The three gifts that were supposedly given to Jesus by three wise men at his birth always mystified me as a kid. Gold I understood – that’s like giving money or gift cards. Not something I’d personally bring when visiting a baby, but you can see how it might come in handy. But myrrh? Frankincense?
Frankincense and myrrh are tree resins used in incense. They’re collected by “tapping”: slashing the tree bark and letting the resin flow out. Both come from trees indigenous to Africa: Myrrh is collected from Commiphora, and frankincense from Boswellia trees. The tapping of frankincense from Boswellia papyrifera is currently endangering the tree’s survival in Eritrea, so these resins are not just a whimsical hype from a few thousand years ago, they’re still actively being collected.
Other than making incense, what can you do with frankincense and myrrh?
- The ancient Egyptians used charred frankincense as kohl, or eyeliner. Again, not something I would give to a baby.
- Frankincense is also antimicrobial and antifungal. One type of frankincense in particular is able to kill Candida albicans, the yeast we know and hate from yeast infections or thrush. Some diaper rash, when left untreated, can turn into a yeast infection, so at least there is some distant benefit to babies here.
- Myrrh was used in ancient embalming ointments. This is apparently one of the reasons myrrh appears in the biblical nativity story: myrrh was given to symbolize mortality.
- Myrrh is used to treat schistosome infections (parasitic worms) but its antiparasitic activities are subject to debate
Speaking of parasites, and leaving behind the discussion about the suitability of tree resins as baby gifts, there is one parasite that has made it’s way into Christmas traditions in English-speaking countries. No, it’s not the exploitation of the Christmas spirit by retail malls. (Okay, two parasites.) I was referring to mistletoe.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant growing on trees. Like an unwanted dinner guest it digs its roots into the host’s branches to steal nutrients. But classic Christmas movies dictate that even a parasite like mistletoe will eventually learn to give back. And so it does: Lectin isolated from mistletoe is used as an anti-tumor drug because it’s able to induce apoptosis (cell death)
How’s that for a happy christmas story?