Isabella Whitworth

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


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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.’

Frankincense 

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.

Myrrh

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.

Sources:

Wikipedia: frankincense, myrrh, gum arabic

Jewish Encyclopedia

Sister Sarah’s Bible Bytes

King James Bible Online

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