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Incense Ingredient

Benzoin Styrax

Benzoin
Photo by David Oller

Styrax benzoin (DRY.)

Family: N.O. Styraceae

Styrax tonkinensis (Pierre) Craib ex Hartwiss (syn. S. tonkinense Pierre)

S. benzoin Dryand.

S. paralleloneurus Perkins

In Indonesia, Sumatra benzoin is called frankincense, although this term is usually taken to mean the resinous exudate from Boswellia spp. of Arabia and Africa.

S. tonkinensis is a tree up to 25 m tall and 30 cm in diameter, with a clear bole for about two thirds of the tree's height. It occurs naturally in the northern parts of Laos and Vietnam, mainly in secondary rainforests

S. benzoin occurs wild in Sumatra, Indonesia, and the Malay Peninsula, but is also cultivated in some areas.

Benzoin is a balsam obtained from trees of the genus Styrax from Southeast Asia. There are two types of benzoin of commerce: Siam benzoin from S. tonkinensis and Sumatra benzoin (also called gum Benjamin) from S. benzoin.

When freshly collected, Siam benzoin is a semi-solid material but it soon hardens to form brittle tears or pebble-shaped pieces, often translucent, and yellowish-red to brown in color. Sumatra benzoin also hardens to form solid tears. However, both types (but particularly Sumatra benzoin) often enter trade as solid blocks comprising whitish tears embedded in a matrix of reddish-brown resin (often made from damar dust).

In common with other balsams, both types of benzoin contain mixtures of predominantly benzoic acid and its esters and other derivatives, (Siam benzoin) or cinnamic acid and its derivatives (Sumatra benzoin), and these confer on benzoin the characteristic balsamic odor. The lower grades of Sumatra benzoin have a harsher note.

A range of tinctures, "resinoids" and "absolutes" are produced by extraction of the balsam with suitable hydrocarbon or alcoholic solvents and these are the form in which benzoin is usually employed in its end-uses. Unlike many other balsams, benzoin produces negligible amounts of essential oil on distillation.

Both types of benzoin have extensive fragrance applications but the higher quality of the Siam benzoin enables it to be used in the more expensive, delicate perfumes. In the areas where it is produced, benzoin is also traded as incense.

Sumatra benzoin (and, to a lesser extent, Siam benzoin) is used quite widely in pharmaceutical preparations: as an ingredient of inhalations for the treatment of catarrh and in topical preparations for its antiseptic and protective properties. Benzoin is also used in traditional Chinese medicine.

© Copyright 2007 - David Oller