pierre laszlo

Styrax officinalis L.

Worldwide the genus Styrax is represented by more than a hundred species. This particular species, Styrax officinalis L. is a shrub a few meters tall, and comes from Asia. Portuguese navigators brought it back to Europe during the sixteenth century. When the trunk is incised with a blade, an exsudate known as “gum benjamin” or “benzoin gum” oozes out. This gum resin, also known as “benzoin balsam,” has a lovely, rich and spicy (vanilla) smell. The main chemicals are benzoic acid (about 25%), cinnamic acid, and their esters with a number of alcohols (benzylic, cinnamic, coniferylic), plus vanillin.

Other species, Styrax tonkinensis Dryande and Styrax benzoin Craib., are still tapped for similar gum resins. The former is a tree that grows up to 80 ft with a very slim trunk, no more than a foot in diameter. It is exploited in northern Laos and Vietnam, for a production of about 50 t per year, 80% of which goes to the French perfumery industry. The main application in perfumery is as a fixative for other fragrances. It also contributes a balsamic note, sweet and redolent of vanilla. 

The word “benzoin,” from which chemists coined the term “benzene,” is rooted in voyages of discovery and trade, at the time of the Renaissance. It originates, not in Portuguese, but in Arabic. For centuries, Arabs had a monopoly on trade with the East Indies. They named the product of this plant luban jawi, endowed with such a lovely smell and also highly valuable. The phrase means “making Java angry,” which does not make much sense except as a ploy, so that trading competitors would be left in the dark as to the precise geographic origin of the precious stuff.    

My book, in French, Copal benjoin colophane … , Le Pommier, Paris, 2007, provides more information on styrax (aliboufier is the French name of this plant).