UF/IFAS Okeechobee County Extension Service

458 Highway 98 North

Okeechobee, FL 34972-2578

Phone: (863) 763-6469

E- mail: dfculbert@ifas.ufl.edu

December 8, 2004

Feature Article - for release the week of December 19, 2004

Dan Culbert - Extension Horticulture Agent

Three Ancient Gifts

We’ve all heard of the three gifts of the Magi - those valued items brought by the Three Kings to honor the birth of Jesus. But do you really know what these gifts are?

A colleague of mine recently sent me a short description of frankincense. So in addition to Carol Bailey’s notes on frankincense, I’ve assembled some information about myrrh in this week’s Holiday Horticulture column. The third gift of gold reminds me that local residents can provide a golden gift to the community - the gift of volunteering can be done as a Master Gardener in the new year - contact our office if you are interested. 


Fragrant Frankincense

courtesy - http://www.fineincense.com/index.html 

courtesy SANAMIN

Frankincense is one of the symbols of the holiday season that is full of mystery and wonder. It was one of the gifts of the Magi, said to be used as currency and as a source of wealth. Frankincense was and is used in both modern and ancient times as incense and an herbal remedy for many health problems.

So what exactly is Frankincense? It is the dried sap of a tree, generally Boswellia sacra, a native to Arabia, India, and Ethiopia. This deciduous medium-sized tree or large shrub has ash colored bark that tends to peel in flakes, and grows fuzzy leaves with toothed edges. Boswellia usually grows in very arid places in soil that is not much more than polished rock.

Stuart Landscape consultant Carol Bailey was reading of some recent work being done with Frankincense. Cal Fullerton researchers have successfully grown this desert plant in containers with rock-like soil, dry conditions. Plants even withstood temperatures slightly below freezing, very much like the temperatures that citrus trees would take. It is possible that Frankincense could be grown in this area if kept on the dry side.

The actual Frankincense of commerce is a clump of dried resin from this tree. A deep cut is made in the bark and a strip of bark is removed. From this wound a milky sap drips down and in about three months the resin to hardens into large, clear globules that are scraped off for market.

A recent report for a Dutch scientist indicates that there may soon be a shortage of this special incense: climate change and over grazing of lands in the natural range of the Boswellia plants may make it difficulty to find and harvest frankincense in the near future.   


Frankincense Trees -  Dhofar, Oman
Courtesy of Mike and Re Kramer

Boswellia Tree foliage.  Courtesy of Botanical.com 


Harvesting sap from Boswellia tree to make frankincense. Courtesy  J & C. Schreurs

During the Roman Empire, frankincense trade was at its height. At that time "tears" of frankincense resin were as valuable as gems or precious metals. The Romans burned frankincense on their altars and at cremations. Some mixed frankincense with wine and myrrh to create a "strong drink" which eased pain. Pliny the Elder, one of the first systemic botanists, recommended Frankincense as an antidote to poison. Egyptians used frankincense to make cosmetics, embalm dead bodies, and provide a fragrant fire to warm their homes. It also said that the mythical Phoenix bird was thought to build its funeral pyre out of frankincense and myrrh.

Frankincense today is used as an incense, burnt during some church services and funerals to show respect. Medicinally, it is rarely used anymore, though it was used to cure a variety of ills in the past. Please do not try any of the uses without first checking with your doctor or specialist.


Magical Myrrh

Courtesy Naheed Shoukat Ali (naheed), Fragrantica Writer

Courtesy Cactus Art Nursery  

Myrrh globules

Courtesy: http://www.summagallicana.it/lessico/m/mirra.htm 

Picture a short scrubby bush, no more than 9 feet tall, with bent branches covered with long spines and very small leaves.  If you are wandering in the searing hot deserts of Arabia or on the horn of Africa, you may have encountered a Myrrh bush, Commiphora momol, source of a second gift of the three Kings.

Cracks in the bark of the Myrrh plant fill with a resinous sap that is also extracted by bleeding out cuts in the bark and allowing this sap to dry into red brown clumps the size of walnuts. A liquid form of Myrrh was known as Stacte by Pliny, and it was an ingredient of Jewish holy incense. It was greatly valued in the ancient world, but of less importance in commerce today.

There are some cheap imitations, and the kinds of myrrh preferred by those still using it for medicinal purposes are collected in Ethiopia and shipped to Bombay, India. Like frankincense, myrrh is an ingredient in some incenses, but it may also be used as an adhesive or as a cure for various medical aliments.


For the curious, it is possible to search out sources of these products today from dealers in spices and herbs. I’ve placed photos of these holiday plants and the gifts obtained from them, as well as some links to other references on our website at http://okeechobee.ifas.ufl.edu.

Our office can answer your questions about other gifts for your Florida Yard - call or visit our office. If you need additional information, visit out webpage at http://okeechobee.ifas.ufl.edu, or stop by our office at 458 Hwy 98 North. Our phone number is (863) 763-6469, and you can email us at okeechobee@ifas.ufl.eduHave a Merry Christmas!


Links / References

MYRRH AND FRANKINCENSE    5/2003  Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon 




Royal Botanical Gardens - Kew, England



Boswellia sacra 

Boswellia carterii


Yvonne Steiner's personal observations on growing a Frankincense plant (May 2008) in Northern Virginia.  




For Ms. Steiner's ongoing  observations and additional information on growing Frankincense trees, visit her website on Myspace.com

Origin:  East Africa (particularly Oman, Socotra, Somalia).     Family:  Burseraceae, tree.


Genera:  Although there are about 25 different genera of Boswellia.  The three main ones are 1) B. sacra syn. Carterii producing the highest quality frankincense resin (adapted to arid zones); B. sacra adapted to Oman and Yemen and B. carterii to northeast Somalia), 2) B. frearana (adapted to very arid conditions, e.g., northeast Somalia), and 3) B. papyrifera (adapted to arid and semi-arid zones, e.g., Djibouti). 


Growth: – 7-8 m tall, branching at the base.


Soil:  Gravelly and Calcareous soils.       Resin of highest quality was associated with trees deficient in N, P, K, but relatively high in Na.  Poorer quality resin was found in nutritionally less stressed trees.  (See http://www.springerlink.com/content/rj778017124u3861/, by Peter Cookson, peterc@squ.edu.om).

Trees are usually found growing in mountainous climates with only the moisture of morning dew on rocks and hillsides and dry river beds, which rich soil deposits of limestone are found, rainfall is less than 10 cm annually, which is difficult to reproduce.


Flower:  Small yellow/white flowers in Spring.


Sun:  Intense direct full sun.


Temperature range:  Unknown.  I wouldn't test its resilience to freezing temperatures.


Water:  Water when in active growth; keep dry when dormant; very drought tolerant; very sensitive to over-watering.     I water mine about 1x / week all year.  Treated as a houseplant, it does not loose its leaves in Winter if provided with a lot of sun.


Plant Personality:  If you buy a B. sacra or B. carterii and are somehow lucky enough to keep it alive, you will notice it is, well, singularly in want of solitude.  Most plants aren't communicative.  They live, grow and die without expressing themselves to you.  B. sacra and B. carterii are unlike all other plants I've ever had.  One day, you walk away after carefully observing the tree's progress and realize it did not appreciate your looking at it, so you start pretending you're looking at something else while casually walking by.  I'm not kidding or nuts.  Other owners have reported the same.  Perhaps this is why B. sacra and B. carterii enjoy the solitude of craggy hillsides in lonely inhospitable deserts.  I think it gets nervous or something.  You'll know when you upset it as it will start dropping leaves.  DO NOT look at it too long.  DO NOT move (jostle) it about.  DO NOT change its watering or fertilizing schedule.  Only repot it once every several years when absolutely necessary.  Leave it alone!


The good thing, however, is that for as temperamental as this tree is, it is also very forgiving and will bounce back if you remedy whatever it is your doing that upsets it.


Propagation:  1) Seed, direct sow after last frost.  Allow unblemished fruit to ripen, 2-4 days in shade to soften and rot pulp, remove pulp, air dry seed, by 7 weeks, stored seeds 100% unviable; ground germination best; poor rate of establishment.  2) woody stem cuttings.  3) root cuttings.  NOTE:  It is reported by Arid Lands that B. sacra only can be propagated from seed and stem cuttings, and stems are difficult to root.  B. carterii is propagated from seed and root cuttings.

Boswellia Flowers - scott.zona/flickr 

Is there a future for Frankincense?

 Link to Christmas Day 2011 news story on NPR :  http://www.npr.org/2011/12/25/144193371/trees-in-trouble-grim-future-for-frankincense 

Link to research report by Frans Bongers -  Wageningen University in the Netherlands: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2011.02078.x/pdf


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