Interesting Plant Facts – Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh

Christmas tree decoration - golden globe

January 6th is Epiphany, and sharing some interesting plant facts about Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh with you seemed like a good plan. Appealing as it does to the armchair gardeners among you as well as the diggers and pruners.

So put your feet up, pour out your morning coffee and have a read.

Then you can wow everyone with your topical and horticultural knowledge at the feast for the 12th and last Day of Christmas.

 

Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh – the three gifts given to the infant Jesus by the Magi or Wise Men. A story known by most people, irrespective of their faith. Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, brings to a celebratory close the festivities of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Traditionally the time for a last feast and the exchanging of gifts. Although in Tudor times, the celebrations would continue until Candlemas, February 2nd.

Bag of frankincense at Dubai spice souk, Boswellia sacra, by Liz lawley, https:/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/29/Bag_of_frankincense_at_Dubai_spice_souk.jpg

So, about those royal gifts and interesting plant facts. For a start, you may be asking how gold is plant related. We all know that money doesn’t grow on trees…

 

Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh – Gold

Gold the metal was an obvious choice for a royal gift. It is said that Cleopatra used gold as a face mask to enhance her beauty. She ruled Egypt until about 30 years before Jesus, Mary and Joseph travelled there, just after the Wise Men had been to them.

But was the Magi gift of gold really the precious metal? There are those who consider that the three gifts brought by the Magi were all plant-based, ie spices, resin.
Some scholars think that the gift of gold may have been either:

  • the golden spice Turmeric, Curcuma longa
  • Balm of Gilead, Commiphora gileadensis, golden oil

 

Curcuma longa, turmeric, golden spice, rhizome, root, powder, https:/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5b/Curcuma_longa_roots.jpg, By Simon A. EugsterTurmeric is called the golden spice because of the rich colour of the powdered rhizome, or root. Related to ginger, it is native to India and Southeast Asia. It has been used as a medicinal and culinary spice for millennia.

balm of gilead, commiphora gileadensis, Balsamodendron ehrenbergianum, book illustration; 1881, https:/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d5/Balsamodendron_ehrenbergianum00.jpg

Balm of Gilead was used to anoint the kings of Israel. A tree native to the region, the berries and leaves are used, although it is the resin from the bark which is harvested to create the oil. Initially pale in colour, the fragrant resin matures to a rich gold, hence golden oil. The oil being the processed resin.

 

Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh – Frankincense

Frankincense is an oily resin which is harvested from tree in the Boswellia species. Usually Boswellia sacra, but also Boswellia carteri and Boswellia frerana. It is only found in the wild. Surprisingly, given the thousands of years of its history as a crop for medicine and ceremonies, it is not in commercial cultivation.

Boswellia sacra, frankincense, Köhlers Medicinal plants illustration 1897, https:/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/da/Boswellia_sacra_-_K%C3%B6hler%E2%80%93s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-022.jpg

 

Also called oliban, frankincense is native to Ethiopia, Oman, Yemen and is most widespread in Somalia. The bark is papery and peels off to show paler bark beneath.

Pliny the Elder provided an account of harvesting frankincense. The method is very similar for both myrrh and balm of Gilead.

myrrh, Commiphora myrrha, resin, Somali man harvesting Myrrh from tree, https:/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c5/Somali_man_Myrrh_tree.jpg

Slight incisions are made in the lower branches from which the gum exudes, or drips. After about 10 days, this has hardened into resin and collected. The resin is burnt to release the aromatic smoke, or incense.

However, there are concerns that the frankincense trees may die out. Changing land use has impacted on all the Boswellia trees habitat. The traditional harvesting method leaves many wounds on the tree which allows for pests and diseases to attack the weakened plant. Although not high on the endangered list yet, efforts are being made to grow the trees in other parts of the world. It is not as easy as it sounds to replicate the conditions which allow the trees to mature and fruit.

 

 

Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh –  Myrrh

Myrrh is a sweet-smelling tree sap which at times in the past has been more valuable than gold. The myrrh tree, Commiphora myrrha, is native to Oman, Yemen, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya. It is very spiny and will grow to about 13 feet high.

myrrh, Commiphora myrrha, Köhlers Medicinal plants illustration 1897, https:/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/86/Commiphora_myrrha_-_K%C3%B6hler%E2%80%93s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-019.jpgIn the 1st century AD, Arabia produced about 448 tons of myrrh each year. Both frankincense and myrrh were transported from the Arabian Peninsula as far as India and China. The Incense Road has been in existence for over 5000 years.

Queen Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt, myrrh trees with bound rootballs, ancient egypt, tomb fresco, copyright national geographic, by kenneth garrett

photo copyright National Geographic Society

Myrrh trees are featured in a fresco in the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut, dating from the fifteenth century BC. She had a plantation of trees brought to Egypt from Punt, which is now a region of Somalia. Interestingly, from a horticultural perspective, the myrrh trees are depicted with bound root-balls during transportation.

The name ‘myrrh’ is also used to describe the herb sweet cicely, Myrrhis oderata. This was a strewing herb, used to make Medieval and Tudor houses smell sweeter.

 

Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh – similarities and differences

Whether gold is the metal, turmeric or Balm of Gilead, Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh have all been used –

  • Medicinally – interestingly all to treat arthritis
  • Ceremonially

Frankincense, Myrrh and Balm of Gilead are all –

  • members of the botanical family Burseraceae
  • trees
  • natives of Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia, Oman
  • need high temperatures and low rainfall

 

Turmeric is a –

  • member of the ginger botanical family Zingiberaceae
  • rhizomatous herbaceous perennial
  • native of south east Asia and India
  • needs high temperatures and high rainfall

Curcuma longa, turmeric, golden spice, flower, By Lucien Monfils, https:/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/47/Curcuma_longa.jpg

Could you grow your own plants and trees of Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh? You could certainly give it a go, but you would need to have a heated greenhouse and good light levels. And the ability to zone your greenhouse to meet different plant requirements. Turmeric is easy to grow, and the flowers are very attractive. As for the trees…well, perhaps not for the beginner to try!

Boswellia sacra, frankincense tree, biosphere, greenhouse, unitversity of arizona, peeling bark, resin, https:/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/81/Boswellia-sacra-greenhouse.jpg

 

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