Fra­grant gifts that keep on giv­ing

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

OUR usual Christmas tree, a pot­ted spec­i­men of Wollemia no­bilis, has grown too tall to bring in­doors this year. In­stead, we’re scal­ing down in size and up in value with a young Com­miphora myrrha. ‘Mar­vel­lous,’ I de­clared when it ar­rived by post a few weeks ago. Yoko ex­am­ined its fat stem, just 6in tall, with baklava-flaky bark, spiky twigs and sparse tre­foil leaves be­fore say­ing: ‘I sup­pose, but, given the choice, I’d have pre­ferred the gold.’

This plant is, of course, the source of myrrh, the orig­i­nal Christmas gift. A shrub or small tree, it grows wild in rocky arid places in the south­ern Ara­bian Penin­sula and the Horn of Africa. For mil­len­nia, peo­ple have har­vested gouts of aro­matic resin from in­ci­sions made in its trunk. These ‘tears’, as they’re known, are then con­sol­i­dated and al­lowed to harden be­fore use. Other Com­miphora species are sim­i­larly tapped—c. gilead­en­sis, for example, still pro­vides the sub­stance called Balm of Gilead in the Bi­ble—but only C. myrrha and its near re­la­tions such as C. guidot­tii weep myrrh, the most precious resin of all.

In the an­cient world, it was used for anoint­ing the dead: as one of the Magi’s gifts, it fore­shad­ows Christ’s Pas­sion. At the same time, it was thought life-pre­serv­ing, of im­mense and var­ied medic­i­nal im­por­tance. Mod­ern sci­ence is find­ing that myrrh does, in­deed, have an­ti­sep­tic, anti-in­flam­ma­tory and fever-re­duc­ing prop­er­ties. Its po­ten­tial use­ful­ness against diabetes, bad choles­terol and tu­mours is also be­ing in­ves­ti­gated.

But let’s not forget what first drew us to it: that uniquely won­der­ful scent. Myrrh re­mains one of the most sought-af­ter ma­te­ri­als for in­cense and per­fumery. As such, it is ri­valled only by frank­in­cense, a resin har­vested in the same way and re­gion, from Boswellia sacra and re­lated species—trees and shrubs that, like Com­miphora, be­long to the plant fam­ily Burs­er­aceae. Of med­i­cal in­ter­est as a pos­si­ble painkiller, rheuma­tism re­liever and an­tide­pres­sant, frank­in­cense is an­other Wise Man’s gift that keeps on giv­ing.

I’ve grown Com­miphora be­fore. Col­lec­tors class it and Boswellia among the cau­di­ci­form suc­cu­lents, a fas­ci­nat­ingly ec­cen­tric group of plants that have one fea­ture in com­mon: a stout, often strangely shaped wa­ter­stor­ing trunk or stem base. It’s for this caudex, as it’s termed, that they are prized and it can be re­mark­able—gouty, craque­lured and seem­ingly pet­ri­fied in its long dor­mant pe­riod; a mar­vel of res­ur­rec­tion when it erupts into growth.

Years ago, when I moved for a while to a place with too lit­tle light for them, I gave my cau­di­ci­form col­lec­tion to a friend. With me, they’d been just that—a col­lec­tion, spe­cial­ist, anorak-ish. With him, they be­came ob­jects of virtue, adorn­ing his mod­ern Min­i­mal­ist rooms like sculp­ture, prim­i­tive arte­facts and show­piece fos­sils. Most wel­come of all was the myrrh, not only be­cause it had sto­ries to tell, but also be­cause it re­sem­bled a bon­sai of great age and char­ac­ter. And, un­like most bon­sai, that 12in­tall, crabbed and windswept-look­ing tree rel­ished cen­tral heat­ing.

Since then, oth­ers have had the same idea. Cau­di­ci­forms are be­com­ing de­sign props for smart in­te­ri­ors, none more so than myrrh’s cousin, Com­miphora kataf (pale obese trunk, black twigs like blasted hawthorn), small plants of which now go for large sums in the USA, Far East and Rus­sia.

Com­miphora and Boswellia are not frost-hardy. Lov­ing warmth, dry air and full sun, they thrive in­doors near win­dows and in con­ser­va­to­ries. They’re best in ter­ra­cotta pots and a fast-drain­ing medium: I blend 50% John Innes No.3 pot­ting com­post with 50% mixed hor­ti­cul­tural sand, grit and Seramis clay gran­ules. Care­ful wa­ter­ing is key. Be lib­eral when they’re grow­ing, but let the com­post dry out briefly be­tween dous­ings. When dor­mant (and, prob­a­bly, leaf­less), they need drought, with wa­ter­ing lim­ited to once a month at most. Keep them dry, too, should day­time tem­per­a­tures fall con­sis­tently below 15˚C: they hate chill damp.

Along with other cau­di­ci­forms, Com­miphora and Boswellia are sold by Alan But­ler’s ex­cel­lent Brook­side Nurs­ery which is now based in Spain, but does on­line mail or­der to the UK (www.brook­si­de­nurs­ery.com), and by an ex­cit­ing new firm, Wil­liam’s Cac­tus in West York­shire (www.williamscac­tus. co.uk—con­tact pro­pri­etor Craig Bar­ber to check avail­abil­ity).

Although their stems may shed an oc­ca­sional per­fumed tear and their fo­liage can be trans­fix­ingly fra­grant if cut or bruised, these plants are re­ally too small and precious for home resin-har­vest­ing. Grow them, rather, as con­nois­seur’s col­lectibles and as the liv­ing stuff of leg­end. They have, af­ter all, spawned economies and trade routes, scented, salved and sanc­ti­fied civil­i­sa­tions and fur­nished two gifts fit for the King of Kings.

Mark Grif­fiths is edi­tor of the New Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety Dic­tionary of Gar­den­ing

Sweet: the myrrh tree is possessed of many medic­i­nal prop­er­ties

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