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Frankincense and Myrrh - Christmas Traditional Trees & Plants

In traditional Christmas stories and songs, especially those revolving around the birth of Christ, you hear a lot about frankincense and myrrh.  How many of us can raise their hand and actually say what  those two plants are?   Even better, how many of us can say where they came from?

Well, frankincense and myrrh are both dried tree sap resins, meaning that they come from trees whose common names are frankincense and myrrh.  Frankincense is genus  and myrrh is Commiphora..   Both are native to Yemen, Somalia and eastern Ethiopia.  It's believed that an ancient city in Southern Oman is where they were first traded. Back then, camel caravans traveled from Oman carrying these exceptionally rare resins to places throughout the Arabian Peninsula (all the way to Jerusalem).

They were considered so valuable that they were taxed at each place they passed through. The clearer and darker the resins, the higher the quality and price they fetched. By the time they reached Jerusalem, only the kings could afford them.  So for all time, the story of Jesus' birth, has wise men bringing frankincense and myrrh, along with gold as gifts for the infant.

Believe it or not, in time's past there were things more valuable than gold, silver, and even diamonds.  They were the items people coveted, and those who could afford them really wanted -- they were spices, medicinal remedies, and herbs.  Also, in the days before refrigeration and modern cookery, food was pretty bland without spices and herbs.

Additionally, cooks were on a quest to find ways to not only make food taste better, but to also preserve the food.  These herbs, medicinal plant remedies, and spices also held great opportunities to experiment with some real success, in folk medicine or natural cures.  There are many spices and herbs that are generally associated with the Christmas holiday that we've all heard of, but others many may not know much about.  So, let's explore some of the more popular Christmas Time herbs and the realities of growing your own.

Moreover, it was coveted for its sweet smell when burnt and in the days of no refrigeration and no air conditioning odors were somewhat problematic -- so this too was an important use.

Frankincense Tree - Boswellia Sacra Tree

Frankincense Tree - Boswellia Sacra Tree

Frankincense Tree

There was a time when frankincense was a most coveted resin of gum, primarily traded for its medicinal purposes because it was widely chewed for stomach ailments (but not swallowed).  Additionally, it was used by some to heal sores and wounds.   It had other uses as a resin and for religious purposes, but as a medicine it was important in its time and place.  

This deciduous tree is so small that it could almost be described as a shrub until full grown.  Its bark is very thin, almost paper like.   The leaves are compound, always with odd numbers of leaflets, attached in opposites, and when first sprouted the leaves are covered in a fine hair-like down.   It is a flowering tree, white with touches of yellow and it has a small fruit.

Habitat:  In the wild, it almost prefers the poorest of environments, often growing on steep mountainsides among rocks.  It is almost always found in desert type environments.

Myrrh tree
Myrrh tree

Myrrh Tree 

Although different in looks the myrrh tree is almost identical to frankincense in many features, at least in terms of its uses and habitat.  One important difference is in terms of the sweetness of how it smells in comparison to frankincense.   The sweet smell of myrrh is so over-powering that it has been used to mask the smell of death in rotting corpses

Like frankincense its sap bleeds a resin when wounded and it also produces a gum that is highly prized and perhaps more well-known for healing properties and uses among many.  It is even an ancient Chinese remedy.  There are over one hundred and thirty-five different species of myrrh trees.   And in contrast to the frankincense tree it is actually more of a shrub, although considered a tree.

Habitat:  The same habitat as for frankincense applies to myrrh.


Used both in the past and today, both are frequent aromatherapy oils, valued for deeply meditative qualities.

In Oman today, frankincense is chewed to relieve indigestion and to make a paste for dry skin

In Egypt, charred frankincense was made into "kohl" (black powder), which Egyptian women traditionally used as eye shadow

Myrrh resins and tinctures are used for gum infections, coughs, and other respiratory problems

Myrrh is also an embalming ointment

Myrrh has been used as a toothache medicine for centuries

Myrrh is a common Chinese medicine for a variety of illnesses, including arthritist