Name: Myrrh - Commiphora myrrha (Nees) Engl.
Description: It is a thorny tree with hairless toothed leaves, a large terminal leaflet and two tiny lateral leaflets. Male flowers are about 5 mm long and come out just before the rains; fruits are about 1.2 cm long. The bark has a silvery luster and peels off in small pieces; myrrh resin which is strongly aromatic oozes from natural cracks (Vollesen, 1989).
Common names: Myrrh, Gummi myrrh, heerabol myrrh, Kerbe (Amharic); In Somali: Dhidin (tree), Molmol (resin).
Parts used: Resin
Uses: Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) is an economically and ecologically important plant species found mainly in the horn of Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya and in parts of the Arabian peninsula. The tree yields the aromatic gum or resin known as myrrh. In the Commission E (Blumenthal et al., 2000) myrrh is defined as “a product of several species of Commiphora”. This is however erroneous and misleading as the so called other species yield resins which are chemically quite different and lacking the active principles for which myrrh is so well known for. In fact mixing myrrh with resins from other Commiphora species leads to the perennial problem of adulteration. This problem has been clarified by the works of Dekebo et al., 2002. The characteristic essential oil of myrrh with its unique scent and composition can be obtained only from C. myrrha. Resins of other species may seem similar in appearance to the true myrrh but may be devoid of essential oil and give rise to chemical profiles that may be totally different from myrrh. For instance C. erlangeriana does not yield any essential oil, lacks the characteristic sesquiterpenes of myrrh, contains instead the highly interesting podophylotoxin type lignans (Dekebo et al., 2002), which exhibit cytotoxic and cytostatic activities (Habtemariam, 2003). For a full botanical account of the more than 50 Commiphora species that occur in eastern Africa see Vollesen, 1989.
Myrrh was used since several millennia as medicine as well as for ceremonial and religious purposes. In many cultures in Europe, Asia and Africa, myrrh has enjoyed various traditional and industrial uses and applications. A recent study conducted in Saudi Arabia on the prevalence and pattern of use of alternative medicine, based on interviews of 1408 individuals, revealed the most frequently used medicines were honey (40%), black seed (39%) and myrrh (35%) (Al-Faris et al., 2008). This traditional medicinal use of myrrh extends to several countries where it is used for treatments of a wide variety of ailments from embalming to cancer, leprosy, bronchitis, diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid, mouth ulcers, inflammation, viral hepatitis, female disorders, wounds, coughs, tumour etc. It is also used to some extent in Ayurveda and Unani medicine although more preference is given to the related resin known as guggulu obtained from Commiphora mukul Engl. The Commission E (Blumenthal et al., 2000) approved myrrh for topical treatment of mild inflammations of the oral and pharyngeal mucosa. The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (1996) indicates myrrh tincture as a mouthwash for gingivitis and ulcers. Myrrh is also an important drug in Chinese Traditional Medicine ((Yen, 1992). In Somalia and Ethiopia decoction of myrrh resin is used to treat stomachache, it is mixed with powdered charcoal to make ink for writing on parchments and burnt in houses and in the bush to chase away snakes (Dekebo, 2002). Modern uses include flavoring foods, drinks and confectionary items, as additive of products for personal use such as perfumes, deodorants, shampoos, bath lotions, toilet soaps, toothpastes, mouth washes, air fresheners etc.
In Christianity: Myrrh is mentioned in the New Testament, together with gold and frankincense, as one of the three gifts that the magi presented to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:11). Myrrh was also present at Jesus' death and burial. Jesus was offered wine and myrrh before the crucifixion (Mark 15:23).