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, especially B. papyrifiera, is also used medicinally and for fumigation; another name for it is olibanum. It is primarily produced in Somalia. Myrrh is obtained from several species of the genus Commiphora, whose native range extends from Ethiopia and Somalia to E India. The common myrrh, C. myrrha, yields bitter, or harobol, myrrh, also known simply as myrrh. C. erythraea, C. guidottii, C. kataf, and other species yield opoponax, also known as sweet, or bisabol, myrrh, an important bdellium. 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. Bursera, Protium, and other genera of the incense-tree family also are sources of gums and resins; the Mexican B. copallifera yields copal santo, also known as copal de Penca or copal blanco. 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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