The Herbal Christmas Dictionary

From frankincense to mistletoe, the herbs of the Christmas season have rich histories of medicinal use. Most of these traditions predate Christianity itself. Myrrh, for example, has been used for at least 4000 years. Many Christmas favorites are still in common herbal use. Here’s a short list.

Frankincense (Boswellia species): Boswellia trees exude a gum-resin which is distilled to make frankincense essential oil. Frankincense is used in a variety of religious traditions and as an aid to meditation. Medicinally, frankincense is best known as a topical pain reliever. It is an antiseptic and mild sedative as well. Frankincense is found in skin care products for wounds, scars and wrinkles.

Myrrh (Commiphora species): Myrrh is a gum-resin from bushes native to Northeast Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Considered a rejuvenative in ancient Egypt, it is still used in skin products to promote a youthful appearance. Myrrh is antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory. Herbalists prepare a tincture of powdered myrrh as an astringent, antiseptic wash for the lips, gums and throat. Essential oil of myrrh is used for dry and damaged skin, wound care, and fungal infections like athlete’s foot. Diluted myrrh makes a pain-relieving massage oil, and is a specific for uterine cramping. Myrrh and frankincense are often combined for synergy.

Mistletoe (Viscum album): Mistletoe is a parasitical herb that grows on treetops, forming a sphere which is the origin of the popular mistletoe ball. Mistletoe was historically used as a general tonic, heart tonic, and immune stimulant. It is still used in commercial extracts with other heart tonics. Herbalists prepare mistletoe as a cold water infusion (tea). Modern research is focused on mistletoe’s potential ability to improve quality of life in cancer patients.

Holly (Ilex species): The dried leaves of holly were once used as tea substitute. Medicinal holly tea was taken to induce sweating and lower fevers. Holly berries can cause vomiting and diarrhea and should not be eaten. Holly is no longer in common use, and is best appreciated for its beauty.

English Ivy (Hedera helix): Ivy was historically used as an antispasmodic and sedative for whooping cough and other respiratory illnesses. In Europe, ivy is still a common ingredient in natural cough suppressants. This climbing vine is a skin irritant in fresh form and should be handled with care.

Pine and Fir: All members of the mighty Pine Family have antiseptic and warming properties. Pine and fir needle oils draw blood to the skin surface, easing joint and muscle pain. Pine is used in cough and cold remedies and in vaporizers for its decongestant ability. Pine has a bracing and clearing effect for many users, but for some it can trigger allergies or asthma symptoms. In the wild, pine sap is applied to nicks and abrasions as a disinfectant, and pine needle tea is a survival food.

May you enjoy this holiday season and nature’s beauty all around you!

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