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Frankincense tree

The Two Plants of the Magi

The three wise men or Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. Source: flickr

You probably remember the story of the Magi, the wise men who brought the baby Jesus three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold is, as we know, a valuable metal, but few people have even the slightest idea what frankincense and myrrh might be.

Both are, in fact, are valuable aromatic resins derived from plants. They were of great value at the time of Jesus and remain so today (frankincense is quite literally worth its weight in gold!) Let’s retrace their history.

Frankincense

Frankincense comes in various grades, from white to red. Source: pxhere

This is a kind of incense. However, not the incense usually burned in churches and temples today, which is usually made of wood or bamboo dipped in essential oils. Frankincense was actually the original incense: hardened pieces of crystal-like aromatic resin that were burned to give off a heady scent. In fact, the word frankincense means “true incense,” the name deriving from the French franc (true) and encens (incense).

Also called oliban, frankincense is harvested from the incense tree, a large shrub or small scraggly tree of the genus Boswellia (usually B. sacra, but also B. carteri and B. frereana) in the Burseraceae family, and found in the wild only in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Frankincense is very difficult to produce and each tree gives only a few grams of frankincense a year, hence its great value. Only male trees produce it and to obtain it, you have to remove slivers of bark from the trunk, then carefully scrape off the small amounts of resin that exude slowly from the wound. Once hardened, this highly scented resin becomes frankincense.

Frankincense has been used an offering to the gods for a long time—at least 5,000 years—first locally, on the Arabian Peninsula and in Somalia, before being widely distributed by Arab traders. It was known to most of the historical populations of the Middle East, including the Assyrians and Egyptians and later the Greeks, Indians and Romans. It was believed that incense smoke rose to heaven carrying the prayers of believers. Also, it has medicinal properties that have long been exploited.

Frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra) in Oman. Source: Mauro Raffaelli, Wikimedia Commons

Today, the incense tree still grows mainly in its native lands where it is, in fact, rarely cultivated as such. Instead, frankincense is still generally exploited in the traditional manner, that is, harvested from wild trees. In general, it has not adapted well to other climates and even where it is tried elsewhere (there’s a grower in Arizona, for example), it’s only on a very small scale. Most of the world’s current production of frankincense is still carried out in Somalia and neighboring countries. Even so, the various species are in serious decline due to habitat loss, overgrazing and insect attack.

The incense tree seems to prefer harsh growing conditions and does best in dry, poor, rocky, alkaline soil. It needs full, blazing sun to do well. You’ve probably never seen one, although a few botanical gardens do grow it. Even gardens that specialize in biblical plants (and there are many!) rarely seem to include it, finding it just too difficult to maintain.

Growing an Incense Tree

Boswellia sacra growing in Kew Gardens, London. Source: laidbackgardener.blog

Could you grow an incense tree yourself? Well, you can try! For most people, it’s going to have to be a houseplant or, at least, a container plant you overwinter indoors, as it’s not very hardy. It can only be grown outdoors in arid regions (it will not tolerate lengthy periods of rain!) with a very mild climate (zones 10 and 11).

You’d probably be growing this plant for historical or religious reasons or out of curiosity, as it’s not a very attractive plant. Under your conditions, it will probably never take on its wild shape as a gnarled small tree up to 25 feet (8 m) tall, but will likely remain a small, weak-growing shrub. In culture, it tends to grow very irregularly, with thick branches twisting this way and that. They’re covered in papery bark and bear clumps of small pinnate leaves at their tips. It occasionally produces small white flowers. You’d think, with its naturally sparse, irregular shape, it might make an interesting bonsai specimen, but I’ve never heard of it being used that way.

Unless you live near a nursery that is experimenting with marketing incense trees (and there aren’t many), you’ll have a hard time finding plants for sale. Instead, growing it from seed is the most logical way to go.

If you search the Internet, you’ll see several companies selling seed, but they don’t come cheap. Know too that the germination rate is low: about 10%, so you’ll want to buy more than just a few seeds. They can take months to germinate and growth is slow from the start.

The incense tree needs a lot of sun, perfect drainage, very modest watering, hot temperatures in summer and cool temperatures in winter, but always over 40 ° F (5 ° C) and … a great deal of neglect. Overly pampered plants die quickly.

Myrrh

Myrrh too is an odiferous resin of great commercial value. Source: Myrrh, Deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

The history of myrrh is as old as that of incense, but myrrh resin is mostly used in perfumery rather than burned as incense. The ancient Egyptians, in particular, knew it very well and made ample use of it in embalming mummies. The Greeks added it to wine as a preservative and it also has medicinal uses, notably in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Resin is harvested in a similar fashion to that of frankincense.

Myrrh tree (Commiphora myrrha). Source: Wikipedia

The myrrh tree (Commiphora myrrha) is another small arid-climate tree, moreover, of the same family as the incense tree, the Burseraceae, and grows in much the same region (the Arabian Peninsula and northeast Africa as far south as northern Kenya). It likewise grows under the same harsh conditions (full sun, drought and poor, rocky, alkaline soil) as the incense tree and also shares a papery bark, but differs from it by its small simple (more rarely trifoliate) leaves and very spiny branches (the incense tree is thornless).

The myrrh tree (Commiphora myrrha) can used as a bonsai. Source: Галина, Pinterest

Unlike the incense tree, though, the myrrh tree is relatively easy to grow as a container plant and is used, among other things, in bonsai. Give it the same conditions as the incense tree: sun, good drainage, modest watering and protection against frost and make sure to reduce watering during the winter; otherwise it’s prone to rot.

It remains a difficult plant to find, even among bonsai specialists. As with the incense tree, your best choice is to look for a seed supplier on the Internet.

The gold nugget tree (Arbor fructus-aurea) is very rare. If you know where to find one, do let me know! Source: clipartix & diysolarpanelsv.com

So now you know all about incense and myrrh trees: all that remains to complete the triad of the Magi’s gift plants is to find a gold nugget tree!

Posts about Frankincense tree written by Laidback Gardener

Holiday Tree Info: What Is Frankincense And Myrrh

For those folks who celebrate the Christmas holiday, tree related symbols abound – from the traditional Christmas tree and mistletoe to frankincense and myrrh. In the bible, these aromatics were gifts given to Mary and her new son, Jesus, by the Magi. But what is frankincense and what is myrrh?

What is Frankincense and Myrrh?

Frankincense and myrrh are the aromatic resins, or dried sap, derived from trees. Frankincense trees are of the genus Boswellia, and Myrrh trees from the genus Commiphora, both of which are common to Somalia and Ethiopia. Both today and in the past, frankincense and myrrh are used as incense.

Frankincense trees are leafy specimens that grow without any soil along Somalia’s rocky ocean shores. Sap that flows from these trees appears as milky, opaque ooze that hardens into a translucent golden “gum” and is of great value.

Myrrh trees are smaller, 5- to 15-foot tall (1.5 to 4.5 m.) and about one foot (30 cm.) across, and referred to as the dindin tree. Myrrh trees have an appearance akin to a short, flat-topped hawthorn tree with gnarled branches. These scrubby, solitary trees grow among the rocks and sands of the desert. The only time they begin to attain any sort of lushness is in the spring when their green flowers appear just before the leaves sprout.

Frankincense and Myrrh Info

Long ago, frankincense and myrrh were exotic, priceless gifts given to kings of Palestine, Egypt, Greece, Crete, Phoenicia, Rome, Babylon and Syria to pay tribute to them and their kingdoms. At that time, there was great secrecy surrounding the acquisition of frankincense and myrrh, purposefully kept a mystery to further drive up the price of these precious substances.

The aromatics were further coveted due to their limited area of production. Only the tiny kingdoms of Southern Arabia produced frankincense and myrrh and, thus, held a monopoly on its production and distribution. The Queen of Sheba was one of the more famous rulers who controlled the trade of these aromatics to the effect that death penalties were posted for smugglers or caravans who strayed from the tariff levied trade routes.

The labor intensive manner required to harvest these substances is where the true cost resides. The bark is cut, causing the sap to flow out and into the cut. There it is left to harden on the tree for several months and then harvested. The resulting myrrh is dark red and crumbly on the interior and white and powdery outside. Because of its texture, myrrh did not ship well further inflating its price and desirability.

Both aromatics are used as incense and in the past had medicinal, embalming and cosmetic applications as well. Both frankincense and myrrh can be found for sale on the Internet or at select stores, but buyers beware. On occasion, the resin for sale may not be the real deal but rather that from another variety of Middle Eastern tree.

What is frankincense and what is myrrh? They're actually trees with a very interesting history. Learn more about these holiday symbols and their rich history in the article that follows.