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Frankincense and Myrrh

December 22, 2017 GMT

Around Christmas, the Biblical story of the three wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus is told throughout many families and churches. The gifts were reported to be frankincense, gold and myrrh. As a child, I knew gold was expensive and special, but what in the world was frankincense and myrrh?And why would you give it as a gift?

Richard Armstrong writing for the University of Houston said he thought someone had pulled a fast one when he learned that two thirds of the gifts given to the baby Jesus were incense. He likened frankincense and myrrh to the smelly cones the hippies used to burn back in the 1970s. Why would some aromatic dried up tree sap from a couple of trees be considered a precious gift?

Frankincense (Boswellia) and myrrh (Commiphora) were traditionally used in many religious rituals in ancient societies. The reason for these particular commodities being on par with gold during Biblical times was basically due to high demand and expensive transport costs. In order to transport these resins, sellers would have to travel by caravan across numerous political boundaries. Armstrong states that due to the many tolls and expenses encountered on their routes “the resins increased so much in value that they had to be guarded carefully by the time they reached their destination.”

The value of these two products currently is due in part to supply and demand, but also because of the labor-intensive way the resins are harvested. The University of Illinois states that in order to collect the tree’s sap, the bark is cut which causes the sap to ooze from the cut. This slow flowing sap is allowed to dry and harden on the tree for several months before being collected. Frankincense resin hardens to a translucent golden hue and myrrh resin has a white powdery exterior with a dark red interior.

The University of Illinois shares the most common uses for frankincense and myrrh are and have always been for the aroma. But, they have also been historically used for digestive and respiratory issues and topically in cosmetics and beauty aids: apps.cals.arizona.edu/arboretum/taxon.aspx?id=1075

More recently, researchers at the University of South Carolina Medical Center are testing the effects of boswellic acid, an extract from Indian frankincense, on breast and colon cancer tumors. While Rutgers University shares in an online article that extracts from myrrh may possibly be developed into a potent anticancer agent.

How can you incorporate a little frankincense and myrrh into your holiday season? You could certainly burn some incense, but I would recommend placing one or two drops of essential oil in a diffuser. These oils are quite expensive when undiluted and purchased from a reputable supplier, but one bottle will last a very long time. Frankincense is described as having a unique, woody aroma with top notes of citrus and spice, while myrrh is said to be smoky and earthy.

Kelley Rawlsky has an M.S. in horticulture and is the director of Bringing People and Plants Together, an organization dedicated to bringing horticulture education and therapy to the community. For more information: PeopleAndPlantsTogether@gmail.com or follow us on Facebook.