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University of Illinois Extension

Frankincense and Myrrh

November 17, 2012

URBANA -- Frankincense and myrrh are part of many Christmas stories, but most people do not know what they are, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Frankincense and myrrh are both resins -- dried tree sap -- that come from trees of the genus Boswellia (frankincense) andCommiphora (myrhh), which are common to Somalia and Ethiopia," said Rhonda Ferree.

The value of these products comes partly from their use but also from the labor-intensive way that they are harvested. To collect the tree's sap, the bark is cut, causing the sap to ooze from the cut. The sap used to create both frankincense and myrrh flows slowly. It is allowed to dry and harden on the tree for several months and then collected.

Frankincense is a leafy tree that grows without soil along rocky shores in Somalia. The young trees furnish the most valuable gum -- a milky white ooze that hardens to a translucent golden hue.

Myrrh is collected from a small 5- to 15-foot–tall tree about 1 foot in diameter called the dindin tree. The tree looks like a short, flat-topped hawthorn tree with gnarly branches. The whitish green flowers appear before the leaves in the spring. The plant looks scrubby and desolate among the rocks and sands of the desert.

"True myrrh is crumbly and dark red inside," Ferree said. "The exterior is white and powdery. The best myrrh has little odor and no oily texture. High-quality myrrh demanded the best prices in the Roman Empire, but it did not ship well."

The most common use for frankincense and myrrh – past and present – is as incense.

"Frankincense is used mainly for its lovely fragrance, although historically, it also had medicinal uses," Ferree said.

Myrrh is also used medicinally, for embalming, and in cosmetics. Today, myrrh is found in some flavorings.

"You can find frankincense and myrrh for sale at stores and on the Internet," she noted. "Be aware that the product you purchase may actually be resin from another Middle Eastern tree and not the real stuff."

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News source/writer: Rhonda Ferree, 309-543-3308, ferreer@illinois.edu

Source: Rhonda J. Ferree, Extension Educator, Horticulture, ferreer@illinois.edu

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