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This family, previously included in the Hamamelidaceae, consists of about 10 species in 2 genera, native to Asia Minor, temperate and tropical S.E. Asia, and North and Central America.

They are strongly resiniferous trees, some of which yield valuable timber, and some of which are the sources of storax (or styrax), a fragrant gum-resin of value in the pharmaceutical, perfumery, and other industries.

Storax is produced by the trees as a pathological product in response to bark damage. Storax of commerce may originate from the following species:

Altingia excelsa Noronha — yields Burmese storax
Altingia gracilipes Hemsley — yields Tonkin storax
Liquidambar formosana Hance — yields Chinese storax
Liquidambar orientalis Mill. — yields Levant or Anatolia storax
Liquidambar styraciflua L. — yields American or Honduras storax 

Liquidambar styraciflua is occasionally planted as an ornamental tree for its autumn leaf colouration. Its timber is widely used in the USA, but very little is exported to Europe (Hausen 1973). This species is also sometimes grown as a bonsai, an artificially stunted natural art form.

Storax obtained from members of this family may cause contact dermatitis, apparently as a result of its content of cinnamate esters and related aromatic compounds.

Liquidambar L.

Storax obtained from Liquidambar species is a gum-resin which contains cinnamic acid and its esters, styrene, and vanillin (Naves & Mazuyer 1947, Igolen 1973). It is a constituent of Compound Benzoin Tincture BPC and other pharmaceuticals used externally. When rubbed on the skin, storax may cause irritation and whealing (Greenberg & Lester 1954).

Fragrance material samples of styrax asiatic, styrax oil, and styrax USP. Honduras did not evoke phototoxicity (Forbes et al. 1977).

Liquidambar styraciflua L.
Sweet Gum

The timber from this species is known in the trade as liquidambar, amberwood, satin walnut, satinwood, American red gum, sweet gum, hazel pine, or bilsted. According to Woods & Calnan (1976), satin walnut was said to be irritant by Krais (1910), but Legge (1907) and Großmann (1920) considered that the wood had been confused with satinwood derived from Fagara L. species (fam. Rutaceae).

Nestler (1911) used an ether extract of American satin walnut (imported as East Indian satinwood) to test his own skin. The extract induced painful bulla formation after 5 hours contact. The bulla healed very slowly and left a thickened scar. The sawdust had no effect.


Storax is known to be allergenic and to cross react with gum benzoin derived from Styrax L. species (fam. Styracaceae), balsam of Peru (from Myroxylon balsamum Harms, fam. Leguminosae), rosin (from Pinus L. species, fam. Pinaceae), vanilla (from Vanilla Mill. species, fam. Orchidaceae), orange peel (from Citrus L. species, fam. Rutaceae), cinnamon bark (from Cinnamomum Schaeffer species, fam. Lauraceae), clove (from Syzygium aromaticum Merr. & L.M.Perry, fam. Myrtaceae) and other essential oils (Hjorth 1961, 1966a).


  • Forbes PD, Urbach F, Davies RE (1977) Phototoxicity testing of fragrance raw materials. Food and Cosmetics Toxicology 15(1): 55-60 [doi] [url]
  • Greenberg LA and Lester D (1954) Handbook of Cosmetic Materials. New York: Interscience Publishers Inc.
  • Großmann J (1920) Gesundheitsschädliche Holzarten. Der Holzkäufer 17(100,101,102,103): 529-530, 535-536, 540-541, 545-546
  • Hausen BM (1973) Holzarten mit Gesundheitsschädigenden Inhaltsstoffen. [Woods containing Substances Injurious to Health]. Stuttgart: DRW-Verlag [WorldCat]
  • Hjorth N (1961) Eczematous Allergy to Balsams, Allied Perfumes and Favouring Agents. With special reference to balsam of Peru. Copenhagen: Munksgaard [WorldCat] [url]
  • Hjorth N (1966a) Contact sensitivity to plants and balsams. In: Skog E (Ed.) The Sixth European Congress of Allergology. Symposium on Allergic Contact Eczema in Theory and Practice, September 1965, pp. 65-79. Stockholm, Sweden: Acta Dermato-Venereologica [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]
  • Igolen G (1973) Styrax. Dragoco Report (11): 231-235.
  • Krais P (1910) Gewerbliche Materialkunde. Vol. 1. Die Hölzer. Stuttgart: F Krais.
  • Legge TM (1908) Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops for the year 1907. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office
  • Naves YR and Mazuyer G (1947) National Perfume Materials. New York: Reinhold.
  • Nestler A (1911) Die hautreizende Wirkung des Amberholzes (Liquidambar styraciflua L.). [The skin-irritating effect of amberwood (Liquidambar styraciflua L.)]. Berichte der Deutschen Botanischen Gesellschaft 29: 672-678 [url] [url-2]
  • Woods B, Calnan CD (1976) Toxic woods. British Journal of Dermatology 95(Suppl 13): 1-97 [doi] [url] [url-2] [pmid]

Richard J. Schmidt

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