Yarb Tales - Christmas thoughts
December 19, 2016

The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas, and helps us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.

Plant use is interwoven in every aspect of human existence. Balsams, gums and resins are substances from the plant kingdom that travel worldwide in the marketplace, playing important supportive roles in our lives. Frankincense is such a plant product, surfacing now with the Christmas season as a mysterious word, naming a precious gift from the three wise men in the story of the Nativity. Those who have attended Mass in the Catholic faith know the fragrance of the smoke from the incensiers.

Frankincense is the dried sap of the genus Boswellia. According to Deni Bown in The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses, there are 25 species of this evergreen shrub. They are all native to dry, tropical regions of Asia and Africa.  B. sacra is the most-used; it is native to the Dhofar region of Oman (a country east of Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Sea), Arabia and the Horn of Africa.

The harvest takes place all year round. Just as any natural product, there are grades of quality. The highest grade comes from trees that grow directly on rock and is obtained during the hottest part of the season. These anchor themselves on the surface of rock by means of a disk-shaped bulbous trunk base, an adaptation that is, according to Wikipedia, not seen on Boswellia trees that grow in soil.

The shrubs naturally exude gum resin when damaged. To exploit and harvest this resource, the bark is slashed. Sap oozes to the surface to seal off the wound. This sticky substance is allowed to dry before it is scraped off the trees. The resulting harvest, called tears, no longer sticks to tools or fingers.

Frankincense tears are burned on charcoal. The resin is somewhat flammable—when the flame is extinguished, smoke follows. The smoke is used in ceremony and as a fumigant to kill germs and repel mosquitoes.The essential oil, which is distilled from the tears, is diluted in olive oil and then applied externally to ease the pain of arthritis and as a beauty treatment for the skin.

To readers celebrating this reflective season, may we decide to renew the commitment to our best human traits. Let us be kind to one another, live by the Golden Rule and strive to do no harm. May we give our best effort in our work. May we practice mindfulness and right action. Most of all, may we continue to be independently happy and free! Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, in the garden, the pasture and in the future.