Science Matters – the scent of Christmas?

A 17th century depiction of the three wise men - The Adoration of the Magi, by Matthias Stom.

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Gold, frankincense and myrrh; gifts worthy of a king, and, in the traditional Christmas story, offered to the baby Jesus by the Maji.

Gold we are familiar with as a sign of wealth, but what of frankincense and myrrh? At some point during the intervening 2,020 years they seem to have fallen into obscurity.

In fact, both are scented resins extracted from trees; myrrh from the Commiphora myrrha tree and frankincense from Boswellia papyifera. These species grow in the arid conditions of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, where they have been tapped for their precious sap for millennia.

Myrrh, in its resin form

Mentioned in ancient Hebrew texts, frankincense and myrrh were prized for the sweet aromatic fumes they produce when burned, and were used to freshen the air (or hide unsavoury smells) during embalming of the dead and offering sacrifices to the gods. Frankincense and myrrh are components of incense, and as such were carried along ancient trade routes.

Incense reached Western Europe with crusaders returning from the Eastern Roman Empire where it was wafted in churches, a use that continues today.

Also, frankincense and myrrh are used in traditional Chinese medicines – recommended for conditions as diverse as inflammation, pain, fever, indigestion and ulcers. They are also components of mosquito deterrents, deodorants and toothpaste. All fairly obscure you may think, but sales of frankincense have recently rocketed; it is now an important part of the international, multi-million pound essential oil industry. Great for the trade, but the booming market is putting severe strain on the supply chain*.

Back in the Horn of Africa the trees are suffering. Powerful middle men are encouraging local owners to over-tap their trees for this desirable commodity, resulting in stressed trees, less seed production and virtually no young trees growing up to maintain the plantations.

Yet, there is hope, but speed is of the essence. Tappers are being encouraged to form co-operatives, and are getting expert help with tree management. Nevertheless, spare a thought for the growers and the trees as you enjoy your frankincense-scented bath over the Christmas break.

* New Scientist 21/29 December 2019