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Commiphora guidottii (scented myrrh)

Believed to be the source of the scented myrrh mentioned in the Bible, Commiphora guidottii is a tree native to Somalia and Ethiopia.

Pressed specimen of Commiphora guidottii

Pressed specimen of Commiphora guidottii collected in Somalia in 1930 by R. Guidotti.

Species information

Scientific name: 

Commiphora guidottii Chiov.

Common name: 

scented myrrh, myrrh, bissabol, habak hadi (Somali vernacular name for resin)

Conservation status: 

Lower Risk/near threatened (LR/nt) according to IUCN Red List criteria.

Habitat: 

Acacia-Commiphora bushland, associated with gypsum soils.

Key Uses: 

Medicinal, perfumery, incense, cattle feed.

Known hazards: 

None known for this species, but other Commiphora species can cause allergic skin reactions.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Rosanae
Order: 
Sapindales
Family: 
Burseraceae
Genus: Commiphora

About this species

A tree of arid areas, Commiphora guidottii is the source of the oleo-gum-resin known as scented myrrh. The trees are tapped during the dry season by making incisions in the bark. At present, Somalia is the major exporter of scented myrrh.

Synonym: 

Commiphora sessiliflora

Genus: 
Commiphora

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Commiphora guidottii is native to Somalia and Ethiopia. It is fairly widespread in Somalia and in adjacent parts of the Ogaden in Ethiopia.

Description

A shrub or tree growing up to 5 m tall, scented myrrh has greenish or brownish peeling bark. The leaves are composed of 3 or 5-7 leaflets, 2.5 x 10 cm long when fully mature and oval to broadly oval in shape. The flowers are cream in colour and very small, being only a few mm wide at most. The fruit is rounded, about 1 cm in diameter and contains a single stone.

Threats and conservation

Commiphora guidottii grows in arid and often inaccessible areas. No recent assessment has been made of the conservation status of wild populations, but habitat degradation, overcutting of trees for charcoal production, and the expansion of agricultural activities, were all noted as threats to this species when the last assessment was made in 1998. No conservation measures are known to have been taken.

Uses

Scented myrrh is a yellowish-red sweet-smelling resin. It oozes from damaged bark of certain trees in the genus Commiphora. The resin gums up the mouthparts of attacking insects, such as termites, and its antibiotic properties protect the trees against infection through wounds in their bark. As with frankincense, myrrh is harvested by making an incision in the trunk of the tree, from which the gum then seeps out.

The major commercial source of myrrh is the related species Commiphora myrrha, although the myrrh of the Bible is believed to be C. guidottii. Lower grade resin is also obtained from C. habessinica, C. holtziana, C. kua and C. gileadensis (the source of balm of Gilead). Together with frankincense, myrrh is a common ingredient in the incense used in religious ceremonies. Ancient Egyptians used the gum resin to preserve mummies - its antibiotic qualities reduced decay, as it helped to prevent the tissues falling apart, and it smelt sweetly. C. guidottii was mentioned by Pliny as ‘the scented myrrh,’ and was used by the Romans as incense in temples.

The resin from C. guidottii is added to cattle feed to improve milk production. Somali people use it to treat stomach complaints, to facilitate the withdrawal of the placenta after childbirth, and for the topical treatment of wounds. The resin from Commiphora species is traded under the names scented myrrh, or opopanax. Confusingly, the name opopanax is also applied to a gum derived from Opopanax chironium (a herb in the carrot family, Apiaceae). Scented myrrh is exported to Europe where it is used in the perfume industry, and to China (which comprises the largest market for this resin). 

Scented myrrh at Kew

Pressed and dried specimens of Commiphora guidottii are held in the Herbarium, one of the behind-the-scenes areas of Kew. Details, including images, of some of these can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue.

View details and images of specimens

Samples of myrrh oil, gum and resin derived from the related species Commiphora myrrha are held in the Economic Botany Collection.

References and credits

Andersson, M. et al. (1997). Minor components with smooth muscle relaxing properties from scented myrrh (Commiphora guidotti). Planta Med. 63:251-4.

International Centre for Science and High Technology (ICS-UNIDO) (2010). Medicinal and aromatic plants: Commiphora guidotti. (Accessed on 25 November 2010). 

Mabberley, D.J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: a portable dictionary of plants, their classification and uses. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Thulin, M. (1998). Commiphora guidottii. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. Available online (downloaded on 03 November 2010).

Thulin, M. & Claeson, P. (1991). The botanical origin of scented myrrh (bissabol or habak hadi). Econ. Bot. 45: 487-494.

Kew Science Editor: Shahina Ghazanfar
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group)
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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