Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history

We Three Trees of Orient Are


Gum arabic

In the previous post I mentioned gum arabic. I vaguely thought it came from a tree but I don’t actually know much about it. Wikipedia’s entry here explains that it is known by many names, including acacia gum, which starts to give the game away. The trees concerned are Senegalia senegal and Vachellia seyal and Wikipedia continues, ‘The gum is harvested commercially from wild trees throughout the Sahel from Senegal to Somalia, although it has been historically cultivated in Arabia and West Asia.’


Thanks to a generous travelling friend I have a small amount of two valuable resins which also come from trees: frankincense and myrrh. As precious gifts from kings at Bethlehem, frankincense and myrrh obviously predate Christianity. Frankincense (and myrrh) were consecrated incenses described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. It is worth reading Wikipedia’s explanation of the value and reverence in which frankincense was held.

The substance is tapped from varieties of tree, the Boswellia sacra being one. Over-exploitation of the  tree is contributing to a decline in population, as is the fact that seeds from tapped trees demonstrate lower germination rates.


The trees which are the primary source of myrrh are Commiphora myrrhaIn ancient Egypt and along with natron it was used for embalming mummies. Is this why the Christmas carol contains this rather glum verse?

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

Perhaps not, according to Sister Sarah’s Bible Bytes. Her explanation has a surprising take on myrrh – to those of us unfamiliar with Old Testament texts. Read versions of Esther 2:12 here.

Apart from playing its part in the narrative of the Christmas story, myrrh is still used is Eastern and Western Christian rites, including the sacraments of chrismation and unction.


Wikipedia: frankincense, myrrh, gum arabic

Jewish Encyclopedia

Sister Sarah’s Bible Bytes

King James Bible Online

4 thoughts on “We Three Trees of Orient Are

  1. Hi Isabel, I was told by Naomi at Inanna’s Festival in Norwich when I stopped in this afternoon to buy some precious “Gold frankincense and myrrh” that the gold could have been ‘Sandarac’ which means Gold Resin in Arabic…I did a bit of research and discovered its actually the resin from the Thuya tree from Morocco – I have some beautiful boxes made from this wood and it retains its fragrance for years
    I have just tried burning a tiny bit on a charcoal tablet and am whisked away on a magic carpet to Essaouira – the screech of the gulls and the cry of the muezin – a favourite escape of mine and a world away from damp windy Norfolk and midwinter blues!!

  2. Isabella, I am fascinated with your writing about plants and their uses. One of the things I’ll write about on my new blog is my foray into using medicinal plants to treat my farm animals. Interestingly, myrrh is one of the ingredients in a cold formula I used to make and put in capsules for myself and my children. But I have to think, like you, that the verse of the carol with myrrh refers to embalming. I have always loved that Christmas carol, now it makes more sense. I’m looking forward to reading more on your blog, a great way to learn and be productive during long winter evenings!

    • Hello Joy, and thank you for following. I look forward to reading your blog about medicinal plants for animals. Many lichens are used in traditional medicine. Do you know Dominique Cardon’s book ‘Natural Dyes: Sources, Traditions, Technology and Science’? She has a small section at the end of each entry where she lists ‘Other uses’. Often these are medicinal or medicine related.

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