Image Gallery: Trees
Image Gallery: Trees

Extracted from tree sap, frankincense is burned like incense and is prized for its alluring fragrance. See pictures of trees.

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If you've heard of frankincense and myrrh, it's probably thanks to the biblical account of the birth of Jesus. According to the book of Matthew, Chapter 2, Magi, or wise men, followed a bright star in the east to Bethlehem where Jesus had been born:

"And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh" (Matthew 2:11).

During the Christmas season, depictions of this event are unavoidable, decorating churches and shopping malls alike. But don't let the shiny tinsel and festive candy canes distract you from the real question: What exactly are frankincense and myrrh?

Derived from tree sap, or gum resin, both frankincense and myrrh are prized for their alluring fragrance. Frankincense is a milky white resin extracted from species of the genus Boswellia, which thrive in arid, cool areas of the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and India. The finest and most aromatic of this species is Boswellia sacra, a small tree that grows in Somalia, Oman and Yemen. These plants, which grow to a height of 16 feet (5 meters), have papery bark, sparse bunches of paired leaves, and flowers with white petals and a yellow or red center.

Myrrh is a reddish resin that comes from species of the genus Commiphora, which are native to northeast Africa and the adjacent areas of the Arabian Peninsula. Commiphora myrrha, a tree commonly used in the production of myrrh, can be found in the shallow, rocky soils of Ethiopia, Kenya, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. It boasts spiny branches with sparse leaves that grow in groups of three, and can reach a height of 9 feet (3 meters).

The processes for extracting the sap of Boswellia (for frankincense) and Commiphora (for myrrh) are essentially identical. Harvesters make a longitudinal cut in the tree's trunk, which pierces gum resin reservoirs located within the bark. The sap slowly oozes from the cut and drips down the tree, forming tear-shaped droplets that are left to harden on the side of the tree. These beads are collected after two weeks.

Now that you know what frankincense and myrrh are, click over to the next page to find out more about how they're used and exactly what role they play in the Bible.