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Thymol (Molecule of the Month for December 1997)

Myrrh (Botanical: Commiphora Molmol)

Frankincense and myrrh, aromatic resins from spindly trees, were once highly prized from Rome to India, and deemed essential for a host of uses ranging from religious to cosmetic to medicinal. According to Christian belief, the three wise men who traveled to Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child brought gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts.

Even before the baby Jesus received Myrrh as a gift, over 2000 years ago, Myrrh was one of the most desired and most sought after items in the world. It is mentioned in the Bible over 22 times and it was used as incense in religious rituals. The Egyptians believed in its healing powers: they burned it every day as part of their worshipping rituals. In the Greek culture when soldiers went to battle is was an essential part of their combat gear because of myrrh’s extremely high antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. It was used to clean wounds and to prevent infection. It was also used to prevent the spread of gangrene in already infected parts of the body.

Thanks to the domestication of the camel, a complex trade network evolved to transport the priceless resins from the remote valleys, where the trees grew, to the markets where kings and emperors vied for the finest grades. Frankincense and myrrh are both resins -- dried tree sap -- that come from trees common to Somalia. The way that people collect the sap is similar to the way people collect rubber tree sap or pine tree sap. Cutting the tree's bark causes the sap to ooze out of the cut. The sap used to create both frankincense and myrrh comes slowly and is allowed to dry on the tree. The hardened sap is collected and used as frankincense and myrrh. The bushes yielding the resin do not grow more than 9 feet in height, but they are of sturdy build, with knotted branches, and branchlets that stand out at right-angles, ending in a sharp spine. The trifoliate leaves are scanty, small and very unequal, oval and entire. It was first recognized about 1822 at Ghizan on the Red Sea coast, a district so bare and dry that it is called 'Tehama,' meaning 'hell.' Botanically, there is still uncertainty about the origin and identity of the various species.

There are ducts in the bark, and the tissue between them breaks down, forming large cavities, which, with the remaining ducts, becomes filled with a granular secretion which is freely discharged when the bark is wounded, or from natural fissures. It flows as a pale yellow liquid, but hardens to a reddish-brown mass, being found in commerce in tears of many sizes, the average being that of a walnut. The surface is rough and powdered, and the pieces are brittle, with a granular fracture, semi-transparent, oily, and often show whitish marks. The odour and taste are aromatic, the latter also acrid and bitter. It is inflammable, but burns feebly. It has been used from remote ages as an ingredient in incense, perfumes, etc., in the holy oil of the Jews and the Kyphi of the Egyptians for embalming and fumigations. Little appears to be definitely known about the collection of myrrh. It seems probable that the best drug comes from Somaliland, is bought at the fairs of Berbera by the Banians of India, shipped to Bombay, and there sorted, the best coming to Europe and the worst being sent to China. The true myrrh is known in the markets as karam, formerly called Turkey myrrh, and the opaque bdellium as meena harma. The gum makes a good mucilage and the insoluble residue from the tincture can be used in this way. Constituents of Myrrh include a volatile oil, resin (myrrhin), gum, ash, salts, sulphates, benzoates, malates, and acetates of potassa. It is partially soluble in water, alcohol, and ether. It may be tested by a characteristic violet reaction if nitric acid diluted with an equal volume of water is brought into contact with the residue resulting from the boiling of 0.1 gramme of coarsely powdered myrrh with 2 c.c. of 90 per cent alcohol, evaporated in a porcelain dish so as to leave a thin film. The oil is thick, pale yellow, and contains myrrholic acid and heerabolene, a sesquiterpenene. Myrrh oil obtained by the steam distillation of hand picked and selected Burseraceae oleo gum resins produced by Balsamodendron Myrrha. A pale yellow to amber viscid clear oil with a characteristic warm, sweet-balsamic, slightly spicy-medicinal odour. The odour is powerful but agreeable. Immiscible with water. The main consittuents resembles either thymol or carvol C22H32O. The other main constituents are pinene, heerabolene, limonene, dipentene, eugenol, cadinene, cinnamaldehyde, cuminaldehyde among others. Density 0.998-1.022 gm/ml. of freshly distilled oil. It is soluble in alcohol, ether and carbon bisulphide. It is readily oxygenated in air and amongst the products formed is formic acid. It was used in embalming, as a cure for cancer, leprosy, and syphilis. Myrrh, mixed with coriander and honey, was used to treat herpes. It was used as an anti-infectous, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, astringent and as a tonic.

Formal Chemical Name (IUPAC)

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Update by Karl Harrison
(Molecule of the Month for December 1997 )

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