Fragrant gifts that keep on giving
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