incense-tree, common name for members of the Burseraceae, a family of sometimes deciduous shrubs and large trees found chiefly in tropical America and NE Africa. The name derives from the characteristic aromatic oils or resins that occur in all parts of the plant. The incenses frankincense and myrrh are prepared from large irregular lumps of light reddish to yellowish brown gum exuded by some species. Frankincense (from several species of the genus Boswellia, chiefly B. carteri ) is also used medicinally and for fumigation; another name for it is olibanum. Myrrh is obtained from several species of the genus Commiphora, whose native range extends from Somaliland to E India. The two principal species are C. erythraea, yielding bitter, or bisabol, myrrh, an important bdellium, and the common myrrh ( C. myrrha ), yielding sweet, or harobol, myrrh. The rarer C. gileadensis or C. opobalsamum of Arabia yields Mecca, or Duhnual, balsam (also called balm of Gilead). All three are used in perfumes and sometimes medicinally; they were employed by the ancients for embalming. Frankincense and myrrh, together with gold, were the gifts of the Magi of the Gospels (Mat. 2.11). Both were used for incense in religious ceremonies, as frankincense still is. The biblical myrrh, probably a mixture of several substances, may also have been derived in part from the unrelated rockrose (genus Cistus ), a small evergreen plant of the Mediterranean area. The name myrrh is also used for sweet cicely, of the parsley family. Another genus ( Bursera ) of the incense-tree family, the tropical elephant tree, is the source of several gums and resins; the Mexican B. jorullensis yields copal de Penca. Incense-trees are classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Sapindales.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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