Benzoin is an aromatic resin that exudes from the wounded bark of small shrubby trees that are native to tropical Asia. The botanical names for the sources are Styrax benzoin, Styrax paralleloneuris and Styrax tonkinensis. The second part of the name indicates the different species, but they are all members of a larger botanical group known as the genus Styrax – tall, rapidly-maturing, birch-like trees. Two types of product are obtained, depending on the geographical and botanical origins. Siam benzoin occurs in brittle, yellow-brown to white ‘tears’, while Sumatra benzoin is a milky resinous sap which hardens before it is scraped off the bark. Benzoin cannot yield an essential oil, because its odorous molecules are not sufficiently volatile to distil over. Instead, benzoin is solvent extracted to give the material used in perfumery and aromatherapy; this product is known as a resinoid, and it can be further treated – for example, it needs to be dissolved in alcohol to facilitate use in perfumery. Resinoids themselves are difficult to handle, as they are thick, sticky, usually brown coloured extracts.
Benzoin, sometimes called gum Benjamin, was well known in the ancient world, and it has a very long tradition of use as a fragrance. Benzoin resin was a valuable commodity in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was used as a fixative in perfumes. The Romans called it laserpitium, and it was valued not only for its own contribution to a perfume, but also because it helped prolong the odour profile of the perfume and increase its staying power.
Benzoin was introduced to Europe in the 17th century. Its popularity endured, with the result that Siam became a major producer and supplier. Although it had medicinal uses, in Hindu and Buddhist practices benzoin was one of the incenses used to drive away evil. It is interesting to note that one of the ancient practices was to burn the resin at the feet of the dead, so that their souls were lifted to heaven with the smoke.
Both types of benzoin resinoid have a soft, sweet, vanilla-like scent; both are still used as a fixatives and base notes in perfumery. Siam benzoin resinoid has a sweet, balsamic, chocolate-like scent, and Sumatra benzoin resinoid is warm, sweet and powdery. Balsamic scents are sweet and warm, with a soothing character. The term powdery is used to denote a note that is reminiscent dry powder. Benzoin resinoid has a low evaporation rate, and is classed as a base note. This means that its odour molecules are amongst the last to evaporate and thus it contributes more to the final phases of a perfume rather than the initial impact. However, the resinoid does have its own top and middle notes. In Siam benzoin, which is more commonly available, the top note has a floral character, and the body is sweet, balsamic and the vanilla notes begin to emerge; the vanilla character is the part that persists and really characterises this resinoid. The vanilla note is due to the presence of a constituent called vanillin – the synthetic version of this is widely used in modern perfumery.
As well as being a valuable perfume material, benzoin resinoid has many other uses, for example in pharmaceutical preparations for the gums and skin, and as a component of tinctures to aid the respiratory system such as ‘Friar’s Balsam’. In in aromatherapy, it is primarily used for its calming, comforting scent, for stress-related problems, for skin problems and respiratory problems. Benzoin does have a reputation as a sensitizer (causing an allergic type of skin reaction), and it is sticky to touch, so it does require care in skin preparations. However, sniffing and inhalation are completely safe activities.
The scent of oils from resins such as benzoin can be used to help impart a sense of inner peace and security, stability and equilibrium. The sweet nature of benzoin is also experienced as nurturing and comforting, grounding and calming.
Read tomorrow’s post to discover the properties of Cardamom
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