These days I am much more aware of lists of ingredients on products that I purchase. I am the one standing in the aisle of the corner grocery reading the fine print on the bottle of cough syrup or the jar of peanut butter. Someday soon, perhaps we will all be standing in the aisles reading labels.
The aisles of most new grocery stores are wide enough for carts to pass comfortably. There are still many smaller groceries and corner drugstores, those that have been around for a long time, whose aisles are narrow and filled to the brim with anything your heart desires and more. I love those places. It seems that fewer folks are in a hurry, and if you are blocking an aisle, it's OK, because everyone else is blocking it, too. It isn't a deliberate action, blocking aisles, but one that is becoming more important by the day. If you look around, you might see that most people are reading labels.
Of all things, I am deathly allergic to anything that contains red dye, if that product is to be ingested. No commercially prepared frozen strawberries, no pink frosting on my birthday cakes, and no red M&M's. Do you know how bizarre it is to have a handful of M&M's that you have to sort though? What does one do with the leftovers? "Ummmm, 'scuse me, but would you like some leftover red, orange or purple M&M's? Only slightly touched with clean hands?" I don't think so, so I have taken to reading contents on every label. As always with me, one thought leads to another and another, and recently I had laryngitis. I was looking for a cough syrup that contained no red dye, or any product that would alleviate laryngitis, and in most of the remedies that I looked at, one of the products listed was benzoin. I had no idea what benzoin was, it sounded as if it should be poured into a car engine, and I was not going near anything that was unknown to me. Allergic reactions are no fun. I did not purchase anything that day, instead I came home and googled "benzoin". It's a plant, for goodness' sakes. Whoever knew it was a plant? The friend who was with me at the time laughed and told me that if it wasn't from southeast Kentucky, I wouldn't recognize it. She might be right, but she forgets that I have a computer and know how to google.
Back in the late 15th century, when Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope on his way to India, he was presented with a gift of benzoin, a gift that was highly valued by the Indians. Because of its appealing vanilla-like aroma, they chose benzoin for an incense in their temples. They also used it medicinally to relieve shingles and a number of other skin disorders. A member of the storax family, Styrax benzoin is a fast growing tree that ranges in height from about 15 to well over 100 feet. Its fragrant clusters of silky white blossoms are followed by 2 inch round fruits that hold one or two round seeds. The bark of the tree, covered with a silky whitish down, contains the valuable aromatic resin.
Those who are commercial growers in warm, tropical areas of the Far East find that benzoin trees are fairly easy to cultivate. Seedlings are often planted with a crop of rice so that the advancing grain can shade the young trees. When a tree reaches about seven years of age, workers slash it with a hatchet, or cut deep triangular holes in the bark with a knife, and the resin, a yellowish white to reddish brown fluid, begins to flow, and as it does, it hardens into tears, or lumps. The flow is greatest during the first three years of tapping, and can continue another three years. A tree usually dies before it reaches the age of 17 years.
Benzoin has a bitter taste, so it is rarely given for internal applications. It has expectorant properties, helping to loosen congestion, it has been prescribed for acute laryngitis, most commonly children's croup. The child inhales vapors from a small amount of boiled water to which a teaspoon of a benzoin tincture has been added. It is also an antiseptic and an astringent for healing small cuts. The resin is a common ingredient in skin protective products, where it helps heal chapped or blistered skin. It also has preservative qualities, making it in demand by the cosmetic industry for use as a fixatives in soaps, perfumes, and creams. And, too, small amounts of benzoin are added to many foods from baked goods to beverages as a flavoring. The American Dental Association uses tinctures of benzoin as a treatment for sores or wounds in the mouth and gums.
There are about 130 species of large shrubs or small trees in the genus Styrax. Most are native to warm temperate to tropical regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with the majority in eastern and southeastern Asia. Some are found also across the equator in South America.
Perhaps my friend is right, and I am not familiar with plants that didn't grow in the Appalachians where I grew up. On the other hand, in this day and age, I think it is very important that we all be informed when it comes to a plant's usage in ways that might create a risk to our health. It's like that one red M&M. No matter how good it is, how great it looks, or how much my friends recommend it, I have to know it's contents before I can even think of tasting it. Maybe I can just settle for one plain normal chocolate kiss.
All photos in this article are from Wikipedia's Public Domain, no longer under copyright.
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.