Myrrh was, according to the Christian Bible, one of the gifts given to the infant Jesus by the Magi at the stable. Every wonder what myrrh is and what it is used for? Myrrh is the mixture of resin and essential oils harvested from a number of small, thorny trees in the genus Commiphora.
Just as maple trees are grown for their sap, myrrh trees are grown for their oleoresin, the mixture of resin and essential oils that can be harvested from them. To do so, the bark is scored and the oleoresin is harvested as it weeps out of the wound. It hardens into a ball of gum that is then used for a variety of purposes.
Why would you give tree sap to a baby? Because of the labor intensive nature of harvesting this substance, it was very expensive. It would be more like giving the child silver instead of coins. In fact, it was then worth more than gold, so was one of the most valuable gifts available in portable form for a camel caravan to carry.
Myrrh was used by the Egyptians to embalm mummies and is used as a folk remedy for a number of problems. It was used as an antiseptic for wounds, a tonic for stomach problems, and as a mouthwash. If your dentist has given you a special mouthwash for gum problems, it probably has myrrh in it.
More importantly for this particular baby, myrrh was used as a sacrifice in Hebrew rituals at the Temples in Jerusalem. Supposedly, the symbolism of sacrifice and the use in death foreshadowed the crucifixion. Because of the connection to Jesus, myrrh is used in incense in both Roman Catholic and Orthodox services. It is still labor intensive to harvest and is still very expensive.
Myrrh grows primarily in the southern part of Arabia. It is a desert plant, growing in poor, rocky soil, usually over limestone. It is sometimes planted in North America as part of a Biblical garden, but unless the garden is around zones 10 and 11, it will not survive the winter. The plant is really a tree growing ten to twelve feet high, so it needs to be planted where there is plenty of room. It should be eight to ten feet from any other tree as it spreads out. It must be planted in the full sun. Myrrh blooms repeatedly with a brown blossom. The foliage is aromatic and can be used in potpourri.
While most North Americans will never see myrrh, now you know what it is: a mixture of essential oils and resins harvested from a small, scrubby thorn tree.