What are frankincense and myrrh?

The first thing that you probably think about when you hear frankincense and myrrh is the account of Jesus’ birth in the bible. The account tells us that the three wise men followed a bright star, which took them to the stable where Jesus was born, and with them, they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. You may have even seen a Christmas nativity where this scene is acted out. However, many people don’t know what frankincense and myrrh actually are.

What are frankincense and myrrh?

Both frankincense and myrrh come from tree sap or gum resin and are known for their enticing fragrance. This fragrance is what makes frankincense and myrrh, a fantastic scent to be used in diffusers.

Frankincense is extracted from Boswellia trees which can be found in the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and India and thrive in areas that are dry and cool. There are five main species of Boswellia, but the species that produces the best and most aromatic frankincense is Boswellia sacra. The Boswellia sacra is not a large tree; it only grows to reach a height of around 5 metres. They can have one or more trunks and are covered in papery bark that is easy to remove. They have a sparse number of paired leaves, and small yellowish-white flowers, with a red or yellow centre. When frankincense is extracted, it is a milky white resin.

Myrrh can be extracted from a number of thorny tree species of the genus Commiphora. The species of the genus Commiphora that myrrh is most commonly extracted from is Commiphora myrrha. It is a small tree that can be found in Ethiopia, Oman, Kenya, Somalia and Saudi Arabia. It grows in shallow, rocky soils in areas with limestone, and is a small spiny tree that grows to be a height of around 3-4 metres. When myrrh is extracted, it is a reddish resin.

How are they extracted?

Both frankincense and myrrh are extracted in similar ways. The sap from Boswellia (for frankincense) is tapped from trees by harvesters who make a long cut down the trunk of the tree. The resin then bleeds out and hardens, into streaks that are called tears. The trees can be tapped 2 or 3 times a year.

The sap from Commiphora (for myrrh) is collected in a similar method. The tree is wounded repeatedly so that it goes through the bark and into the sapwood. From these wounds, the resin will bleed and harden. 

What are they used for?

In the past, frankincense and myrrh were used to help people smell nicer, and for some medicinal purposes, such as the treating of wounds. They were also very symbolic around the time of the birth of Jesus. Frankincense would be burned to symbolise prayer rising to heaven, and myrrh symbolised death as it was used in embalming.

Today frankincense and myrrh aren’t as popular, but they are still commonly used in cosmetics and perfumes, just as they were thousands of years ago.