Frankincense: Tears of Gold

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Frankincense is a hardened tree sap extracted from a tree-species called Boswellia. There are many different types of Boswellia trees, some of the main ones being:

Carteri/Sacra
Native to North East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, specifically Oman, Yemen, and Somalia.

  • Most widespread anti-inflammatory (fungicidal, antiviral, antimicrobial) activity
  • High levels of Boswellic acid
  • Has a fresh, light, warm aroma reminiscent of sweet camphor and lime: good for meditation and relaxation
  • Best resin for chewing, along with Papyrifera and Frereana

Papyrifera
Native to the mountainous regions of Ethiopia

  • Best resin for chewing, along with Carteri, Sacra, and Frereana
  • Has a lemon, pine scent
  • Have been shown to have neuroprotective properties

Frereana
Native to the mountainous regions of Somalia

  • Does not contain Boswellic acid
  • Treats inflammation and arthritis
  • Commonly used for skincare
  • Has a strong spicy scent reminiscent of orange and resinous wood
  • The source of Coptic Frankincense; treasured by the Coptic church and Saudi Arabian Muslims

Serrata
Native to North Africa, India, and Pakistan

  • High levels of Boswellic acid
  • Treats inflammation and arthritis
  • Studies have shown that the resin from the Boswellia Serrata potentially suppresses breast cancer cells, also slowing the spread of cancer cells to other parts of your body like your brain.
  • Has a spicy, lavender scent

Neglecta
Native to the dry woodlands of eastern Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda

  • Usually comes in the form of black incense
  • Has an earthy, masculine, musty scent reminiscent of leather
  • Promotes deep breathing

How is Frankincense extracted from the Boswellia tree?

Typically, the Boswellia tree starts to produce resin at about nine years old, which is retrieved by a process called tapping. Tapping is done by making incisions in the tree bark, which causes the sap to run out in an effort to “heal” the cuts similar to the way blood clots heal our humanly injuries. When done responsibly, tapping can be done two to three times per year with the final batch producing the highest quality resin. This is because of the higher aromatic terpene, diterpene, and sesquiterpene content. Generally speaking, the opaquer the resin is, the better the quality.

How is Frankincense processed for use?

After the resin is collected from the Boswellia tree, it is left to dry. This is the hardened sap, often referred to as “frankincense tears”, that are most frequently used across the Middle East, Northern Africa, and churches worldwide.

Alternatively, these “tears” can be ground into a fine powder. This is the best way to process frankincense for use in cosmetic products without the loss of therapeutic compounds. You can use the fine powder to make oleoresin – a combination of frankincense powder and oil. Oleoresin can be applied directly to the skin, reaping the anti-inflammatory and anti-aging properties frankincense offers. It can be applied to aching joints or mixed into face balms to revitalize skin cells and prevent wrinkles.

Wondering how to make oleoresin? Here’s my recipe (link coming soon!)

Another way to use frankincense is in the form of essential oil. This can be made at home, but in all cases requires a large quantity of fresh material to produce a small amount of essential oil. Therefore, I recommend buying essential oils from health stores or online. In the process of making an essential oil out of frankincense, a significant amount of its healthy properties is lost, so if you want to make the most of your frankincense I would stick to the hardened sap or the fine powder. Frankincense essential oil can be used in oil burners, humidifiers, in your bath, or added to a carrier oil for a hair/body/face mask.

Frankincense Health Benefits

Oral health:

Chewing on frankincense is great for general oral hygiene; preventing bad breath, toothaches, mouth sores, and cavities. Also, it increases concentration and provides digestive tract purification.

May reduce arthritis:

Frankincense’s anti-inflammatory properties can work to reduce joint inflammation. So much so that it can even reduce morning stiffness, reduce joint pain, and improve mobility.

A healthy gut:

Adding frankincense to your diet through the use of extract, water infused with resin, or chewing on pure resin it can calm symptoms related to Crohn’s disease, chronic ulcerative colitis, and chronic diarrhoea.

Improves asthma

A daily dose of frankincense can improve lung capacity and reduce asthma attacks.

Fights cancer

Boswellic acid is the dominant factor in fighting against inflammation with frankincense. Several studies have been done that show that boswellic acid may prevent the formation of DNA in cancerous cells, stumping cancer growth. It turns out that frankincense may even be able to distinguish between the healthy cells and cancer cells in your body.

History of Frankincense

Frankincense has been traded throughout the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa for over 6,000 years and been harvested for much longer. It is believed that the Babylonians and Assyrians burned frankincense during religious ceremonies. The ancient Egyptians bought resin from the Phoenicians to use for incense, insect repellent, balms, medicine, perfumes, and even the famous Kohl eyeliner worn by Egyptian women. Depictions of the use of both frankincense and myrrh can be found in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art. In fact, according to the Roman botanist Pliny the Elder, frankincense may have been an antidote to hemlock poisoning, often used as a means of execution (like was the case for Socrates!). Originally incense was forbidden in Europe due its association with Pagan worship; however, later incense was welcomed back into the Christian church and is still in use today. The Frankish Crusaders reintroduced incense to Western Europe through their trade with the Byzantine Empire during the Middle Ages.

With the advent of modern medicine, the industry of frankincense dwindled although alternative practitioners still value the resin for its healing properties. Today, frankincense is used in traditional Chinese medicine, Indian Ayurveda, and aromatherapy. It is also still widely used in their native regions: specifically, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Somalia, and Ethiopia.

On a recent trip of my own to Salalah, in the Dhofar region of Oman, a blanket of incense embraced you wherever you went – believe it or not, even at sea! Walking through the Al Husn Souq, a frankincense and perfume market right on the beach of Salalah, I was overwhelmed with the abundance of incense varieties. All my senses were stimulated by the heavy humidity (I wasn’t even able to take photos due to the moisture in the air!), the thick waft of sandalwood and frankincense with every breath I took, the jovial merchants proudly showcasing their collection of frankincense, incense, perfumes, and more. It was an unforgettable experience, and I assure you, I came home with a heavy suitcase.

Responsible Extraction and Use of Frankincense

Boswellia trees are not covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, even though The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) argue that the Boswellia species are at risk of being endangered and require the protection. Almost all of the Boswellia trees grow in harsh, arid regions troubled by conflict and poverty – resulting in the over-harvesting of resin due it being one of the main sources of income for many inhabitants. The main threat for specifically the Boswellia papyrifera, which can be found in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan, is overexploitation and habitat-loss, caused by burning and grazing. Another culprit is the Longhorn Beetle whose larvae, called Roundheaded Borers feast on the tree causing extensive damage.

Due to its tough and adaptable nature, the Boswellia tree shows potential in being a vital part of the restoration of moisture-related limited areas across the Horn of Africa.