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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!