The Balsam of Peru, 1734

22nd July 2016
From Harvard University Library.

Pierre Carey sends a specimen of an unusual tree from Guernsey to Sir Hans Sloane in London, in the hope of advancing medicine.

In the Report and Transactions of the Société guernesiaise of 1975, pp. 577 ff., Rosemary de Saumarez published the diary of the gardener Thomas Knowlton, covering a fortnight he spent in Guernsey in the early summer of 1726. He was unemployed and had been sent here on a fact-finding mission by his friend James Douglas, the author of the treatise The Guernsay-Lilly, to discover more about the bulb and its cultivation. The diary was found among Douglas' papers in the Hunterian Library in Glasgow.

On the 8 June 1726 Thomas Knowlton had paid a visit to Peter Carey of the Brasserie. The garden of this house was once one of the most magnificent in the island.

…went to Mr Peater Carrys a grate Brewer who has one of ye neatest Gardens on ye Town or near it, it being about one Litle mile from his house where he has ye large stocks of Bell Garseys …

He grew his Guernsey lilies on 'common kitchen garden ground' underneath dwarf pear trees.

On the 11 June the Rev John Le Mesurier, master of Elizabeth College, was dismissive of the Guernsey lily, but told Thomas Knowlton about a tree in a neighbour’s garden¹ that they called:

Balsame De prow [Peru] wch [said Knowlton] I went to see & take to be ye tachamahca of Plunkett … it … was brought from St Malos and first from ye west Indies where it flourishes in ye natural grown & is a Large fine tree smel’s very Balsamick affording a clamy substance att ye end of ye Shoots or buds they had only one tree of it otherwise I had brought one but have ye promise of a plant of it wn ye Season comes for I showed ye gentleman how to Lay it.

Blanche Henery says in her book about Knowlton, No ordinary gardener, British Museum, London: 1986, pp. 48-65:

Regarding this tree it is of interest to note that in the Sloane Herbarium Vol H S 318 f 38, preserved in the British Museum (Nat Hist) there is a specimen of a twig, ‘Sent by Mr Parey from Guernsey as the leaves of the tree of ye balsam of Peru, growing in that Island.’ Little appears to be known of Mr Parey except that he wrote two letters to Sir Hans Sloane from Guernsey, dated 1734 and 1735 respectively, on the Balsam of Peru. In the first of these he enclosed a small twig from the tree in Guernsey. In 1973 McClintock published a paper in the Quarterly Journal of Forestry in which he pointed out that the true Balsam of Peru comes from the leguminous shrub Myroxylon balsamum (L.) Harms var. pereirae (Royle) Baillon from Central America, but that the twig Parey sent Sloane and which is now preserved in the Sloane herbarium is in reality a specimen of Populus tacamahaca, Miller, Balsam Poplar.² The same authority has also drawn attention to the fact that this specimen is the earliest known of any plant from Guernsey.

The two letters in the Sloane collection about this tree are not from a Mr ‘Parey,’ as is recorded with the specimen, but are signed rather ‘P Carey.’

On the transcription of the letters in the Library Collection it is suggested that this 'P Carey' was Pierre Carey des Halles³ (who is not the same as his cousin, Pierre Carey of the Brasserie!), born 1689/90 to Jean Carey and Marie de Saumarez. He is believed to have died around 1754. His sister Marthe married Darrell Careye. Pierre married Marthe de Lisle, the daughter of Thomas De Lisle Junior and Anne Priaulx, in 1701; she died three years later. Their son Jean was ‘the richest man in Guernsey,’ Jean Carey of La Bigoterie, whose daughter Mary married Gaspard Le Marchant. It should be noted, however, that the balsam tree did not belong to the author of the letter, Pierre Carey, himself (see note 1 below).

Sloane MSS 4053 f 239

To Sir Hans Sloane at his house in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London

Guernsey, July ye 1st 1734


I take the liberty to apply to your honour though an entire stranger to you, but the just character you have of being one of the greatest virtuosos of the age, and at the same time one of the most learned in your profession, gives me assurance that you will excuse my freedom upon a subject that may be worth the attention of the curious and which may prove a public benefit.

About 18 years ago a French man from St Malo who was lately arrived from the South Sea, came into this island to traffic, he brought with him three small branches of a tree which he said was the tree that bore the balsam of Peru, he made a present of it to three different persons in this Island,  but only one branch took root and thrived, though the twigg looked quite dried up and not bigger than the end of a man’s little finger; for the first ten years the tree lay neglected and did not grow much, but in some few years after it grew up to be pretty large and tall, so as to present it big enough to bear three or four bushels of fruit.

Supposing it was a pear or apple tree, and the body of the tree is almost nine inches diameter near the root, I am apt to believe that the tree is capable of growing much larger if care had been taken to have despoiled her of some superfluous branches when it was growing up. This tree resembles the pear-tree both in the wood and leaves: notwithstanding it is so much like a fruit tree it bears neither flower nor fruit, but produces a bud in every eye of the branches longer than a horse bean, and about half as big, which bud is full of balsam.

It is not above three or four years that any attention was made to this tree, but some persons having gathered some of the buds to rub upon some green wounds found it healed marvellously.

Last spring my gardner having cut himself across the arm below the elbow with a bill as he was lopping an apple tree, he took four or five of these buds which he beat into a paste, applied it to his arm and bound it up; in four day’s time when he unbound it, he found himself perfectly cured, although the cut was three inches long and very deep; a great many people have found the same benefit.

Though this tree certainly has great virtues, yet I cannot affirm it to be the Peru-tree, otherwise than that it was given for such, and that the balsom that is extracted out of these buds have the colour and smell of the balsam of Peru as the surgeons and apothecaries we have here affirm, for we have no regular physicians in this island, but if it is found to be the Peru tree, I conceive that it must prove in time very advantageous in respect that it may easily be propagated, for I find by experience that it comes naturally in our soil, even beyond a pear or apple tree for by putting into the ground any branch of it, though no bigger than a quill it will come in the same manner and almost as well as a water-willow. It is but two years since that I made some small attention to it, and I have raised about a dozen of those trees by putting these small twigs into the ground. Some that I planted the year before this last have this year pushed branches of 16 inches long, and with due care it may become a reasonable big tree in five years. I observe it will grow faster than an apple tree of the same substance, it is certain this tree has more sap. I propose next spring to graft it upon an apple tree, and I do not doubt that it will answer.

I have been something prolix in the easy and so natural manner in which the tree comes in this island, because I have been told that there are but two places in Europe where any of these trees are to be found (viz) in the Phisick Garden at Oxford and in a nobleman’s garden in Holland, and that those two trees are kept up with art and can’t notwithstanding be brought to a flourishing condition; if it be so, I infer that there is something in our soil peculiar and natural to thse Asiatic and American plants, we have an instance of it in our lillys which is a flower originally brought from the East-Indies, which grows there in vast quantities without any care taken, and propagates unaccountably, which all the art of men have not been able to bring about in England or France. So the same salts or juices in our soil that agree so well with our lilly may have the same effect upon this balsam tree.

After I have thus given you a full account of the nature of this tree, I shall next desire you to favour me with your observations upon it, and whether you think this to be the Peru tree and for your further intelligence I do here enclose a small twig, as also if you know of a great many in Europe, and if these are in thriving condition so as to be propagated there, and brought to a beneficial use, but a very material thing is to know how to extract the balsam. I am told it is by making an incision in the branch of the tree, but I can hardly conceive it, for the tree does not seem to have balsamick substance in the branches of it as fir tree, etc., which makes me think that all the balsam lyes in the bud, and I am the more convinced it is so in that when the bud is taken off that place dries up and gives afterwards not the least moisture. I think likewise that if the balsam was extracted at the root of the trunk of the tree such a quantity would be had as would make it more common, and that the small quantities that can be had from the bud is the reason that it comes not in large quantities and consequently is a dear commodity, but this is some wild notion of mine who has not acquired learning nor experience on any affairs of this nature.

I should be proud to be favoured with an answer as soon as your commodity can afford, because the original tree being in its bloom an experiment may now be made, either by an incision or plucking off the buds if we did but know in what manner it must be done, the owner of the tree not being willing to go upon any rash experiment for fear of endangering his tree. I beg leave to subscribe myself, Sir

Your most humble and obedient servant, P CAREY

If it is agreeable to you I propose to raise one tree for you next spring, and send it in the summer when I find it vigorous and in thriving condition.

Please direct to Peter Carey in Guernsey to be left to Mr Richard Taunton, Merchant, in Southon.

Sloane 4054 f 117

To Sir Hans Sloane his house in London

October ye 15th 1735


I return you many thanks for the pains you have been att in exercising and inquiring into the nature of the tree I took the liberty to write to you last year. I would not trouble you with an answer until I could at the same time accompany my letter with a young tree of that sort. I hope the person I now entrust it with will take all possible care of it: it hath been put into a small tub with as much of the earth about the roots as possible, so that I hope it will take well in the spring, above all things the buds must be preserved unhurt as much as may be, if the next spring be dry the tree must be watered. At first I lost many for want of watering them. I hope in May next to make an incision in the last tree I have here, having learned by a commander of a Ship (who had been formerly gathering good quantities of Balsam in the Bay of Honduras) how they tap the trees. If I can extract any balsam out of this tree I shall make bold to send you some, both for your curiosity and for my forming an indication of the goodness or quality of it, no body being a better judge than yourself. Be pleased to forgive my repeated importunities, and believe me with great esteem and respect,

Sir, Your humble and most obedient servant,
P Carey.

PS The five suckers springing from the roots of the little tree I send you, must be taken out and set in the ground in the beginning of February. I do not doubt but that the major if not all of them will take.



¹ The Livre de Perchage of 1729 for Le Roi St Pierre Port, gives as the neighbours of the College (the master had his residence in the college buildings): the heirs of Mr Jean Le Messurier, son of Thomas, in their Jardin des Frères (this had belonged in 1706 to Rachel Briard); Sieur Jean Falla, son of Michel, in his part of the Jardin des Frères that used to belong to Susanne Rosier; and Sieur Nicolas Le Pelley, (who between 1706 and 1729 had erected a house on his part of the Jardin des Freres; the land had belonged in 1706 to his [father] who had bought it from Rebecca Guille).

² The image accompanying this article is from Lucas Hochenleitter's Plantarum indigenarum et exoticarum icones ad vivum coloratae, published in 1778, in Harvard University Botany Libraries, via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

³ E 14 in The Family of Carey of Guernsey, in the Library. Judgment of 22 June 1703: case brought by Antoine Fautrart and Thomas Dobrée, as Curateurs du trésor of the Town Church, against Sieurs Elizée Dobrée and Jean De Garis, in the right of their wives, the daughters and heirs of the late Sieur Pierre Henry, completely dismissed. The Court rules that the contract of sale to the late Sieur Pierre Carey for the 'empty area (place vuide)' known as Les Halles, in the Grande Rue, was legally sound. The plaintiffs were banned from claiming any right to the property and condemned to pay expenses (which could be claimed from their private property). They then decide to appeal this sentence to the Privy Council, with Sieurs William and Jean Dobrée as their guarantors (Fautrart and Dobrée again stood to lose their own money if unsuccessful; they protested against this). From Appendix 3 to the Enquiry into the present state and condition of Elizabeth College at Guernsey: through the means of a committee appointed by His Excellency Colonel Sir John Colborne, K.C.B. the Lieutenant-Governor with the concurrence of the Royal Court by SirJohn Colborne, Guernsey: Mauger, 1824, no 31.