BENZOIN (Stryrax benzoin – Stryraceae)

Styrax benzoin is a tree which originated in Laos and Vietnam, but now grows in and around Malaysia, Java and Sumatra. It grows to a height of about 20 m (66 ft). The leaves are oval and hairy; the flowers are fleshy, greenish yellow in colour and slightly balsamic. Benzoin is the gum resin which exudes from the bark after tapping and the trees can apparently produce resin in this way for about 15 to 20 years.
Benzoin was first known in English as benjoin (recorded in the six¬teenth century), which was popularly corrupted to benjamin. This is an adaptation of the same word in French, Spanish and Portuguese which derived from the Arab luban-jawi, ‘incense from Sumatra (Java)’. In old recipes, benzoin is variously called gum benzoin, gum benjamin, benjamin, benzoin, oil of ben, even storax (which is a sweet-smelling gum resin extracted from the tree Styrax officinalis).

The Ancient Greeks and Romans knew benzoin, although they called it by quite different names – ‘Silphion’ to the Greeks, and ‘Laserpitium’ to the Romans. They would include the powdered resin in pot-pourris because of its very powerful fixative properties. Benzoin was highly valued by all. In 1461, for instance, the Sultan of Egypt, Melech Elmazda, sent the Doge of Venice a gift of two Persian carpets and 30 rotoli (100 rotoli is the equivalent of 80kg/177 lb) of benzoin. The Queen of Cyprus received a similarly sumptuous present from the Sultan in 1476, 15 rotoli of benzoin. The Portuguese navigator, Barboza, is thought to have introduced the precious resin to Europe. Later, in 1623, the resin’s properties were sufficiently valued for the British to set up a factory in Siam to produce and export it.
Nostradamus, famous for his prognostications, gave many recipes including benzoin in a 1556 book. It was classified as an antispasmodic and tonic for skin infections and eruptions. In France it was called’ baume pulmonaire’, pulmonary balsam, and the resin was burned near the ill person, the fumes inhaled. In France many proprietary medicines are based on benzoin: sweets called pastilles de serail are taken for colds and ‘flu and tablets made that are bechic and anti-asthmatic. Its properties were not unknown in British medicine either, because friar’s balsam, used as an inhalant and application for ulcers and wounds, is a tincture of benzoin compound.


Description: As it exudes, the resin is yellowish, but when it thickens and hardens, it becomes brownish-red. It has a strong smell of vanilla, and is very aromatic; to taste, it is rather acrid. The resin is cleaned, and is available powdered, in two forms of tincture, simple and compound (the latter benzoin tincture being too strong for use on the skin), or as an essential oil.
The principal constituents: 70 -80 per cent resin, 20 -25 per cent cinnamic acid, a small quantity of vanillin (thus the smell), coniferyl benzoate, benzoic acid, phenylethylene and phenylpropylic alcohol Danger: Benzoin can cause allergic reactions, so do a skin test before use.


In illness
Benzoin is particularly useful for eczema and psoriasis, using powdered clay (green if possible). Place 25 ml (11/2 tbsp) clay in a small dish, add 3 drops benzoin, and enough distilled water to make a smooth paste. Apply immediately to the affected areas, leave for a minimum of 20 minutes, then rinse off with a chamomile infusion (put 3 heads of the dried flowers in a cup of boiling water, infuse for 10 minutes, then strain and cool). The eczema and psoriasis should look much better, much less angry and irritated, as the paste is very soothing. Repeat a few times per day when the condition is acute.

For psoriasis of the scalp, add 5 drops benzoin oil to a very mild shampoo and shake well before use. Rinse the hair finally with cold mineral water. (If your shampoo is too strong, add a proportion of distilled water to dilute it.)
Many other skin complaints can benefit from the use of the balsamic resin – frostbite, bed sores, wounds, burns and skin ulcerations. Mix 10 ml (2 tsp) almond oil, 2 drops wheatgerm oil and 6 drops benzoin oil. Apply on affected areas.
For catarrh and chest infections, put 3 drops benzoin oil in a bowl of hot water and place the bowl beside your bed at night. During the day, add 4 drops benzoin oil and 1 drop eucalyptus to a bowl of hot water, cover your head with a towel and breathe in the fumes for as long as you can. Several times during the day, rub your chest, torso and sinus areas with the following oil: mix 10 ml (2 tsp) soya oil with 1 drop wheatgerm, 8 drops benzoin oil and 2 drops eucalyptus.
(See also impetigo, melanosis and sinusitis.)

In beauty
Benzoin is useful for brown marks on the face, decolletage and hands, particularly in association with lemon oil. Mix 10 ml (2 tsp) almond oil with 2 drops lemon, 2 drops wheatgerm and 4 drops benzoin oil. The simple benzoin tincture could be diluted with distilled water to make an effective skin toner.

Other uses
Benzoin is one of the most favoured of perfume fixatives and is widely used in the perfumery industry and in pot-pourri mixtures, old and new. It can also be used in herb pillows or in sweet bags to perfume linen. Benzoin was once burned as incense in churches, and the gum could be burned to perfume the air at home.

Benzoic acid was discovered in gum benzoin in 1608; it has been used as a food preservative.

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