December 2012
The Herb Lady

Frankincense and Myrrh

Frankincense and myrrh – it is the time of the year for us to hear these two words that we have always heard in connection with the Christmas story. We are all familiar with the fact that these products were among the valuable gifts presented when Jesus was born.

Frankincense is a fragrant gum resin obtained principally, in our modern age, from a small tree called birdwood. These plants grow primarily in the tropical regions of Africa and Asia.

Frankincense is mentioned in herbals that date back to 2800 BC. In the Bible, it is mentioned 16 times as an item of worship, three times as a product of Solomon’s garden, twice as a tribute of honor and only once as an item of merchandise. It continues to be used in some religious services today.

Early Egyptians highly valued this aromatic product for use in religious services, embalming and fumigating. Early people of the Bible region (Africa and Asia) used it as a medication for treatment of a large number of health problems. It is used today for many of the same ailments.

Myrrh is another gum resin. It is harvested primarily from the commiphori tree. It is harvested in the same manner and essentially the same areas as frankincense. I imagine the harvesting process is very much like harvesting maple sap for syrup.

Records state that myrrh was one of the ingredients of the holy oil used in the embalming of Christ.

Modern society finds many ways to use myrrh just as early people did. It is used in medicine, incense, perfume, soaps, lotions, creams, detergents, mouthwash, gargles and other useful products. It seems to have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in food, so you can possibly find it in puddings, gelatins, baked goods, alcoholic beverages and more.

In West Africa, it is used as an insecticide to control termites. Ghanaians fumigate their clothes with the fragrant smoke of burning wood.

One story goes, during the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III (1475 B.C.), many plant specimens were imported from other lands. Myrrh, which didn’t grow in Egypt, was among these collected plants. In a series of paintings, this story was depicted on the walls of an Egyptian tomb.

The collected and dried resin of frankincense and myrrh are called "tears" and "pearls." It’s doubtful I’ll ever see the plants from which these herbs are collected. However, I do have "tears" and "pearls." They are displayed in glass bottles for "show and tell." My great-grandson says, "Where else but in Grandma’s house would you expect to find frankincense and myrrh?"

I wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Nadine Johnson can be reached at PO Box 7425, Spanish Fort, AL 36577 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..