Learning about Spices
What is a spice?
Why were spices important?
Sources of spices
Perfumes and Incenses
Use of spices as aphrodisiacs
Use of spices as medicines
A spice timeline
Table of Spices
Frankincense and Myrrh
Nutmeg and Mace
Contacts and Acknowledgments
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|Genus Species||Boswellia thurifera
Arabia, East Africa (particularly Oman, Socotra, Somalia)|
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|Genus Species||Commiphora myrrha
Southern Arabia, Northeast Africa|
From earliest history until today, fragrant, alluring smells have been regarded as essential elements of civilized relationships. Exotic plant odors and the scents that could be utilized for body application have inspired explorers, aristocrats, writers, poets, merchants and priests, and they have been of fundamental relevance to religious practices and to courtship. Many societies have felt that the burning of fragrant woods provides an ideal, ethereal token of appreciation to their gods. The liberation of incense smoke was a source of perfume: this word comes from the Latin per fumum, “by smoke”. Incense is a word that means “that which is lit”. The main incense fragrances were frankincense and myrrh.|
The sophisticated Greeks greatly appreciated such aromatic sources (aromata) as the turpentine tree, and this became an important import. They also valued the older Egyptian fragrant woods, and their exudates, such as those of myrrh, frankincense (olibanum) and cinnamon. Enormous amounts of money were spent on these exotic imports. The Greek island of Chios was the source of the valued gum exudate mastic as well as turpentine; the mastic was also used as a sort of chewing gum, and it gave rise to the word masticate. The more precious perfume incenses and spices came as imports through Arabia along well-established incense routes to be eagerly purchased by Mediterranean merchants who sold them to satisfy the increasing demands of markets throughout Europe.
The most important ancient fragrances were frankincense and myrrh. The Arabs used the milky sap of the frankincense tree, and called it al lubán, from the word for milk. (The same word gave rise to the name of Lebanon, whose mountains were always capped by milky snow). “Al lubán” became anglicized to olibanum, which is another name for frankincense; the latter name refers to the pre-eminence of this resin, the true or frank incense. Myrrh is a resin that has a bitter taste; its name is derived from Hebrew murr or maror, meaning bitter. Frankincense came mainly from the Dhofari region of Oman, and the best of this fragrant oleoresin source still characterizes this remote region. Myrrh traditionally came from Punt; this area was probably in Somalia, Ethiopia or Eritrea, but it may have been in Yemen, Oman or Southern Arabia. The domestication of the camel around 1200 BC stimulated the growth of the incense trade with Eygpt and eventually with Greece and Rome.
Resins do not decay, and as shown by Majno, the resins of myrrh and similar agents are bacteriostatic. Myrrh continues to be used for this purpose in mouthwashes and toothpastes. Cinnamon, and the similar bark, cassia, when burned gives off a delightful fragrance; this is also readily obtained by grinding the bark. The phenolic compounds, such as cinnamic acid, are bacteriostatic, and fumes from their resins may well have served as fumigants as well as pleasing incenses.
The fragrance industry of today uses an enormous number of natural and synthetic molecules that singly or in combination evoke strong olfactory or gustatory sensations. Most spices and many herbs are used in the preparation of the fragrant components of scents, perfumes, cosmetics, body creams and lotions, hair preparations and air fresheners. Increasingly, these aromatic essences from plants are being utilized in aromatherapy, where their odiferous properties are fancifully related to specific physical and psychological effects. See a list of spices by Taste and Hotness.
Frankincense and myrrh are both resins -- dried tree sap -- that come from trees of the genus Boswellia (frankincense) and Commiphora (myrhh) common to Somalia.|
See chemicals in spices.
Bentley, Robert and Henry Trimen. Medicinal Plants; being descriptions with original figures of the principal plants employed in medicine and an account of the characters, properties, and uses of their parts and products of medicinal value. London, Churchill, 1880. (WZ 295 B556m 1880)|
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