The storax tree (Styrax officinalis) has been known in Israel at least since Biblical times. This large shrub or small tree is native to the warm, dry areas of the Mediterranean. Other varieties, commonly called the snowdrop, also grow in North America and Europe. Its attractive white flowers make it a favorite with gardeners, and its balsamic resin has been used medicinally for hundreds of years.
Storax's botanical name is Styrax officinalis. It was first called the storax tree by the Roman naturalist Pliny, who derived it from the Arabic name of assthirak. "Officinalis" comes from the word opificina, the Latin word for workshop, pharmacy or herb store. The Hebrew word nataf is a synonym of tzori, which means "a liquid drop," referring to the gum or resin found within the shrub's stems and branches.
The storax tree is found in Mediterranean woods and shrublands. It prefers dry, rocky slopes, though it also can be found in thickets near streams.
Leaves and Flowers
The leaves of the storax, which is deciduous, are alternate and entire. White pendant flowers that hang from the underside of the shrub's branches look like snowdrops. They bloom in clusters in April through June. The flowers have a pleasing fragrance and bright orange anthers. The storax tree is a slow grower, eventually reaching 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide.
In the Bible, the storax tree is mentioned in Ecclesiasticus (the book of Sirach) in Chapter 24, Verse 21: "And I perfumed my dwelling as storax, and galbanum, and onyx, and aloes, and as the frankincense not cut, and my odour is as the purest balm." The storax tree also is mentioned in Pliny's "Natural History" and Greek physician Dioscorides' "De Materia Medica."
Storax balsam, which is obtained by cutting open its gray bark, has been used as an expectorant to ease asthma, catarrh and bronchitis. It is an ingredient of the expectorant Friar's Balsam. Storax has also been as a component in ointments used to treat scabies and ringworm. Its seeds are used as beads in rosaries.