I’VE LONG MAINTAINED THAT CHRISTMAS is a horticultural holiday. There’s the tree, obviously, and a large supporting cast of plants, including the Poinsettia, mistletoe, cyclamen, holly and ivy, various greens and even the Christmas cactus. Dig even deeper, back to the first Christmas, and we find the Wise Men offering gold, frankincense, and myrrh. While I have a good grasp on the first gift, I’ve always been a little fuzzy on just what the last two are all about.
Both, it turns out, are plant products. Nineteen species of a tree called Boswellia, which grow from the west coast of India along the Arabian Sea and through central Africa, give us frankincense. Its name comes from the Old French moniker “franc encens,” for noble or pure incense. The principle species is Boswellia sacra, a tree growing to about 25 feet tall. No stranger to tough conditions, it lives on dry, rocky hillsides in limestone soils. It has pinnately compound, crinkly leaves, a spreading, vase-shaped form, bark similar to parchment paper and is often multi-trunked. The racemes of white flowers turn into small seed capsules. Frankincense is made by first wounding the tree’s bark, then collecting the gummy sap which exudes from injuries. The palest frankincense is said to be the most desirable.
Like many good things found in nature, Boswellia trees have been over-tapped and are now threatened in some areas. Boswellia plants aren’t easy to find in the nursery trade and seed viability can be low, especially if the mother tree had been wounded too often. Horticulturists in the know say that Boswellia is one of those plants which will grow only where it wants, and so presents a real challenge to produce in cultivation. And while frankincense has been employed in perfumes and religious ceremonies for centuries, modern science is showing that its medical uses may be both beneficial and harmful.
Myrrh is made from a tree called Commiphora myrrha. It has many similarities to Boswellia; in fact, botanically speaking, they are both in the same plant family, called Burseraceae, or the incense tree family. Other plants in this group, which include members with colorful names like gumbo limbo, Mexican elephant tree and the tabonuco, can be found worldwide and tend to contain many powerful chemical compounds. There are at least 190 species of Commiphora, which are found from Africa to Vietnam, but C. myrrha is native only to parts of Africa and Arabia. It reaches a height of about 15 feet, has tiny white flowers and small green leaves, and is a prickly character, being armed with very long, pointy spines. It requires thin soils, hot weather and about ten inches of rainfall yearly. Like frankincense, the marketable product is made from scoring the tree and collecting the resinous gum.
Myrrh’s many uses included anointing and embalming oils, medicine in a wide variety of forms, perfume, and even as a vermifuge and fungicide. The Magi were kings in knowing what to give.