Styrax is a genus of about 130 species of large shrubs or small trees in the family Styracaceae, mostly native to warm temperate to tropical regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with the majority in eastern and southeastern Asia, but also crossing the equator in South America.Common names include styrax, or the more ambiguous storax, snowbell.Styrax trees grow to 2–14 m tall, and have alternate, deciduous or evergreen simple ovate leaves 1–18 cm long and 2–10 cm broad. The flowers are pendulous, with a white 5-10-lobed corolla, produced 3-30 together on open or dense panicles 5–25 cm long. The fruit is an oblong dry drupe, smooth and lacking ribs or narrow wings, unlike the fruit of the related snowdrop trees (Halesia) and epaulette trees (Pterostyrax).Since Antiquity, styrax resin has been used in perfumes, certain types of incense, and medicines.There is some degree of uncertainty as to exactly what resin old sources refer to. Turkish sweetgum (Liquidambar orientalis) is a quite unrelated tree in the family Altingiaceae that produces a similar resin traded in modern times as storax or as "Levant styrax," like the resins of other sweetgums, and a number of confusing variations thereupon.
Turkish sweetgum is a relict species that occurs only in a small area in SW Turkey (and not in the Levant at all); presumably, quite some of the "styrax resin" of the Ancient Greek and the Ancient Roman sources was from this sweetgum, rather than a Styrax, although at least during the former era genuine Styrax resin, probably from S. officinalis, was imported in quantity from the Near East by Phoenician merchants, and Herodotus of Halicarnassus in the 5th century BC indicates that different kinds of "storax" were traded.Styrax incense is used in the Middle East and adjacent regions as an air freshener. This was adopted in the European Papier d'Arménie. Though highly toxic benzene and formaldehyde are produced when burning Styrax incense (as with almost all organic substances), the amounts produced by burning a strip of Papier d'Arménie every 2–3 days are less than those achieved by many synthetic air fresheners. Styrax resin from southern Arabian species was burned during frankincense (Boswellia resin) harvesting; it was said to drive away snakes:"The Arabians gather frankincense by burning that storax which Phoenicians carry to Hellas; they burn this and so get the frankincense; for the spice-bearing trees are guarded by small winged snakes of varied color, many around each tree.
These are the snakes that attack Egypt.Nothing except the smoke of storax will drive them away from the trees.Several species of styrax are popular ornamental trees in parks and gardens, especially S. japonicus and its cultivars like 'Emerald Pagoda', and Styrax obassia.The resin of Styrax acts to kill wound pathogens and deter herbivores. Consequently, for example, few Lepidoptera caterpillars eat styrax compared to other plants. Those of the Two-barred Flasher (Astraptes fulgerator) were recorded on S. argenteus, but they do not seem to use it on a regular basis.Some styrax species have declined in numbers due to unsustainable logging and habitat degradation. While most of these are classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN, only four trees of the nearly extinct palo de jazmin (S. portoricensis) are known to survive at a single location. Although legally protected, this species could be wiped out by a single hurricane.
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