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Burseraceae Family

 Several related burseraceae species are know locally as "kupal" or "copal."  The collected resin hardens into a waxy ball.  When lit these dried balls provide a fragrant and bright slow burning  light.   Before the advent of flashlights this light for the kopal was widely used throughout the Amazon as a kind of torch.   Burning kopal gives off a pleasant smell.  For this reason closely related species, also called Kopal, were burned as incense by the Maya.


The sap of another Burseraceae, Shirquillu,  is used by ceramic artists to give a shiny glaze to chicha drinking bowls called macaguas.   The collected sap is rolled into a waxy ball.  As soon as the mucagua is taken out of the fire the ball of sap is applied to the hot surface.  In contact with the heat the shirkillu melts and can be applied as a liquid to the surface of the mucagua.   Covered in resin the shiny drinking bowl acquires a sweet turpentiny smell.   The fruit of several Burseraceae are eaten by manyAmazonian groups.


A third Burseraceae, palo santo, native to the coast and Galapagos is sold to Andean merchants who use it as an incense to protect their homes and businesses from the envy of competitors. In Quito visitors know they have arrived in the poorer business districts of the colonial city from the heavy smell of burning palo santo.  In shop after shop Quichua merchants burn palo santo daily to protect their businesses from the “daño” or witchcraft they believe their competitors are continually sending them.

Crepidospermum prancei

Burseraceae Crepidospermum prancei NGRGGeyepare 2.jpg

Protium Sp.


Protium nodulosum  Kichwa: Shirkillu; Wao Tededo: Wimonkawe

Photo: Tod Dillon Swanson


Collected by William Balée, Tod Swanson, Gabriela Zurita, and Juan Ruiz. Geyepade, Río Curaray, Pastaza Province, Ecuador,  9/2019.  Specimen # 679. "Historical Ecology of Waorani Ridgetops" project funded by National Geographic. 

Protium nodulosum sap used as a medicine for speeding up childbirth.

Kichwa women primarily collect the sap of Protium nodulosum for use as pottery glaze.  However the form in which the sap coagulates suggests its use as a medicine.  When the sap oozes out it cools  into a rounded form that resembles the belly of pregnant woman.  These belly shaped balls of sap are called "the children" of the tree.  Because these "children" are born so easily shirquillu trees are understood to be women with a gift of giving birth easily.   When consumed by a pregnant woman the sap works as a medicine to speed up childbirth.   Because the tree is a human woman she must be asked politely to bestow her gift.

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