Gifts of Healing...from Herbs of the Season

Frankincense, myrrh, mistletoe, and other holiday plants offer intriguing medicinal promise

According to Christmas tradition, the Three Wise Men chose frankincense, myrrh, and gold as birthday presents for the Christ child. Ever wonder why? The gift of gold seems an obvious choice, but what about the precious herbs?

Today, we know that frankincense and myrrh possess potent healing powers; and gold does too. Injectable gold sodium thiomalate is a valued treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Perhaps these biblical wise men foresaw that the infant they honored would one day be revered by some as a great healer. The herbs, then, as well as the gold, were appropriate and splendid gifts.

Through the ages, other plants, such as mistletoe, holly, and pine, have been used as traditional Christmas decorations, and now we know that they too have healing potential.

No matter what your faith, the winter holidays are traditionally a time for helping others. So it makes sense that the "gifts of the magi"-along with other plants closely associated with the season-are helpful in preventing or healing disease.
Frankincense to Offer Have I...

Frankincense is an oleo gum resin (a mixture of volatile oil, water-soluble gum, and alcohol-soluble resins) that oozes from the trunk of Boswellia sacra and related species. These shrubby desert trees are native to Yemen, Oman, and Somalia. The resin has a pleasant, fresh balsamic odor and has been prized since biblical times as an incense and perfume ingredient.

Modern research has shown frankincense to have potentially useful medicinal properties. In the lab, its boswellic acids have acted as anti-inflammatory agents by preventing the formation of leukotrienes, substances that can trigger allergic reactions. Another lab study showed that boswellic acids can inhibit the growth of human leukemia cells. Additional research is required to verify these activities and to determine how useful this herb may be in treating inflammatory conditions or cancer.

Since no one's recommending taking frankincense internally, medicinal preparations are not commercially available. But you can find essential oil at health food stores. Use the oil in a diffuser (also available at health food stores and pharmacies) to scent a room. Never ingest frankincense essential oil; it is highly toxic.
Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume...

Myrrh, another oleo gum resin, has been popular for its medicinal properties for centuries. This resinous, gummy substance comes from more than a dozen species of the genus Commiphora, small trees native to northeast Africa. Recent animal research confirms that myrrh can relieve pain, and herbalists recommend myrrh for its antiseptic properties. As a salve, it's used to treat wounds, bedsores, and even hemorrhoids. As a gargle, myrrh tincture (solution in alcohol and water), commonly available in health food stores, is considered by the German Commission E (the world's leading authority on herbs) to be effective for mild inflammations of the mouth and throat. (For dosage instructions, see "Using Myrrh and Frankincense" below.)
Mistletoe: Danger in the Kissing Herb

Legend has it that kissing under mistletoe's waxy white berries will increase marriage chances (presumably to whom you're kissing). To date, there's no scientific research to prove this, but it's a charming tradition nonetheless.

If you use mistletoe for holiday decor and have crawling babies in the house, beware. Mistletoe, particularly the berries from the American variety, is considered highly toxic, especially to infants; seizures and deaths have been reported. Because the tiny berries can easily shake loose and fall onto your floor or carpet, you might want to smooch under fake mistletoe.
Quick Tip

Use artificial mistletoe. Berries from the American variety are considered highly toxic.
O Christmas Tree!

What would this season be without evergreen trees? We use many different species to decorate and shelter our presents, and some of these fragrant trees yield useful medicinals.

The inner bark of the white pine (Pinus strobus) acts as an expectorant and is a valued ingredient in cough syrups. Bark from the maritime pine (Pinus pinaster) yields Pycnogenol, a popular and potent antioxidant. There's evidence to suggest that Pycnogenol may help with the problems associated with aging, including weakened capillaries and peripheral vascular disease. Pine needle oil, distilled from the fresh needles and boughs of several species of Pinus, is used externally and by inhalation for bronchitis and similar respiratory conditions. It is also applied externally to treat rheumatic and neuralgic afflictions. Juniper berries (Juniperus communis) have long been used for their diuretic effect. Another juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus) is the source of juniper tar, an effective topical analgesic.
...and Boughs of Holly

American holly (Ilex opaca), with its dark green leaves and bright red berries, contains bitter elements and was once thought to be useful in treating malaria. Now it's mainly used ornamentally as a handsome thorny Christmas decor. However, the leaves of its close relative, Ilex paraguariensis, commonly called mate, are rich in caffeine. They are used to prepare a stimulating beverage known as Paraguay tea that is very popular in South America.

Other plants closely associated with Christmas, but not medicinally useful, include the decorative poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). It may-or may not-be poisonous, depending upon where you look it up. Prevailing wisdom says it isn't very poisonous; I say, best not to tempt fate by eating it.
My Christmas Wish for You

Christmas is a time for helping others, and a time for gift giving. So I hope you will take a moment to consider the gift of health that so many plants provide. I've listed a few useful herbs associated with this season, and these are just a fraction of the bounteous gifts nature offers. We have an obligation not only to use these plants wisely but also to help preserve them for the benefit of future generations.
Christmas Herbs at a Glance

Herb Plant Source Possible Uses*

Frankincense Boswellia species Anti-inflammatory,
anticancer
Mistletoe (European) Viscum album Anti-inflammatory,
anticancer
Myrrh Commiphora species Antiseptic,
analgesic
White pine Pinus strobus Expectorant
Maritime pine Pinus pinaster Antioxidant
Pine needle oil Pinus species Respiratory and
rheumatic
problems
Juniper berries Juniperus communis Diuretic
Juniper tar Juniperus oxycedrus Topical analgesic
Holly (South American) Ilex paraguariensis Stimulant
Poinsettia Euphorbia pulcherrima Decoration (toxic)
Christmas rose Helleborus niger Cardiotonic
(toxic)

*Some uses have not been substantiated through research.

Using Myrrh and Frankincense

GIFT IDEA

Dab canker sores or other mouth or gum irritations two or three times daily with undiluted myrrh tincture (an alcohol/water solution available at head food stores), or gargle and rinse with 5 to 10 drops in a glass of water. Try not to swallow. Though ingesting a tiny amount would not cause a problem, myrrh has an unpleasantly bitter taste.

For chest congestion caused by bad colds and bronchitis, try this simple rub: Mix 1/2 teaspoon of the essential oil of myrrh (available at most health food stores) with 1 tablespoon of sweet almond or sunflower oil. Apply o the chest as needed.

To soothe a dry cough: Add two drops each of the essential oils of frankincense, lavender, and cypress to a bowl of steaming water. Lean over the bowl, cover your head with a towel, and inhale the heading aroma for 5 to 10 minutes. Be careful not to lean into the water to avoid getting burned.

PHOTO (COLOR): A gift of frankincense and myrrh: $29.95 plus $3.75 shipping. Call toll-free: 888-215-8922, 9 AM to 9 PM EST.

PHOTO (COLOR): Varro E. Tyler, PhD, ScD

ILLUSTRATIONS

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By Varro E. Tyler, PhD, ScD

Varro E. Tyler, PhD, ScD, is America's foremost expert on herbs and plant-derived medicine. He is dean emeritus of the Purdue University School of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences and distinguished professor emeritus of pharmacognosy. He is also the author of more than 300 scientific articles and 18 books, including The Honest Herbal (Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1993).

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