Myrrh and frankincense are two of the most well-known aromatic gums or resins mentioned in the Bible.
Myrrh gum exudes from the stems and branches of more than 150 species in the Commiphora genus of the Burseraceae family (e.g., Commiphora myrrha, Commiphora molmol, Commiphora gileadensis). These species, which are rare today, are distributed across Eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen, and Somalia.
Commiphora myrrha, regarded as the most popular source of myrrh, grew abundantly in this region. Like other desert species worldwide, the plants are leafless for much of the year.
Africa has around 50 species of Commiphora (e.g., Commiphora abyssinica, Commiphora foliacea, Commiphora playfairii) that yield an oleoresin, which is often mixed with the other species mentioned previously. Other species, such as Commiphora wightii and Commiphora africana, were sources of low-quality oleoresin products called bdellium and Indian myrrh. Both myrrh and bdellium belong to the same class of resins.
Comminphora gileadensis, also known as C. opobalsamum, was cultivated in the oases of the Dead Sea and surrounding regions of Israel and the Eastern Mediterranean. Species distribution is now restricted to the hilly and rocky areas around the Red Sea, including Mecca Valley in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. It can grow to a height of five meters, and its stem diameter can reach 40 centimeters. It bears white to cream-colored flowers. The plant can be propagated through cuttings. Another name for C. gileadensis is the Balm of Gilead or Balsam of Gilead, named after the area near the River Jordan. C. gileadensis is believed to be the first plant that the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba brought to Israel. It was highly prized. According to Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, Rome made large profits from the sale and trade of myrrh from plantations in and around Jericho.
Commiphora myrrha is a shrub that grows to a height of four meters and is found in the Arabian Peninsula and the African regions of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, and northeastern Kenya. The tree has a peeling, light-colored bark with small leaves and small white flowers. As is typical for xerophytes, it has a succulent stem with branches that store water for use during times of stress. The yellowish gum oleoresin is extracted through wounds in the bark. C. myrrha plantations were produced in Ethiopia using monetary and institutional aid. According to one estimate, new plantations of C. myrrha cover more than 170,000 hectares in Ethiopia.
C. wightii and C. africana are believed to be the ingredients of a composite gum called bdellium. Theophrastus was the first to mention bdellium, which he learned about during the campaigns of Alexander the Great in Persia, and India. Dioscorides describes bdellium in De Materia Medica as “the tear of an Arabian tree” (i. 80). According to Pliny’s Historia Naturalis (xii. 35), it is transparent, fragrant, waxy, greasy, and bitter. Pliny mentions elsewhere that the incense from the tree came from Bactria in Central Asia. C. wightii is found in India, where it is called Indian myrrh, and in Eastern Africa, where it is called Guggul. Both C. wightii and C. africana are sources of bdellium. The thorny shrub is four to six feet tall with yellowish-green papery bark. It inhabits semi-arid to arid regions of Northern India, Central Asia, Northern Africa, Iran, and Iraq. The branches produce yellow gum that smells like myrrh. The gum yield is much less than that of C. gileadensis or C. myrrha.
Frankincense resin is produced from multiple Boswellia species with varying aromas. The resin is extracted by steam or carbon dioxide distillation. Boswellia sacra syn B. carterii has terpenic and pine flavor; Boswellia papyrifera is fruity and citrus, with soft orange notes; Boswellia frereana has a pungent scent similar to cumin; Boswellia neglecta has a soft, earthy, and slightly musty aroma; Boswellia rivae is soft, woody, and elegant; and Boswellia serrata has fresh lemon, citrus, and pine notes. B. carterii, B. frereana, B. papyrifera, and B.serrata of the Burseraceae family are the major sources of frankincense.
B. sacra, with its light lemony scent, is the most prized and is the species referred to most in the Bible. This tree grows today in Yemen and Northern Somalia. Boswellia frereana and Boswellia thurifera, found in Northern Somalia, are sources of the Coptic frankincense that the Coptic Church prefers. This, too, has a pleasant lemony scent and is also used in
Arabian chewing gum. B. papyrifera is found in Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan in Africa. It has an orange scent and is used to produce the highest frankincense in the Afro-Arabian region. It is considered good for the stomach but can also cause stomach problems. B. serrata grows in the dry regions of India and yields an orange-scented gum that is of lower quality than that of B. sacra.
The world’s finest B. sacra frankincense comes from the Dhofar region in Oman, which lies in the Nejd valley with steep slopes of rich soil and dense limestone. The climate is dry, hot, and xerophytic. Maydi Frankincense (Boswellia frereana) is found in Somalia’s northern hilly and limestone-rich regions. The trees can grow to a height of eight meters. They have swollen stem bases, a papery flaky outer bark, and a dark inner bark. The reddish-green flowers are five millimeters wide and arranged in racemes. Resin is tapped through incisions that penetrate the inner bark. Over time, the exuded white sap crystallizes to yellow resin tears on the stems. The tears are then harvested.
Boswellia papyrifera grows fairly extensively in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, and Sudan. This deciduous species is taller than B. frereana and B. sacra, reaching 12 meters, with a clear bole. The species grows on steep escarpments where other species find it difficult to survive. It thus helps protect hillsides by providing much-needed soil cover and could be used in soil stabilization. The soft timber is suitable for plywood and matchwood and is used locally as small timber. The plant bears sweetly scented white to pink flowers and red capsular fruit. The bark is whitish to pale brown and flaking, similar to B. sacra and B. frereana.
Both myrrh and frankincense gums were extensively used in history as incense. Myrrh and Frankincense are also extensively used in herbal medicine.
Know more about myrrh and frankincense and their various uses here.