Montana Public Radio

What Is Frankincense And Myrrh? Dr. Starbuck Explains

Dec 16, 2016

Hi!  I’m Dr. Jamison Starbuck, a naturopathic family physician.  I’m here today to talk about two plants that I always think about during the Christmas season.

I bet most of you know about the Three Kings.  The Christmas story talks about them, three Wise Men who made a long journey riding through days and nights from the Far East to bring gifts to the baby Jesus in the manger.

Do you remember what the three gifts were?

They were gold, frankincense and myrrh.  

 We know about gold – it’s like money.  It’s valuable and you can use it to buy things.  But what about frankincense and myrrh?  Those are funny sounding names, aren’t they? But kind of magical and lovely too.

Well frankincense and myrrh are plants. They grow in the Middle East and Africa and India. In ancient times, frankincense and myrrh were more valuable than gold. Great big cargo ships were loaded up with tons of frankincense and myrrh. They sailed across oceans and into ports where their cargo was sold to merchants and delivered to kings and queens.

Frankincense and myrrh are amazing because they grow where there is almost no water. They grow straight out of rocks or dry patches of desert earth. Myrrh is a big shrub with lots of thorns on its branches and frankincense is a tree. It clings to rocks and cliffs with a sort of suction cup part that grows at the bottom of its trunk.

Frankincense and myrrh have been living on earth for thousands of years. For those same thousands of years, they’ve been used for incense, perfume and medicine.;It’s the sap – that yellow, sticky stuff that comes out of tree trunks - that is used for medicine and incense. To get the sap, people slice little cuts into the trunk of the tree. The sap oozes out of the cut, and people gather it. Then they dry it and when it’s dry, it’s called resin.

To make medicine, the resin is ground up into a powder. The powder is then pressed into tablets, or steeped in alcohol to make a liquid medicine called tincture.

Frankincense, whose other name is boswelya, helps with pain. People, mostly older people, use boswelya, for arthritis, which is pain in the joints and bones. It’s also used to help with the pain of kids get- like a sprained ankle or wrist or a sore back.

Myrrh is a medicine that I use a lot with kids, especially in the winter, just around now, Christmas time. That’s because myrrh helps with sore throats, and lots of kids get sore throats in the winter. Myrrh soothes that raw, burning, painful feeling you get with a sore throat, and it helps your throat to heal.

When I use myrrh as medicine, I put the liquid tincture into a big blob of honey and stir it all up. Then I give the honey/myrrh mix to my patient with a sore throat. They can either put a spoonful of honey into tea, or they can eat the medicinal honey right off a spoon, slowly letting it drip down their throat. Either way the myrrh and honey tastes good and it makes your throat feel better.

So that’s my story about the Christmas plants frankincense and myrrh. Maybe this year when you sing the Christmas carol "We Three Kings," you’ll smile because now you now know special information about what those Three Kings carried on their long journey through the desert.

The plants I talked about can help you stay healthy. But remember kids, you need to check with your parents before you take any medicine or do any treatments for an illness.

I’m Dr. Starbuck and I’m wishing you a happy and healthy holiday season!

More children's programs:  Kids Like You and Me

Bunny and Dr. Starbuck in the examination room
Credit Laurie Childs

Jamison Starbuck, JD, ND, is a naturopathic family physician and the owner of One Doc Naturopathic Medicine, a family medicine clinic in Missoula, Montana.  Dr. Starbuck has been in private, primary care practice for over twenty-seven years.  She is a past president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

Dr. Starbuck did her undergraduate work at Middlebury College, in Middlebury, Vermont, majoring in history and art history.  She graduated from Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Oregon and from National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon.  Dr. Starbuck is a licensed naturopathic family physician and a licensed attorney member of the Montana State Bar.

Since 1995, Dr. Starbuck has written a monthly column for Bottom Line Health, a national newsletter/magazine. She is dedicated to the concept of physician as teacher and frequently offers public lectures and classes. Dr. Starbuck is a member of Missoula Kiwanis and serves on their Board as Treasurer.

In her spare time, Dr. Starbuck tends to her animals – a horse, dogs, chickens and a cat, her gardens and spends lots of time outdoors, celebrating life with nature in beautiful Montana.