The Magi Actually Gave Tree Sap and Tree Gum

Frankincense is actually dried tree sap.

Did anyone give you a plant for Christmas? Why not!? It’s traditional. In the Gospel of Matthew, two thirds of the Magi’s gifts were plant-based.

Frankincense is produced from the dried sap of trees in the genus BoswelliaBoswellia trees are relatively short (6-26 ft tall) with papery bark and compound leaves sprouting from tangled branches. They are native to the Arabian Peninsula and Northeastern Africa and can often be found growing from steep, rocky outcroppings. After wounding the tree with a chisel-like tool, milky sap pours out and then solidifies into stone-like globs. These globs are collected and dried to produce a sweet, lemony, musky smelling product. A lucrative trade in frankincense has existed since 10,000 B.C. Sadly, over-production and global warming has lead to a decline in Boswellia trees, so without conservation efforts there is no telling how much longer the world will have this kingly perfume.

Myhrr is a gum harvested from plants in the genus Commiphora, most commonly C. myrrhaCommiphora is also native to same regions as Boswellia plants. In fact, the two genera are in the same family of plants, the Burseraceae. Commiphora plants are tough, drought-resistant trees and shrubs, usually armed with spines. Similar to frankincense, myrrh is produced from the solidified sap of Commiphora plants. Unlike frankincense, myrrh has a piney, bitter scent. It has been traded for centuries and prized not only for its odor but its supposed medicinal uses. It has antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, and although the research is still scant there is some hope that it can be used to treat other conditions, including cancers.

So start your Christmas list early, behave and maybe this year someone will get you a nice potted plant.

Brian Rutter, PhD, is the cofounder of Thing in a Pot Productions and a postdoctoral researcher in plant biology at Indiana University. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive our “Things About Things – Odd Facts About Plants” and video production tips in your inbox every month!

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