According to tradition, the Three Wise Men or Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. Gold is a symbol of divinity, the smoke of burning frankincense carried prayers to heaven, and myrrh was used as a holy ointment.
Myrrh and frankincense are the sap of small shrubs that grow in the Middle East and Africa. They do not actually burn, but smolder when heated.
Frankincense, Boswellia sacra, is harvested by cutting into the tree bark and allowing the sap to flow out. The sap was burned to create a pleasant smell during religious services so it became associated with holiness. Today, Catholic priests bless the congregation with the smoke from a Thurible, swinging from a chain.
Myrrh’s native habitat is Arabia. Its Latin name is Balsamodendron Myrrha or Commiphora myrrha, also known as Gum Myrrh Tree. Both Frankincense and Myrrh are members of the Burseraceae plant family.
Gum Myrrh trees grow to 9-feet tall with knotted branches that end in sharp spines. Ducts in the bark and tissue break down and form cavities that fill with the gold-colored, gummy secretion. As it hardens, myrrh gum becomes red-brown chunks.
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Burseraceae trees grow in arid, tropical locations. Frankincense prefers limestone soil and Myrrh prefers basaltic soil and salty wind. 2000 years ago, Rome and Greece imported 3,000 tons a year.
Herodotus (5th century BC) wrote, "Arabia is the only country which produces frankincense, myrrh, cassia and cinnamon...the trees bearing the frankincense are guarded by winged serpents of small size and various colors."
In the first century BC, Diodorus Siculus wrote, "all of Arabia exudes a most delicate fragrance; even the seamen passing by Arabia can smell the strong fragrance that gives health and vigor."
Today, even though only a few tons are produced each year, the beach sand near the original ports still smell like Frankincense.
Throughout the ages, Myrrh has been widely used medicinally both for humans and animals.
Myrrh’s spicy scent made it popular in oils and incense. Its cultural uses include embalming and fumigation, as well as burning it to purify and protect. The Egyptians used it to mummify their dead.
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As a medicine, Myrrh was a terrific gift. It acts as an antimicrobial, disinfectant and antiseptic. It is an astringent that reduces discharge, a carminative that eases colic and griping pain, an expectorant to treat respiratory ailments, and an overall tonic that stimulates the stomach, restores gastric juices and invigorates internal organs. Health food stores sell myrrh gum capsules.
Myrrh is often combined with other herbs to make healing tinctures. For example, combined with thyme, it is used to relieve throat infections. You will find it in mouth wash, toothpaste and other dental preparations.
Other products that are widely available combine Goldenseal, Frankincense and Myrrh for skin care in soaps and creams, especially for skin problems such as excema.
Botanically, there are over 100 Myrrh varieties. Today the most popular Turkish gum is harvested primarily from Commiphora myrrha.
Balm of Gilead is harvested from Commiphora gileadensis. Bdellium, Commiphora Africana is used as a fixative in incense.
Middle Eastern Commiphora myrrha was used to treat cancer, leprosy and syphilis in the Greco-Roman world. Traditional Chinese medicine prescribed Myrrh for heart, liver, spleen, blood cleansing, arthritis, and many other ailments. It has long been used as a cleansing solution for wounds and bruises.
To grow a Commiphora shrub, you would have to create a sandy soil planting bed in full sun. Water the plant for a few minutes every other week.
U.S. sources include Out of Africa www.out-of-africa-plants.com, Jurassic Garden www.cycadpalm.com, Rare Plant Research http://rareplantresearch.com, and Arid Lands Greenhouse www.Aridlands.com.
Search for Burseraceae family at these sites.