Benzoin: A Bit of Botany
a bit of botanical information about benzoin

Benzoin is a shrubby deciduous tree, belonging to the Styraceae family. The tree has gray bark, simple leaves, and short racemes of small, fragrant, bell-shaped white flowers. Benzoin tree produces a yellowish, balsamic resin, called benzoin or gum benjamin.

Several varieties are known, but the Siam and Sumatra Benzoins are the most revered. Siam Benzoin is obtained from wounds on the Styrax tonkinensis species—outside its color appears reddish yellow, while inside it is a milky white. Its odor is a sweet-balsamic odor with a distinct vanilla note. It contains benzoic acid but not cinnamic acid.

Sumatra Benzoin is obtained from wounds on the Styrax benzoin species, and is always in blocks of a dull reddish or grayish-brown color. Fine qualities have a strong storax-like odor, marking a distinct difference from the sweet vanilla odor of the Siamese variety. Additionally, Sumatra Benzoin contains cinnamic acid.

common names
& nomenclature

Its name came via the Italian from the Arabic lubān jāwī ("frankincense from Java"), because it was brought from Indonesia. The Catalan traders, who bought lubān jāwī from moorish traders, modified the word by changing a to e and omitting the lu to benjawi. Italians further changed it into benjuì, and in Latin it became ultimately known as benzoë. In India it is commonly called loban (from lubān).

Also known as:
siam benzoin, loban, sumatra benzoin, kemenyan, gum benjamin tree, onycha, gum benzion, benzoin gum, ben, benjamen, friar's balsam, siamese benzoin, spice bush, sumatra gum, snowbells, storax, and styrax gum

Benzoin, the dried resin Asian tree
Benzoin: Cultivation & Harvesting
considerations for growing benzoin

Benzoin grows best in tropical conditions—warm, sunny locations.

Prefers rich, well-drained soil.

Benzoin can be grown from seeds or cuttings. Seed germination appears to occurs quickly if sown in rich, well-drained soil.

An axe is used to hack cuts into the tree, and then the liquid Benzoin either accumulates beneath the bark or exudes from the incisions. The incisions are made when the tree is seven years old, and in Sumatra each tree yields about 3 lb. annually for ten or twelve years. The first three years' collections give the finest Benzoin; after that the liquid that is running is known as the 'belly,' and finally the tree is cut down and the resin scraped out, this being termed the 'foot.'

When the liquid Benzoin has sufficiently hardened, it is collected and packed for export, either in loose pieces or in larger masses packed in oblong boxes or in tins. Store in a cool, dry place.

Benzoin: Where in the World
habitat and range for benzoin Styrax benzoin is grown on the tropical island of Sumatra.
Benzoin: The Rest of the Story
benzoin history, folklore, literature & more

Benzoin gum, also known as benzoin resin and gum benjamin, is obtained from the benzoin tree, a shrub-like member of the Styrax genus native to the rainforests of Southeast Asia. However, it takes some time to harvest. In fact, the tree must mature for seven years before the resinous substance can be extracted.

Although the name benzoin gum continues to stick, it is technically incorrect since it cannot be classified as a polysaccharide. In fact, up to 75% of the volatile oils in benzoin gum contain amorphous resins, with the balance being composed of benzoic acid. Another clarification worth mentioning is that whether you call it benzoin gum or benzoin resin, it clearly differs from benzoin, which is a crystalline organic compound.

Other constituents found in benzoin gum include cinnamic acid, styrene, and vanillic acid. The latter component is what lends benzoin gum its characteristic vanilla-like scent. This quality doesn't translate to its taste, however, which is quite bitter and unpleasant in its raw form. The exotic scent does make benzoin gum a fragrant addition to perfumes and incense, where it also provides fixative and preservative properties. In fact, it is a common ingredient in fine Indian, Japanese, and Chinese incense, as well as in the Armenian incense papers known as Papier d'Arménie.

However, here again, some clarification is in order. There are two basic grades of benzoin gum: Siam and Sumatra. The former is used as a flavoring and fragrance agent. There is also a sub-grade of Sumatra benzoin known as Penang. The basic difference between them all is the amount of milky white resinous material it contains, as well as the amount of bark remnants. Superior quality is determined by more of the first and less of the second. So, from highest to lowest, quality is ranked in this order: Siam, Sumatra, Penang.

Although raw benzoin gum can impart a bitter taste on the tongue, small quantities are used as a natural flavoring in many foods, including beverages, dairy products, baked goods, candy, and various processed foods. It is also used in the cosmetic industry as an additive to soaps, lotions, and various personal care products formulated for the skin and hair.

An old-fashioned French beauty treatment calls for benzoin tincture and rose water to produce a facial wash known as Virgin's Milk. Reputedly, this formula gives light-skinned women a porcelain-like appearance due to the mixture's milky coloring. If you're feeling experimental, the ratio for Virgin's Milk is a tablespoon benzoin tincture to one ounce of rose water.