The Origins of the Ancient Medicinal Plant “Balm of Gilead”
The Balm of Gilead is one of the precious ingredients in our Origin Oil Pack.
Ancient societies discovered and used the medicinal and therapeutic values of various spices and used them to make perfumes and incense as part of religious and social ceremonies. Among the most important ancient resinous spices were frankincense, derived from Boswellia spp., myrrh, derived from Commiphoras spp., both from southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa, and the balm of Gilead of Judea, derived from Commiphora gileadensis. There was always a limited sources of supply of these ancient herbs and resins and all of them were in very high demand in ancient times.
Among the most reputed ancient medical plants was the balm of Gilead known as the apharsemon, identified botanically as Commiphora gileadensis L. This plant originated in the Kingdom of Sheba on the south of the Arabian Peninsala. Apharsemon, known also as the Judean balsam, grew around the Dead Sea Basin in antiquity and achieved fame because of its highly reputed aroma and medical properties.
The Name “Balm of Gilead”
“The name ‘‘balm of Gilead’’ is probably derived from the Hebrew word bosem, which means ‘‘to be fragrant’’, and Gilead, an area east of the Jordan River in the center of present Jordan. The Hebrew name for balm of Gilead, apharsemon, is related to the similar word opobalsamum in Greek.
Balm of Gilead, also known as tzori Gilead (Hebrew) or Judaean balsam, is extracted from Commiphora opobalsamum, Engl., Burseraceae, and has several synonyms: C. gileadensis, Chr. or C. gileadensis opobalsamum, Balsamodendron opobalsamum, and Amyris gileadensis.
Due to the many names that this plant bears, in this chapter the Latin names used are C. gileadensis, C. opobalsamum, and C. gileadensis opobalsamum. The term ‘‘opobalsamum’’ refers to the fact that the resin of this plant is a balsam juice (opo). This species is known for its fragrant resin. Linnaeus claimed it was the source of balm of Gilead and Mecca balsam. The plant has long and slender branchlets without spines; leaves are 3–5 foliate, terminal leaﬂets obovate (rarely elliptic) about 1 cm long, base attenuate, apex rounded to emarginate; margin entire, lateral leaﬂets fully developed, about the same size as the terminal leaﬂets. Flowers are in clusters, drupe apiculate.
Commiphora opobalsamum is often associated with C. myrrha, grow-ing on dry stony hills in the Tihama foothills in Yemen. It grows up to an elevation of 1,200 m and also on the stony slopes south of the Hays Mountains but has not been found north of Jebel Ash Sharafayn. The Commiphora species found in Yemen and Oman share many features. They are typically small trees about 2 to 4 m high with a relatively stout, dark-green trunk and thin, papery, peeling bark. The genus Commiphora, together with Acacia and Grewia, provides scrub cover on most dry stony hills up to about 1,500 m. Most species are drought resistant. Photographs of several species, including the C. gileadensis opobalsamum, growing in Yemen and Oman are found in Al-Hubaishi and Muller-Hohenstein (1984).
In 1763, Pehr Forsskal, on behalf of the King of Denmark and Norway, collected and described a balm of Gilead tree on an expedition to Oude, Yemen, whose aim was to identify the ‘‘opobalsamum,’’ the balm of Gilead of the Bible, that had been produced in Jericho and Ein Gedi around the Dead Sea in Judea. Following the biblical stories and also those of the many Greek and Roman writers, geographers, and historians, including Josephus Flavius, Forsskal traveled to Yemen, where the Kingdom of Sheba was located, hoping to ﬁnd this tree, which had become extinct in Judea. The known features that could help his search were fragrance, exudation of a liquid resin—the opobalsamum—and traditional medical traits for which the balm of Gilead was famous. Unlike the myrrh tree, the local Yemen experts probably were not aware of all these balm of Gilead stories. After a long and stressful journey, Forsskal eventually found one small tree at Oude whose leaves emitted a special fragrance when crushed. Forsskal sent his ‘‘eureka’’ message to his respected mentor Linnaeus ‘‘Now I know the genus of the opobalsamum.’ The tree grows in Yemen…. It is not Pistacia, not lentiscus’’. Linnaeus accepted the discovery.
In the preface to their book, The Plants of Pehr Forsskal’s Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica, summarized Forsskal’s botanical results and the assertion of Linnaeus (1764) that the C. gileadensis produces the balm or opobalsamum of the Bible. Many of the eminent botanical writers of antiquity, such as Theophrastus, had reported that the balm of Gilead, from which the opobalsamum was collected, grew only at two sites in Judea. Thus the journey to Yemen to search in the Kingdom of Sheba was a logical choice, knowing the biblical story of the gift of spices by the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon.”
It was the Queen of Sheba‘s gift to King Solomon that introduced the balm of Gilead to Judea. Although the timing of her visit to the Kingdom of Israel is controversial, the rationale for the visit of a queen of a kingdom that sells spices to a country that has just established a new temple, which needs large quantities of spices for routine rituals, cannot be disputed.
Frankincense, Myrrh, and Balm of Gilead: Ancient Spices of Southern Arabia and Judea Shimshon Ben-Yehoshua