine). Many species of resin-bearing trees have not yet been identified. Below is a short list of the Central and South American Copal resins most commonly available in the Western market

 

Protium Copal-Belize/Guatemala

 Locally called Copal Pom or Pom Copal, Protium Copal resin is marketed fresh and sticky and wrapped in Banana leaves. Its aroma is intense, fruity, uplifting sweet and sharp with a lovely soft musk note. Reminiscent in fragrance to the Elemi resins of Africa and Asia. Protium Copal is found mainly in Belize, Guatemala and Western Mexico. You can find more information about Protium Copal HERE.

 


Protium Copal-Copal Pom-Guatemala/Belize

 

Breu Copal-Breu Claro-Bursera Heptaphyllum

Brue Copal is from the Amazon rainforest. It is harvested sustainably from material that has accumulated at the base of trees over years. The sustainability is noticeable if the material is dry and crumbly on the surface and the colour faded with oxidization.You can find more information on Brue Copal here.

 

 

Breu Copal-BreuClaro-Bursera heptaphyllum-Brazil

 

 Protium Paniculatum-Copal Negro-Peru

 Known in Mexico as Copal Negro or Black Copal, P. Paniculatum is one of many resins that is sold under that name. It seems every culture and geographic area has its own Copal Negro, (and Copal Blanco). This particular resin yields a gorgeous and fragrant emerald green essential oil when distilled. More information about Protium paniculatum HERE

 


Protium Paniculatum-Peru-Copal Negro

 

Black Copal- Bursera heteresthes-Guatemala 

 Copal Negro Guatemala. There are many resins named Copal Blanco and Copal Negro. It is always a challenge to ferret out the species name of the tree that produces them. This resin is fruitier in aroma than Copal negro from Peru. More information about Copal Negro-Guatemala here.

 

 

Copal Blanco-Bursera Bipinnata-Mexico

 Copal Blanco-White Copal-Mexico. Also referred to as Sacred White Copal, is used extensively in Mexican homes and celebrations of Day of the Dead, this is likely the best known Copal Blanco. It is collected by traditional Copaleros, often using the ancient method of suspending Agave leaves to collect the resin as it drips from the tree. (Nowadays, one also finds this wonderful resin collected in split, recycled pop bottles). Trees are often grown from seed and chosen for their fragrance and yield. Copal Blanco is also collected from other species of Bursera trees throughout the region. More information about Mexican sacred white Copal can be found here 

 


Copal Blanco-Bursera bipinnata resin-MexicoOcote Pine-pinus Montezumae

 

Pinus Montezumae-Montezuma pine

There are a number of Pine species in Central America that yield a fragrant resin which is used as incense and in traditional medicine. These resins are, of course called locally, Copal

Montezuma Pine resin-Mexico

 

A list of hard Copals not found in the Americas.

 

Zanzibar Copal-Hymenea verrucosa-Madagascar/Zanzibar

 Hymenea verrucosa or Zanzibar Copal is prized for it's hardness and esteemed for use in creating durable lacquers and varnishes. It comes from East Africa and was shipped around the world from Zanzibar. Often the material is semi fossilized though the resin from Madagascar is recent and due to special compounds in the soil it deteriorates after a few hundred years in the ground. One often finds insects imbedded in the resin. This resin, even when recent is very hard, brittle and makes a lovely tinkling sound when shaken in the palm of one's hand. The name Hymenea verrucosa has a very interesting meaning. You can read more about Zanzibar Copal here.

 Learn more about Hymenaea verrucosa-Zanzibar Copal-here

 

Hymenea courbaril-Mexico

 Hymenea courbaril, also called Mexican Copal or golden Copal is the exception to the rule, (always seems to be one!) This is a hard Copal used in Mesoamerica as incense. This is a semi-fossilized resin that is extracted from sandbanks and river edges in Southern Mexico. It is a sustainable harvest in that the material has been buried for centuries. ( I see it as semi-sustainable since no trees are harmed, but it is a resource that will run out eventually). It is a crystal clear golden translucent colour covered with a white bloom of oxidation. When burned, it has a sweet, pleasant, mellow aroma with hints of vanilla and generates a thick smoke that is easy on the lungs. Though it is not a renewable resource, no trees are harmed in the collection process. Though Mexican Copal is not a fresh Copal, it is used in Central American ceremonies and homes. You can read more about Mexican Gold Copal here.

Hymenea Courbaril-Mexican Gold Copal

 

Dammar-Shorea javonica-Indonesia

 Dammar resin from various species of Shorea trees in Indonesia. Dammar resin, (also spelled Damar),  is what we most often receive when we buy Copal online. I have seen it sold as Sacred Copal, Mexican copal and Copal Blanco. I hate to think vendors are intentionally hoodwinking or misleading customers, so I will assume that most vendors are ignorant of the source, uses and cultural affiliations of these resin families. Dammar resin is used extensively for a wide range of industrial applications. Though its use has dwindled with the development of petroleum-based resins. Dammar trees are usually plantation grown or grown and harvested in traditional farm forests planted by farming families as an added income. Dammar resin is often used to adulterate other resins such as block benzoin and is an important ingredient in traditional incense and Bakhour blocks. You can find more information about Dammar Copal here.

 Dammar resin-Shorea Javonica and other species-Indonesia. Not Mexican Copal.

 

Angola Copal-Copaifera Demusii-Angola/Congo

 Angola Copal, Copaifera Demusii. Congo Copal. A semi fossilized resin from East and central Africa. Harvested from the ground. Another lovely incense with a soft, sweet and mellow thick smoke. Pieces fracture clear as glass with black or golden inclusions. You can learn more about Angola Copal here. 

Angola Copal

 Angola Copal-Copaifera Demusii-Angola

 

Borneo Kauri

 Borneo Kauri Copal, Agathis borneensis from Sumatra and Borneo is the recent resin from an evergreen tree. Though new Zealand kauri is better known and often fossilized, Borneo Kauri is more readily available. I believe the deposits of New Zealand Kauri are for the most part, exhausted..

Borneo Kauri

 

Educate yourself, read the fine print and insist on species names from sellers

 

So, in conclusion, remember that not all Copals are associated with sacred Mesoamerican ceremonies. Read the fine print and hold vendors accountable for species specificity. 

 

Dan

Dan Riegler

Dan Riegler is an Herbal Apothecary, Artisan, formulator, distiller and advocate for sustainable management of our aromatic and medicinal plants. A lover of Nature, he is friends with many trees and a sap for resins. Apothecary's Garden provides an ever-growing selection of fresh & fair trade, ethical and sustainably harvested medicinal and aromatics including Frankincense and Myrrh, local and exotic fragrance materials, artisan distilled essential oils, natural perfume ingredients and animal essences. Apothecary's Garden shop also showcases Dan's aromatic, cosmetic and therapeutic preparations, salves, cremes, tinctures and oils, as well as those of Guest artisans from around the world. 

The Blog, Apothecary's Garden is a journal about Herbs, plants and processes, recipes, plant Alchemy, traditional wisdom and our Relationship with Nature.

1 Response

Donna Hiebert
Donna Hiebert

November 28, 2023

Thank you for this article, Dan!

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