Gold, frankincense and myrrh. We know all about the first, but have you ever wanted to know more about the second and third kingly gifts, what they are, where they come from, and what they smell like?
Frankincense, myrrh and other aromatic resins such as amber, copal and dragon’s blood are the soft, viscous saps exuded by woody plants in response to injury. When dried and hardened (polymerized) into “tears”, they are used in perfumery, aromatherapy and medicine. There are three main types: oleoresin (sticky, semi-soft), hard (brittle, tasteless and odourless until burned) and gum (gum or tree sap). A resin’s fragrance is due to the presence of terpenes, organic compounds whose strong odour may deter parasites or herbivores which eat or destroy the plant. Except for amber, these resins are harvested two to three times a year by “tapping” the tree: slashing the bark and collecting the resin which oozes out. The final tapping produces the best-quality, opaque resin with the highest terpene content. Amber is “fossilized” (i.e. completely polymerized); copal can be tapped or subfossil (not completely polymerized and much younger than amber). Most resins used as perfume or incense are graded according to colour, purity, scent, age and shape.
Frankincense: “Frankincense to offer have I; Incense owns a Deity nigh.” Frankincense (from Old French franc encens, meaning “high quality incense”) is a gum resin obtained from four species of Boswellia tree. Also known as olibanum (Arabic for “that which results from milking”, referring to the collection process), frankincense has been traded in western Asia, North Africa and China since ancient times. It is depicted in Egyptian tombs, was known to the ancient Greeks, was introduced to Europe by crusaders and is one of the chief resins used in religious rites. Translucent, impurity-free resin is edible and can be chewed as gum and is used in cosmetics and for a variety of medical complaints. Somalia is the major frankincense producer today. Aroma: Sweet, piney, lemony.
Myrrh: “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom; / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, / Sealed in the stone cold tomb.” Myrrh resin is the yellowish-brown gum of several small, thorny species of Commiphora trees in Africa and western Asia. Myrrh, which means “bitter” in Arabic and Aramaic, has been used throughout history as a perfume and incense and in medicine for its antiseptic and analgesic properties. The Bible mentions it as a rare, intoxicating perfume, and it was sometimes mixed with wine to drink, or, as the carol reminds us, used with natron to embalm the dead. Aroma: Earthy, smoky, musky-sweet.
Amber: Valued since Neolithic times, amber is hard tree resin that is several million years old. In classical antiquity, it was known to the Romans as electrum and to the Greeks as ēlektron (“beaming sun”); we get the name from the Arabic anbar. Amber is found primarily in the Baltic region, Russia, Africa, and the Americas, although seams of it are distributed worldwide. Amber disturbed from seabed sediments washes up on the shore; seams are mined. The “amber” fragrance used for perfume was once made from ambergris – the waxy substance extracted from the intestines of sperm whales – but is now made from other resins and organic compounds such as labdunum and benzoin, plus synthetics. Raw amber stones can be burned as incense, although true amber is costly. Aroma: Warm, rich, honey-like and woodsy.Copal: Harvested from the copal tree (Protium copal), this milky-white hard resin has been used for ceremonial purposes in Mexico and Central America since pre-Columbian times. Copal from several species of Hymanaea tree is found in East Africa, and this variety has been used since the 18th century as incense and an ingredient in varnish. Harder, citrine-coloured subfossil copal (partially-fossilized, several-thousand-year-old roots found beneath living copal trees in Africa, Asia and New Zealand) is a cheaper substitute for gem-quality amber and is sometimes sold as “young amber”. As an incense, copal is mellower than frankincense, myrrh or amber. Aroma: Subtly spicy, faintly reminiscent of cumin.
Dragon’s Blood: True dragon’s blood, an oleoresin, comes from dragon trees of the Dracaena species from the Canary Islands and Morocco. Another common source is the Indonesian Daemonorops draco rattan palm. Like many fragrant resins and spices, dragon’s blood made its way to Europe during the Middle Ages via the Silk Road. The resin is bright red and, when heated, bubbles like blood, and it was believed to have come from elephants and dragons that had died in combat. Other uses throughout history have been varnish, dye, ink, medicine and even toothpaste. Aroma: Strong herbal-floral, perfumey.
How to Burn Resins:
I recommend burning raw, natural resin rather than incense cones or joss sticks, because the latter can be treated with synthetic fragrance, and their quality varies widely. Also, you need only one or two small pieces of resin to scent a room, and the perfume lingers for some time.
Use a fire- and heat-proof vessel with steep sides, such as a cast iron pot or a bowl designed for burning resin (I use a small cast iron cauldron) • Place on a protected surface, as the container will get hot • Fill halfway with sand and place a small charcoal tablet, sold specifically for burning incense, inside (you can break in half for a shorter burn time) • Use a match to light the charcoal, which will give off sparks for a few seconds • Keep away from any combustible material • When the charcoal starts to glow red, carefully place a piece of resin beside it (tongs, tweezers, spoon or fork work well for this) • The heat will begin to melt and burn the resin, which releases that lovely fragrance.
Common-sense Cautions: Use only charcoal disks specifically designed for burning incense • Never leave an active burner unattended • Direct contact of resin with lit charcoal will burn up or scorch the resin more quickly and produce a lot of smoke • Burning charcoal creates carbon monoxide, so use with proper ventilation • Allow charcoal to become cold ash; never throw contents of pot directly into the trash • Store unused charcoal disks in a sealed bag to protect from humidity.