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Commiphora myrrha or C. molmol, is part of the Burseraceae family. Members of this family are angiosperm trees or shrubs that are resinous, aromatic and bear essential oils in their barks. They reproduce by pollination and have small flowers that produce small fleshy or non-fleshy fruit. Plants in this family are typically sub-tropic or tropical (Watson and Dallwitz). They are found in Africa, Asia and a few other countries (GRIN). In the U.S. a few species are found in California, New Mexico, and Florida as well as in two U.S. territories, Porto Rica and the Virgin Islands (BONAP).

The species Commiphora myrrha, is indigenous to the following eastern Mediterranean countries: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, and South Arabia (Innvista)(GRIN). Myrrh is a spiny, deciduous bush tree that grows up to 15 feet tall. The myrrh plant is sturdily built, with knotted branches and branchlets, that stand out at right-angles and end in points. In May and June this plant produces yellow-red flowers that yield pointed fruits. In M. Grieve’s, A Modern Herbal, the author explains how the resin of myrrh is produced. “There are ducts in the bark, and the tissue between them breaks down, forming large cavities, which, with the remaining ducts, becomes filled with a granular secretion which is freely discharged when the bark is wounded or from natural fissures. It flows as a reddish-brown mass, being found in commerce in tears of many sizes, the average being that of a walnut. The surface is rough and brittle, with a granular fracture, semi-transparent, oily and often shows whitish marks. The odor and taste are aromatic, the latter also acrid and bitter” (571-572). This resin is collected from June to August and sold after the different sizes and different qualities are sorted (Innvista). In his book The Honest Herbal, the author says, “The different commercial varieties are named according to their source, for example, Somali Myrrh and Arabian Myrrh” (Tyler 221). Kathi Keville and Mindy Green sum up the plant’s appearance very well. “This small, scrubby tree from the Middle East and northeast Africa isn’t very handsome, but it makes up for its lackluster looks with the precious gum it exudes….” (Aromatherapy).

Most of the myrrh gum available commercially comes from Arabia and Somalia. Indian myrrh is called false myrrh and is a different variety called Commiphora mukul. Meetiga is the trade-name of Arabian myrrh and according to M. Grieve, is more brittle and gummy without any of the white markings of the Somalian myrrh. Pliny mentions a liquid myrrh in his ancient writings called Stacte, which was an ingredient of the Jewish holy incense and highly valued. Somehow though, through the centuries, this form of myrrh can no longer be identified and is presently lost to the knowledge of man. Possibly the myrrh we know and use today is not the myrrh of the Bible. Some think that Mecca balsam, or C. Opobalsamum, a relative of myrrh, called mar in the Hebrew language, might have been confused with the modern Arabic morr which is translated myrrh (A Modern Herbal Vol. II 571-572). British myrrh, Myrrhis odorata is often confused with Commiphora myrrha, even though it is from the Unbelliferae family and completely unrelated (Innvista).
by Rebecca Joy Knottnerus
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