Samdy’s Garden ... Balsa and Balsam

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson
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John Wilson, from Brightons, was reminiscing about his hobby since childhood – flying model aircraft.

Turning the clock back to his boyhood … and to my own … he recalled the distinctive smell of balsa wood, which was, and is, much used by modellers. The reason for this is succinctly described on Wikipedia: “Because it is low-density but high in strength, balsa is a very popular material for light, stiff structures in model bridge tests, model buildings, and for the construction of model aircraft - especially free flight model aircraft. However, it also is valued as a component of full-sized light wooden aeroplanes, most notably the World War II de Havilland Mosquito.”

And suddenly, in one of those unforced connections made by the human memory … well, my memory, at least … another two words from my childhood sprang to mind – Friar’s Balsam. This proprietary medicine was favoured when I was growing up as a treatment for chest infections, having risen to prominence during the nineteenth century, when the development of Britain’s railway network made the national distribution of manufactured goods possible and led to nationwide advertising of all manner of products. The purveyors of medicines were very much part of this development … Boots of Nottingham was established in 1849 and the first co-operative society pharmacy opened in Rochdale in 1844 … and products such as Friar’s Balsam, Ward’s Drop and Beechams Powders rose to prominence as a result of intensive advertising and ready availability almost anywhere in the country.

Friar’s Balsam is “an alcoholic solution containing essentially benzoin, storax, balsam of Tolu, and aloes that is applied topically to the skin (as to relieve irritation) and after addition to hot water as an inhalant with expectorant activity - called also compound benzoin tincture.” It seems to date back to the 16th century, although the identity of the poor religious brotherhood …or, perhaps, the Mr. Friar … who developed the mixture seems to have been lost in the mists of time. Benzoin resin makes up almost one-half of Friar’s Balsam; and this resin comes from a variety of the Styrax genus of trees which originated in Sumatra, Java, and Thailand. Styrax trees grow to anything between 2m and14m tall … say from 7ft. to 50ft. in old money … and feature clusters of attractive flowers that are reminiscent of snowdrops. Styrax tonkinensis is the principal source of medicinal benzoin resin: but this particular species does not do well in northern Europe; and British gardeners might do worse than heed this piece of advice from Bleddyn Wynn-Jones, the co-owner of Crûg Farm Plants at Gwynedd in Welsh Wales: “In our experience, it is difficult to beat the readily available Styrax japonica. We have made several seed collections in the wild of this species and grown their progeny in our trial fields where they are exposed to some severe conditions due to the lack of shelter. They all fly through without any ill-effects, flowering profusely every year.”

And if, gentle reader, you are thinking: “Well, he would say that wouldn’t he? He’s trying to sell the plants,” let me quote the Royal Horticultural Society’s Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants on the subject of Styrax japonica. The authors describe it as “a graceful, spreading, deciduous tree bearing elliptic-oblong, minutely toothed, glossy, mid- to dark green leaves, turning yellow or red in autumn. Bell-shaped, white, sometimes pink-tinged flowers are produced singly or in clusters in early and midsummer.” This particular species will reach a maximum height of around 10m … say 30ft. … and merits a mention in Kenneth Cox and Raoul Curtis Machen’s splendid Garden Plants for Scotland, so it does thrive here. Now that sounds like a really attractive tree to me, even if it won’t help to cure my cough!