Styrax officinalis picture – by Eitan F
Styrax inhabits eastern Mediterranean countries across Italy, Turkey, and Israel. A styrax variety also grows in California in the United States. In Israel, styrax grows in the Judean and Samarian mountains on Mount Carmel and in Herman, the Upper Jordan, and other northern valleys. Styrax often has a shrub-like appearance but is classified as a tree and can grow to five meters in height. It inhabits dry rocky slopes in woods, thickets, and near streams. This deciduous tree has white flowers that emanate a citrus fragrance, attracting many bees and insects. The smoke from the tree is aromatic, but toxic.
The Israeli species does not yield resin. Some claim that the absence of resin in the Israeli varieties is a consequence of genetic changes, but there is no evidence to support this theory. Seven of the eight ancient Greek Hymns of Orpheus mention storax 13 times, which is only slightly fewer than the most popular aromatic spice, frankincense. Storax was likely a highly valued aromatic resin. An essential oil produced from S. officinalis seeds in Turkey is used in some Roman Catholic churches in Europe.
A branch from the tree is said to have been used as a staff by Moses. Styrax and benzoin balsams have been used since ancient times by Romans and others (Gianno et al., 1990; Modugno et al., 2006) to treat chronic infections of the respiratory tract. The plant has therapeutic and pharmacological properties as a disinfectant and expectorant. Avicenna’s Law of Medicine indicates that styrax resin mixed with antibiotic substances and hardening materials is a good dental restorative material. Nowadays, the resin is used as a fixative in perfumes and as a filler and flavor-enhancer in cosmetics and foods (Fernandez et al., 2003, 2006; Castel et al., 2006).