Benzoin (Benzoin Resin / Styrax Gum)

Styrax Benzoin
Styrax BenzoinIllustration - Köhlers Medizinal-Pflanzen (1887) (PD)

Benzoin - Botany And History

Benzoin resin, also known as benzoin gum, storax, or simply benzoin is an ancient resinous compound which has long been cultivated, traded, and employed in various areas of the Far East and the Middle East, with usage of the compound having eventually spread from the focal point of its areas of cultivation to encompass much of the Western, and a significant part of the Eastern hemispheres. The resin itself is an extrusion of a large, deciduous or evergreen plant of the family Styracaceae, of which there are about one hundred and thirty or so distinct species. The shrubs, which grow to some two to fourteen metres tall (if left to its own devices) possess simple, alternate matte to slightly glossy green leaves measuring no more than one to eighteen centimetres at best. It is highly noticeable for its pendulous white-hued inflorescence which possesses a unique five to ten-lobed corolla, the whole of which being found in dense panicles of some three to thirty florets, the whole measuring some five to twenty-five centimetres in length. The tree is also known for producing a small drupe, oblong in shape and possessed of a smooth, nearly flawless, albeit somewhat 'parched' texture. [1]

The resin called benzoin, or oftentimes gum benzoin is not, strictly speaking, a gum (i. e. gum as understood within the context of compounds like gum Arabic), as it is not water-soluble. Derived from the intentional 'injuring' of styrax trees and produced as a natural antimicrobial agent by the plant, benzoin begins as a semi-liquid sap that, if gathered and dried or otherwise left to dry upon the bark of the tree prior to gathering, produces a somewhat pungent, dry (to slightly sticky) pale brown or rust-hued compound, distinctly noticeable for its somewhat marbled texture. The resin, which, if left in its raw (un-pressed, that is, not made into 'blocks') state is strongly similar in appearance to soil or tiny rocks, and is distinguishable only due to the aroma which it exudes. Truly raw benzoin resin, which appears as a sort of whitish to ivory-hued substance on the bark of styrax trees, are 'produced' and harvested by hand. Upon drying, these extrusions often take on a 'marbleised' appeance, although finer (and somewhat rarer) examples of benzoin may appear more akin to copal or amber. [2]

The earliest employment of benzoin can be traced to the pre-Christian Era, where it was traded as a valuable commodity, especially in the Middle East, and in Asiatic areas such as Java, Sumatra, and much of Indochina, although the resin itself became all the more popular well into the height of the Christian Epoch and the slow but steady rise of Islam - two major religions which were among the main precipitators and recipients of its trade. Prior to the adoption of its usage by both Islamic and Christian groups however, benzoin has long celebrated a use as a type of incense, and as a medicinal compound, with traditional Chinese Medicine and esotericism, Indochina esoteric practices, Japanese medicine and esotericism, and even Indian Ayurvedic practices having employed the resin as a fumigating agent and medicine, effectively creating a demand prior to, and well into the Christian Era, that benzoin was considered on par with (and often confused as) substances such as myrrh and frankincense. [3]

Prior to the Christian Era, the trade for benzoin was taken up by a number of peoples, the most well-known being the Javanese and the Sumatrans, who traded their local resins (Styrax tonkinensis [Siam benzoin], and Styrax benzoin [Sumatra benzoin]) with various items from China, Japan, and the Middle East. While the attributed origin of the plant is to this day undisputedly the Javanese or Sumatran territories of Indonesia and much of the areas which comprise Indochina, the leaders of the trade in benzoin were not to be the Javanese, but rather the Arabians who cultivated their own local species of styrax and later traded them throughout much of the western until well into the height of the Middle Ages and even well after the Renaissance, creating for the substance a strong demand, which was fed chiefly by its integral usage in two of the world's then major religions - Christianity in both its Catholic and Orthodox form, and Islam. [4]

It must be noted that benzoin is often confused for a chemical compound of the same name - a hydrox ketone derived from benzaldehyde. Unlike this chemical compound however, benzoin resin possesses no distinct crystalline structure as is in all respects a balsamic resin which is non-water soluble and is stable and solid, even at room temperature, with a distinctly earthy aroma with hints of vanilla and a pungency contrary to the camphor-like aroma of benzoin compound.

Benzoin - Herbal Uses

Benzoin has been used since ancient times as a fumigating agent (i. e. as incense), and to this day remains a popular incense for Orthodox Christian churches and for much of the Islamic world. Prior to its adoption by both Faiths of the Book, benzoin as an incense may have even perhaps been employed alongside more popular fumigating compounds such as frankincense and myrrh, although ancient incenses classified as 'benzoin' may not necessarily have been derived from the styrax plant. Benzoin is highly popular in the Islamic world as a primary component of bakhoor - a type of incense made from aromatic gums, fragrant wood, and a mixture of oleo and balsamic resins, chiefly frankincense and benzoin. To this day, bakhoor mixtures of high quality still incorporate minute granules of benzoin or powdered benzoin in its creation. The wood employed for the creation of bakhoor may even be 'seasoned' by stowing it along with benzoin and other such fragrant resins prior to being shaved into the bakhoor proper. [5] Outside of the use of the substance, even the wood of the tree itself is employed either as a fuel, or as a medium for carving. Due to the imbued fragrance of the resin in the styrax wood itself, it is also often employed as a type of bakhoor in its own right.

Benzoin was (and still is) favoured by many Orthodox Christian sects, and is often used in tandem with frankincense or with copal, but more often than not employed as a substitute for the former. In Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Javanese esotericism and aesthetics, benzoin is a choice ingredient in the creation of incense sticks, the usage eventually having spread to Tibet where its employ has become a minor feature in Tibetan Buddhism. In China and Japan respectively, benzoin is used for both aesthetic and medicinal purposes, although its use is favour of the former more so than the latter.

Aside from its employment as a fumigating compound, benzoin is also strongly used for medicine and perfumery - these two distinct uses having sprung from the normal employment well into the Renaissance period (although it can be argued that far more ancient cultures may have employed the substance as such long before its adoption by Christianity and Islam, as it is reputed that Phoenicians were among the first cultures to have employed the substance as a fumigating agent). It was said that benzoin was once indispensable for the ancients, as it was one of the substances reputedly employed while gathering frankincense resin. It was said that benzoin was burnt during gathering to help drive away the poisonous snakes (and some sources allude to venomous winged snakes) that was said to inhabit frankincense trees. While such an application is at best mythological, generally meant as a propaganda of the times, benzoin does indeed possess the capacity to drive away pests (i. e. mosquitoes and roaches), and is employed as such in the form of papier d'Armenie.

From ancient times until well into the height of the Renaissance period, benzoin's primary usage seemed to be as an incense, often burnt as a general air-freshener, as a means to drive away insects and other such pests, and (as it was then believed) to drive away diseases brought about by 'bad wind'. The fumigating use of benzoin is not without its medicinal uses, however, as the inhalation of benzoin smoke has been used as a remedy for everything from whooping cough, bronchitis, asthma, laryngitis, croup, hoarseness of voice, and other respiratory ailments. [6] In theory, it can be combined with frankincense, or otherwise burnt alongside decongestant herbs such as peppermint or cloves for added medicinal benefits, although benzoin in its own right has been employed as a treatment for respiratory diseases (sans any accompaniment) since ancient times, with the practicing having reached its height during the Islamic Renaissance, where a number of noted Muslim physicians encouraged its usage. Modern corroboration now suggests that benzoin, like frankincense, may contain beneficial compounds which possess expectorant and demulcent qualities, and which explains its effectiveness for the treatment of respiratory ailments. In some countries, benzoin (alongside cloves) may even be used as an additive to cigarettes of both the tobacco and non-tobacco variety, as it is believed to not only provide a cooler smoke, but that it also imparts some 'health benefits' that are otherwise absent in run-of-the-mill cigarettes. [7]

Benzoin, like cloves, does in fact contain anti-inflammatory compounds which help to relieve swelling associated with cough, bronchitis, and emphysema, although when the compound is combined with tobacco, there is a risk for a possible increase in the carcinogens of the latter. Aside from its use as an inhalant, it was employed (much like frankincense) to hasten the healing of wounds and skin eruptions, although due to its allergenic nature, the efficiency of such applications may be questionable, or at best only effective for some individuals. In spite of this, benzoin was nevertheless a staple remedy for diverse types of skin diseases, and was more often than not combined with other resins such as frankincense, dragon's blood, copal, or myrrh and either ground up and applied topically, or otherwise diluted in either oil, aloes, and even alcoholic beverages like wine (the latter practice having brought about the eventual creation of tinctures of benzoin, which is in essence the resin diluted in an alcohol base). Benzoin has long been believed to possess potent skin protective properties, and in since the High Middle Ages until well into the industrial period, benzoin has been employed to treat everything from shingles, sunburn, and even dry skin. [8] Benzoin also possesses potent antibacterial and disinfectant properties, and may be used to treat cold sores, gingivitis, halitosis, and herpes sores. [9]

Well into the middle of the 16th to the latter part of the 17th centuries, the employment of benzoin became more specialised, and, as the substance grew rarer and more valued, so too its usage became limited solely to such applications as perfumery and cosmetics - two distinct commodities which were privy only to the privileged classes of the time. It was during this time that benzoin became a commonplace additive for perfumes - a practice which persists to the modern day, although, because of the possibility of allergic reactions being incurred by benzoin, perfumes and other cosmetics which may contain the substance is now limited of a limited range. Prior to the standardisation of perfumes and cosmetics however, benzoin was an integral additive to nearly all forms of perfumes and cosmetics. The resin was invaluable to many a perfumery capital, and cosmetics which were marketed as substances that enlivened the skin and improved its glow and elasticity during those periods were more often than not made from, or contained benzoin. One of the most popular compounds dating from the period is known as compounded tincture of benzoin - a mixture (or more correctly) a dilution of benzoin resin in a base of alcohol. There are several types of compound tincture of benzoin, and each distinct variety has its own specific application. Most tinctures of benzoin are employed as a composite compound for topically applied cosmetics. Used as-is however, it can be employed as an emollient, anti-fungal, antibacterial and topical anti-inflammatory.

Compound tincture of benzoin, when used as a type of cosmetic, was generally comprised of benzoin tincture and some other substance reputed for beautifying or skin conditioning. One of the most popular forms of cosmetic benzoin texture was composed of one part benzoin tincture to four to five parts of rose water or milk which had been infused with herbs or flowers. While this version of tincture of benzoin is chiefly employed as a facial tonic (and was quite a popular once since prior to the French Revolution), it too possesses significant antibacterial and anaesthetic properties, and could be used for the treatment of minor to moderate wounds. Non-cosmetic tincture of benzoin on the other hand served a chiefly practical purpose, in that it was employed as a styptic, and as a general remedy for skin minor to moderate skin injuries, and as a cure for cold sores, canker sores, and herpes sores. If dissolved in a pan of hot water, the ensuing steam may be employed as an inhalant (in much the same vein as burning the resin in charcoal) and used to relieve the symptoms of flu and colds (i. e. stuffy nose, runny nose), or to provide relief for asthma and bronchitis, although, with the advent of modern anti-asthma medicine, this practice has somewhat fallen out of use. In France, a mixture called lait virginal (lit. 'virgin's milk') - a mixture of tincture of benzoin and purified water (oftentimes rosewater or some other infused water) was highly esteemed as a skin whitener and beautifying tonic. [10]

Prior to the introduction of modern antiseptics, tincture of benzoin was a very common sight in many a household medicine cabinet, as it was employed for the disinfection of wounds. Because of its slightly allergenic nature (along with its potent alcohol base), tincture of benzoin caused a severe burning sensation that lasted for several moments after application. Up until the latter part of the 1990s, tincture of benzoin was still employed as a disinfectant, and as a purported 'anti-allergenic' used for the application of plasters and bandages. Before the introduction of 'space-age' lightweight casts, benzoin tincture was often liberally applied to an area that required a cast in order to prevent discomfort and combat the possibility of sepsis. [11]

Even to this day, tincture of benzoin is still employed, although it is now often only seen as an over-the-counter drug sold as a cold and canker sore remedy, or as a body-building aid. Tincture of benzoin is still widely employed in gyms where chalk and talcum are forbidden, as a minute application of the substance into the hands creates a thin film of a slightly tacky quality that helps to improve grip without the mess of conventional powders like chalk. Furthermore, the application of pure tincture of benzoin to one's hands is said to eventually encourage the formation of natural calluses which overtime enhanced and improved one's grip. [12]

Other than tincture of benzoin, pure benzoin essential oil is also still available. Now generally used as a bath accessory, as an ingredient in perfumery, and as a massage oil, it is often mixed with a base oil or otherwise combined directly (in very minute amounts) with an alcohol base or with water. Like tincture of benzoin, the essential oil of the resin possesses a similar therapeutic property, and is favoured highly by practitioners of aromatherapy thanks to its musky to almost vanilla-like aroma and viscous, treacle-like consistency. When mixed with a carrier oil, it can be employed as an antifungal and antimicrobial massage oil, or as a hair oil which is said to help treat scalp problems like eczema and psoriasis, as well as help improve hair colour, thickness, and growth. The essential oil of benzoin, just like tincture of benzoin, is a staple in perfumery.

Benzoin - Esoteric Uses

When employed esoterically, benzoin is generally burnt as a purifying incense. This practice is prevalent throughout both Eastern and Western magickal practice, and is especially common in Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Shinto religions. It is used often for de-hexing and blessing, although it some New Age magicians employ it for charging items of power. New Age correspondences usually attribute peace-promoting properties to benzoin resin, and burn it both to drive away negativity, soothe anger, and enhance concentration. Since ancient times, benzoin has been considered a protective incense against all types of malignancy, especially when combined with other precious incense resins (i. e. frankincense, myrrh, copal, dragon's blood). Burning benzoin incense prior to astral travel is said to protect oneself from evil entities that may be encountered during travel and that generally drives away any spirits that may attempt to possess the body while in such a state. Chinese magicians believe that burning benzoin resin (in their case, generally in the form of incense sticks) can enhance one's luck and increase the profitability of a business. [13]

Benzoin - Contraindications And Safety

In spite of its long-standing use in perfumery and sundry other applications, benzoin resin is a well known allergenic substance, and continuous employment or heavy usage may result in severe allergic reactions. In spite of the fact that benzoin is chiefly employed topically and nasally (in the light of its being used for inhalation purposes) regular use of the substance without the proper guidance of an expert herbalist or medical practitioner is ill-advised, and as a general rule, should only be performed after tests are done to ensure non-sensitivity to said substance. Pregnant and nursing mothers, as well as the very young and elderly are advised to steer clear of its usage without expert medical guidance. Mild to moderate allergic reactions need be a cause for concern, as even itchiness or mild swelling after usage can be dangerous especially to individuals with very sensitive skin. The actual ingestion of tincture of benzoin is dangerous, although for minor applications such as the treatment of canker sores, minute amounts are generally tolerated, although oral applications must be avoided by individuals who are under prescription medication such as lithium or valium due to possible drug interactions. Similarly, the essential oil of benzoin must never be used undiluted lest grave allergic reactions occur.

Benzoin - Other Names, Past and Present

Chinese: anxixiang
Japanese: benzoin jushi (the former word having been adopted, and pronounced monosyllabically - i. e. ben-zoh-in) / egonoki
Korean: benjo
Indonesian: kemenyan
Hindi: loban / luban
Hebrews: nataf (generally associated as 'styrax')
Arabic: luban / lohban / luban jawi (lit. 'frankincense from Java')
French: baume benjoin / benjoin / benjoin de Sumatra / benjui
Italian: benzoe / benzoine
English: gum benzoin / gum Benjamin / styrax gum / styrax benzoin / Javanese benzoin / Sumatran benzoin / storax / snowbell
Greek: stakt
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Styrax parallelonerum / Styrax officinalis (other nomenclatures exist)











Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt.

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