21 Dec 2016

Smelling Frankincense

Bruce Langridge

Last week, if you were to peek through the window of Maes Elfryn Hall in Llandeilo, you might have thought I was freebasing cocaine.

I was giving a ‘plants at Christmas’-themed talk to the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales and had arrived at those evocative biblical offerings, frankincense and myrrh. I’ve always found those names mysterious and exciting but I never really knew what they were, what they smelt like or what they were used for.

Luckily, I asked our top Apothecary’s Hall volunteer, Bob ‘The Hat’ Edwards to tell me about them. For those of you who know Bob, you’ll know he’s never short of a good anecdote or three about medicinal plants and he’s tried and tested lots of ways to engage visitors who come calling at our re-created Edwardian chemist shop.

Having told me how both frankincense and myrrh are resinous gums extracted from trees in Southern Arabia (Boswellia spp. and Commiphora spp.), Bob delved into his secret apothecary drawers and produced gum crystals of both.

Amazing! He told me that heating up the crystals releases their smells. He then found a jar of diluted frankincense oil and, later, he produced a candle and ornate teaspoon.

So, armed with Bob’s apothecary paraphernalia, I found myself melting frankincense and myrrh crystals on the candle-flame-heated ornate teaspoon for the benefit of the Wildlife Trust audience. Fans of The Wire or Breaking Bad will recognise this technique. The verdict on the smells produced? Frankincense was nice, rather citrus like but distinctive. I can imagine how this would pleasantly flavour the air of an Orthodox Christian ceremony. But myrrh was rather bitter and indistinct – its name comes from the Arabic word “murr”, meaning bitter.

If you’d like to give yourself a festive sniff of these and other Christmassy herbs and spices like cloves and cinnamon, our Apothecary’s Hall has drawers (known as drug runs) filled with samples of these medicinal gums, stalks and seeds, just like old chemist shops used to have. The frankincense drawer is titled ‘Olibanum’ – its Medieval Latin name – while myrrh is in a drawer called, well, ‘myrrh’.

And if you come across Bob in the Apothecary’s Hall, ask him to cook up some festive crystals for you.