MYRRH (Commiphora myrrha – Burseraceae)

There are many species of Commiphora, spiky, knotted and stunted shrubs and bushes native to the Middle East, North Africa and North India. They grow in abundance, wild and cultivated, along the Red Sea, in Iran, Libya, Abyssinia and along the coast of Somalia. The small trifoliate leaves, which are scanty, are covered with fluff, and the oil is distilled from an oleoresin exuding from the stems and shoots of the bushes. The true myrrh or myrrhe herabol is cultivated in Arab countries, and is also called karam or Turkey myrrh. The myrrh from Abyssinia and Somalia is called bisabol or bdellium (C. abyssinica). This is similar to the Indian myrrh, called Indian bdellium, which produces an oil of inferior quality to true myrrh.

Myrrh was well known to the ancients. It was an ingredient of incense used for religious ceremonies and fumigations by the Ancient Egyptians. Called ‘punt’ or ‘phun’, it was an ingredient of a famous Egyptian perfume ‘kyphi’, was prescribed to counter hayfever, and was an important ingre¬dient in embalming as well. Moses was enjoined to take myrrh with him from Egypt so that the Children of Israel could continue their worship, and myrrh was one of the three gifts to the infant Jesus from the Magi. In The New Testament, Nicodemus ordered 100 lb of myrrh and aloe to annoint the body of Jesus (as was the custom among Jews at that time). The Hebrews would mix myrrh in their wine and drink it to raise their state of consciousness before participating in religious ritual. The same mixture was given to criminals a few hours before execution to ease their mental suffering.

There are many mentions of myrrh’s therapeutic properties in the Old and New Testaments, in the Koran, and in Greek and Roman texts. Herodotus, Theophrastus and Plutarch sang its praises, and Dioscorides and Pliny classified it as healing, recording many therapeutic salves.
The essence was being distilled in 1540, and Valerius Cordius and Conrad Gesner described how to prepare ointments from the resin. They classified it for external usage, as a vulnerary (wound healing).

Later remedies – called in France ‘I’ elixir de Carus’, ‘baume de Fioraventi’ , ‘baume du commandeur’ or ‘baume du samaritain’ – were all based on myrrh. These healed cuts, burns and wounds, and were used as an expectorant for catarrhal discharge and bronchitis, and in fumigation. In 1608, Dr Philippe Guybert’s Medecin Charitable recorded that ‘myrrh warms at the same time dries, cleans, strengthens, gets rid of the old cough, brings the late period to women. It is a wonderful remedy.’ In his Traite des Drogues Simples (1699), Nicolas Lemery confirmed that myrrh was a good emmenagogue and recommended it for hastening labour and facilitating birth. He also included myrrh in a recipe for treating hernias. Cartheuser in Matiere Medicale in 1765 confirmed the above, but also recorded myrrh’s properties in treating skin ulcers and other skin diseases: mixed with sage it could fortify the gums and was a good antiseptic for rotten teeth. In Ayurvedic medicine in India, myrrh is still used for this purpose, in parallel with conventional medicine. In the 1928 0fficine de Dorvault, a list of drugs officially dispensed over a certain period, myrrh was recorded as being used in hospitals for bed sores (a formula for ‘Myrrholine’ still exists).


Description: There are still many unanswered questions about the origin and identity of the various species of Commiphora, especially botanically. The bushes exude the resin naturally from fissures in the bark, but they can also be tapped. The resin is a pale yellow, but becomes reddish as it hardens into a thick irregular mass, often with white lines. It has a strong balsamic smell in which camphor can be detected. It is acrid and bitter at the same time. Some producers add some ammonia to the resin when distilling to increase the yield: this naturally deprives the myrrh oil of all therapeutic value, and so great care must be taken to obtain the purest form. Myrrh can be bought as an oil, as a simple tincture (like benzoin), and powdered.

The principal constituents: Acids (acetic, formic, myrrholic, palmitic, triterpenic, etc), alcohols, aldehydes (cinnamic, cuminic, etc), sugars (arabinose, galactose, etc), phenols (eugenol, m-cresol), resins and terpenes (cadinene, dipentene, limonene, pinene, etc).


In illness
As long as myrrh is pure, it is a great healer for all skin problems, scars, skin infections and ulcerations. For treating skin problems such as acne and dermatitis, and to reduce inflammations, mix 10 ml (2 tsp) soya oil with 2-4 drops myrrh and apply externally.

Used with another essential oil for flavour, like mint or cardamom, it myrrh oil makes a good mouthwash and is antiseptic and balsamic for all throat and gum problems. Add 1 drop of myrrh and 1 drop of mint or cardamom to a glass of water. Use to rinse the mouth and gargle, but do not swallow. It also makes a good antiseptic inhalation during sinusitis.
(See also halitosis.)

In beauty
A simple tincture of myrrh, like benzoin, can be used as a toner, to close pores.

(See also nails.)

Other uses
Myrrh is one of the principal ingredients of incense, and it can be used at home as a ‘burning perfume’. Like benzoin, it is also a good fixative, and is an ingredient of many pot-pourris and pomanders.

A to Z of Plants