We three kings of Orient are
The three kings of the old carol brought gifts to the baby Jesus, the best and most expensive things that were to be found in the Middle East a couple of millennia ago. These were gold and the natural perfumes of frankincense and myrrh.
Both of these latter are plant products. Frankincense is the resin of a tree (Boswellia carteri) native to the Middle East. It has been used for perfuming and ritual purposes at least since the days of ancient Egypt, and probably before that. It is still a common ingredient in incense used in Christian churches. Perfumers make an extract from the raw resin called ‘olibanum’ and use it in perfume blends, especially the heavier ‘oriental’ style of scent.
Myrrh is also a resin. It exudes naturally from the stems of a shrubby tree that grows naturally in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The drops of resin are called ‘tears’ and native people sometimes make small cuts in the bark to encourage more ‘tears’ to form.
Myrrh (Commifora myrrha) was a common ingredient in Egyptian embalming preparations, perhaps because it was thought to be a ‘purifying’ substance.
Both frankincense and myrrh are readily available as essential oils, so you can easily satisfy your curiosity about these ancient scents.
Much more familiar to us today is attar of roses, which has been used for thousands of years both for religious rites and as perfume. Less well-known is storax, which is a resin extracted from the tree Styrax officinalis. It is another incense ingredient and has a vanilla scent. Labdanum was an extract from various species of Cistus (rock rose), and galbanum a resin from Ferula galbaniflua, a kind of giant fennel. Our ancestors were a sweet-smelling lot, after all!
I’d like to wish everyone a merry Christmas and health, happiness and a sufficiency of wealth in the New Year.