Frankincense is essential to Christmas story, but what is it?


My favorite American holiday, Thanksgiving, is now over, with Christmas on its heels. While this is not a holiday I celebrate, the glitter of the decorations, the solemnity of the carol singers as snowflakes gently dust them, and the communal spirit of calm and good cheer is enjoyable.

It occurred to me that this would be a good time to consider the botanical gifts of the Magi.

Everyone has heard of myrrh and frankincense, but what exactly are they? All we can be sure of, since they were paired with another valuable commodity — gold — is that they were precious.

Both plants are members of the Burseraceae family, reasonably called the incense tree family. Although both are members of the subtribe Burseraea, myrrh is genus commiphora and frankincense is genus boswellia

The Burseraceae evolved in Mexico during the Paleocene era (about 65 million years ago) but radiated  into Asia and Africa, so that these two genera evolved in Somalia, Ethiopia and the Arabian Peninsula (Oman and Yemen).

The continents at that time were configured differently from today. The supercontinent of Laurasia eventually separated into North America, Europe and Eurasia. Gondwana, the other supercontinent, incorporated South America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar, India, Australia and Antarctica.

Continental movements are driven by plate tectonics, but understanding changing continental configurations explains why related plants crop up in highly separated geographic locations.

The ancient Egyptians used perfumes and scents liberally and considered perfumes to be the sweat of the god Ra. Records exist from the Fifth and Sixth Pharaonic Dynasties  (between 2465 and 2323 B.C.) indicating that the Egyptians were importing large quantities of myrrh and frankincense for service of the gods, fumigation of homes, medicinal purposes, and personal hygiene. In ancient times, scents were released by burning or by adding the ingredients to an oil, which was then applied to the body.

An ancient stone relief showing trees planted in tubs being imported into Egypt can be seen at the mortuary temple of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut (1507-1458 B.C.), Deir el Bahri, across the Nile from the city of Luxor. This records an expedition to the fabled land of Punt, thought to be either Somalia or Sudan.

A bowl of incense thought to be frankincense was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (1341-1323 B.C.) located in the Valley of the Kings. Archeological digs in Egypt and the Middle East have yielded numerous vessels of stone, clay or glass designed to hold perfumes and cosmetics.

The ancient Israelites, as described in the Torah, used both myrrh and frankincense to accompany various Temple sacrifices. The Hebrew name for myrrh is mor, which is linguistically close to “mar,” meaning bitter. When used in medicinal concoctions for oral use, the taste is described as “biting-burning, somewhat acrid-aromatic.” The Hebrew for frankincense is livona from the word for “white” — lavan — which references the color of the dried exudates of the tapped tree. In Arabic, it is known as al-luban.

Identifying plants that were well known ages ago is very difficult. While the frankincense tree Boswellia sacra produces resin, B. frereana, B. serrata and B. papyrifera produce resin as well. The word “frankincense” derives from Old-French franc encens, meaning “high quality incense.”

B. sacra is a small tree growing from between 6 and 26 feet tall, in calcareous soil (chalky), and seems to prefer slopes up to 3,900 feet. Its bark is papery and can be easily removed.

The tree only begins to produce resin when it is between 8 and 10 years old. The tree is tapped by making a shallow cut into the trunk or branches, and the resinous sap is collected at a later date after it has hardened.

The mountainous areas south of Oman has special growing conditions. The summer monsoon from mid-June to mid-September maintains the temperature to around 77 degrees, and the air is shrouded in mist.

Commiphora myrrha, the myrrh plant, is a very thorny shrub reaching 16 feet. The bark is likewise flaky, and the resin is also obtained by tapping.

Because this shrub has narrower resin ducts than the Boswellia, a better yield is obtained by using capillary tubes placed into small incisions. Like frankincense, it is native to Oman, Yemen and the Horn of Africa, and grows in thin, calcareous soil with minimal rainfall at an altitude of between 820 and 4,270 feet.

An “incense road” consisting of land and sea trading routes linked the Mediterranean world with Arabia and ports east together with southern African areas. The land route from Southern Arabia to the Mediterranean flourished from the seventh century B.C. to the second century A.D. Because it was desert area, routes and waterholes were closely guarded secrets of the Nabateans.

Frankincense and myrrh cannot tolerate New York’s winters. However, Mohammed Eslamieh of Tempe, Arizona, cultivates all 19 known Boswellia species and sells both the B. sacra seeds and seedlings on eBay. Just search for “Miniatree Garden.”

Almost reason to build a greenhouse!

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