The first entry in this series is black benzoin from Sumatra (Styrax paralleoneurus). Benzoin is a balsamic gum resin harvested from the bark of trees in the Styrax family. Balsam is an aromatic compound you may be familiar with in the context of balsamic vinegar, but it has been used in perfumery and medicine for centuries. You might be unsurprised to learn that Sumatran benzoin contains benzoic acid, from which its name is derived, and also cinnamic acid, unlike its Siamese counterpart.
I chose this species to sample first, as I knew a bit about its lore and indigenous usage that I will detail below, and have been interested in burning it for a long time.
There are many types of benzoin, and they derive from different trees and different countries. Styrax paralleoneurus is native to Southeast Asia and the East Indies. This particular sample is from Sumatra, a large Indonesian island west of Java and south of the Malay Peninsula. A biologically incredible place, Sumatra might be most famous for its tigers, but this tropical volcanic island is home to an astounding diversity of strange and beautiful species.
My friend and conservationist, Pungky Nanda Pratama, is the Executive Director of Sumatra Nature & Biodiversity Conservation, and I knew that if anyone could tell me more about this special tree in its native habitat, it would be Pungky. He graciously wrote back, and I was not disappointed:
“We call that species ‘Kemenyan Tree’. For some tribes, that’s a holy tree because they use the sap for rituals. This tree is rare in the wild; I’ve seen it several times.
In Bali, the Baly tribe lay dead bodies under the tree and let it decay without odor.
Kemenyan Trees are truly massive in the jungle. I’ve heard some people try to propagate them and plant them as well. People are scared to cut them because they believe they are haunted.”
You can learn more about indigenous Balinese burial practices with this tree here.
I captured some magnified images of the surface of the samples, and while the resin is an earthy grey-brown so dark that it registers as a dull black, light and magnification reveal a dazzling array of colors and texture, from pure black deposits to light orange patches, and even the occasional wood fiber too small to notice with the naked eye.
Benzoin is traditionally used as a base, especially for joss sticks and can be combined with many different herbs and oils for a variety of purposes. It is used in perfumery for its vanilla-like fragrance and a fixative for essential oils. It is also found in food and traditional medicine for respiratory inflammation and topically to kill germs.
In ritual use, benzoin is burned for purification and prosperity. It is sacred to Aphrodite and Venus.
Medium: charcoal puck
Amount: pea-sized nugget
Duration: <10 minutes
This delicious burn instantly produced a very light grey smoke and filled my space with a distinct earthy and floral vanilla note carrying a mossy tang invoking its jungle home. It is a very wild, green scent, but embodies a dreamy, mystical quality that makes it obvious why humans have an ancient history of using the sap of this gorgeous giant for spiritual purposes. In terms of setting the atmosphere, it was everything I could have possibly wanted, and the sweet earthiness burned down to a tobacco-like char as the resin evaporated, leaving little behind.
Typically used in blends, I found the Sumatra black benzoin to be a rich and deeply spiritual burn experience that may set the bar for benzoins for me. While it is frequently used in blends, benzoin can be choking when burned alone, but in this judicious amount I found it to be a perfect and pure session, and best of all, the fragrance lingered in our home for hours after.
Please check out and support Pungky’s amazing work in Sumatra protecting this plant, and so many others. He is one of the most passionate and knowledgeable ecologists I have ever met, and work like his is essential to preserving these trees and their habitat.