The herbaceous gifts of the Magi

Anyone that follows the traditional Christmas story that tells of three “wise men” following a star that led them to the Christ child has heard of their gifts of “gold, frankincense and myrrh.” It’s easy to imagine what the gold looked like, but frankincense and myrrh have some mystical qualities about them. They aren’t easily accessible in today’s marketplace.

Frankincense and myrrh are both members of the Burseraceae e family, and they are native plants in Arabia, Somolia and Ethiopia where they grow wild in less than hospitable habitats. In the case of both plants, the sap from the plants is harvested and used for various medicinal or religious purposes going back to the centuries before the birth of Christ.

Boswellia sacra spp. is the botanical name for frankincense, and it has several different species, all as a six to 16 foot deciduous tree. The trunk of the tree, when pierced, produces a milky sap that hardens into yellow globules. These are sold as forms of grain or powder.

Frankincense is still used today as incense in some religious ceremonies. In ancient times, the incense was considered to be as valuable as gold and was used as a trade product. In charred form, frankincense makes the black “kohl” eyeliner worn by many Eastern women. It is also used in some commercial beauty products.

As a plant, frankincense has a papery bark, small pinnate leaves and tiny greenish white racemes of flowers. The tree grows wild in shallow, rocky soil. Some species of frankincense have been threatened with extinction in the wild due to overgrazing by livestock.

Also a small tree or shrub that grows in the wild, myrrh reaches about 10 feet in height. The shrub has spiny branches and is sparsely leaved. Myrrh is botanically known as Commiphora myrrha.

Myrrh plants also exude a sap from their bark when an incision is made. The sap is a pale yellow liquid that hardens into a red-brown resin.

This herb has antiseptic properties, encouraging healing when applied to wounds or to inflamed gums. In ancient times, myrrh symbolized suffering and was used as an embalming agent. The herb is also aromatic and is used as incense or in potpourri.

It might be hard to imagine giving herbs to as a gift to a child today, but herbs had different uses and values in ancient times. Frankincense and myrrh have endured through centuries of telling the traditional Biblical Christmas story.

Questions or comments about gardening? Contact Joleen at missourigardener@hotmail.com.

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