Frankincense / Olibanum provides one of the most evocative scents in the long history of aromatics. Its fresh, fruity, pine-lemon bouquet with delicately sweet, resinous and woody undertones, slows and deepens breathing and has been used since ancient times to awaken higher consciousness, and enhance spirituality, meditation and prayer.
The name "frankincense" is widely known as a biblical ingredient, and to many as one of three gifts from the visiting Magi to the newborn Jesus, as well as an ingredient in the Old Testament's Book of Exodus incense mixture. Few have experienced it's aroma or know it's rich history as well as how the world has treasured and used it since long before recorded time. Let's explore some of it together!
Frankincense has been one of the world's most treasured commodities since the beginning of written history. At it's peak, it's value rivaled that of gold, the rarest silks, and the most precious of gems. Ironically, it is a milky-white to light yellow resin produced by a scrubby, unlikely looking tree, genus Boswellia. There are twenty-five known species of Boswellia, each creating a water-soluble gum-resin with its own distinctive fragrance and medicinal properties.
Frankincense trees require an arid climate where moisture is provided by morning mist. The few ideal environments in the world for this small prized tree are found in Southern Arabia (Oman and Yemen), India, and Northern Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya). Further, frankincense trees require a limestone-rich soil and are mostly found growing on rocky hillsides and cliffs, or in the dried riverbeds below. Harvesting can be a very dangerous task.
Frankincense trees grow to about 20 feet in height (8m), with branches often beginning near its base. The common Oman, Aden (Yemen), and Somalia species, B. sacra / B. carteri, produce small yellow-white colored flowers with five petals, while the African B. papyrifera and B. thurifera produce small pale-red flowers. Each are a favorite among bees and produce small fruits which are fed to livestock. But it's the trees' resin that's been treasured for thousands of years for its aromatic and medicinal uses.
Frankincense resin begins as a milky-white, sticky liquid that flows from the trunk of the tree when it's injured, healing the wound. The Arabic name is "luban"which means "white" or "cream". It's also known as "olibanum", and the essential oil is often called "Oil of Lebanon." It's commonly recognized western name, frankincense, which is said to have originated from the Frankish (French) Knights of the Crusades who treasured it in large quantities.
Frankincense resin flows when a tool called a mengaff is used to scrape about a five-inch section down the trunk of tree. The tree is marked and the harvester returns in two weeks to scrape what has become hardened frankincense resin from the tree. Resins which fall to the ground are collected on large palm leaves placed when first tapping the tree. The process repeats itself for about 3 months during harvesting.
Frankincense trees are ideally harvested twice per year, from January to March and again from August to October. The trees benefit from rest periods and produce finer quality resin when cared for properly. Collected resins are aged for about twelve weeks and are then brought to the world's markets. Finer resins are opaque white, semi-translucent white with shades of lemon or light amber. The exceptions are B. frereana which is used as chewing gum and is best soft and translucent lemon colored with golden hues, and B. serrata of India which is best golden to golden-brown. India's B. serrata is highly prized and extensively used in Ayurvedic medicine.
Studies by an international team of scientists, including researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, have indicated that burning frankincense resin (Boswellia) helps to to alleviate anxiety and depression. The University of Munich found the anti-inflammatory properties of frankincense very effective as a treatment for joint pain and arthritis. The famous eleventh-century Arabian physician, Avicenna, recommended its cooling effects as a remedy for infections and illnesses that increase the body's temperature. Greek and Roman physicians used frankincense in the treatment of a great variety of diseases. Frankincense remedies appear in the Syriac Book of Medicine, ancient Muslim texts, and in Ayurvedic and Chinese medical writings.
Frankincense is also a natural insecticide and was used in ancient Egypt to fumigate wheat silos and repel wheat moths. In Arabia, the smoke of burning frankincense resin is used to repel mosquitoes and sand flies. Researchers have found that burning frankincense indoors improves the acoustic properties of the room. Dioscorides described how the bark of the tree was put into water to attract fish into nets and traps. In ancient Egypt, the resin was a key ingredient for embalming their dead.
Frankincense resin is distilled by steam or CO2 to extract its precious essential oil, which is used extensively in modern aromatherapy. This oil is rejuvenating to the skin, treating acne, bacterial and fungal infections, and to treat wounds and scars. Thus, it is used in cosmetics, soaps, and perfumes.
Frankincense is one of nature's most cherished gifts. Whether you desire the pleasure of its pure resin for incense or its precious essential oil for aromatherapy, cosmetics or perfume, you can find a diverse line of high quality frankincense resins.