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What is Burseraceae?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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The plant family Burseraceae, also known as the torchwood family, is a plant family of incense trees. Some of the Old World species have enjoyed a long history of cultural importance as sources of fragrance, but New World species also exist and have often been valued by the native cultures familiar with them. The incenses made from trees of the torchwood family include the widely-known aromatics frankincense and myrrh. Even today, members of the Burseraceae family are considered highly valuable for their aromatic properties.

Members of the plant family Burseraceae have a long history of use. They have been of great cultural significance historically, and many continue to hold them in high esteem today. Old World species of the Burseraceae family include Commiphora myhrra, commonly known as myrrh, and Boswellia sacra, commonly known as frankincense. The sap or resin of these plants can be harvested to produce aromatic oils. The oils manufactured from frankincense and myrrh have long been highly valued for use in religious rites, and are frequently mentioned in the Judeo-Christian religious texts.

Commiphora gileadensis, commonly known as Balm of Gilead, has long been valued for its fragrance, perhaps more so because it is relatively rare. The Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Dioscorides wrote of the benefits of this plant, as did the Roman physician Galen. It's also mentioned in the Christian Bible.

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The sap of the Commiphora africana, commonly known as bdellium, was once used in ceremonial rites honoring the god Mars. The Roman historian Pliny believed that the bdellium tree originated in Bactria. Women of the ancient world were said to carry pouches of the tree's hardened sap, as a form of perfume.

Species of the Burseraceae family exist in the New World, too. Many New World species can be found in the deserts of the American Southwest. They are commonly known as elephant trees in the New World, and their sap can be used to make incense and body fragrances. Native populations once used the sap of elephant trees to waterproof boats and repair broken pottery. The oils are also believed to have medicinal properties, and have been used to disinfect wounds, treat lice infestations, and cure gonorrhea.

South American species of the Burseraceae family, such as Bursera simaruba, or the gumbolimbo tree, have also found medicinal uses among native populations. The Mayans are believed to have used the resin of this tree to treat fever, upset stomach, headache, nosebleed, and burns. They may have also relied heavily on the resin for ceremonial incense production.

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