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Frankincense - Boswellia carteri

by Jeanne Rose

       There are few essential oils available with a longer and more distinguished history than Frankincense, Myrrh, Galbanum, Labdanum,  Cinnamon and Storax.  These have all been known and used since ancient times and all are mentioned more than once in the Bible as well as other historical texts. This resin was known around  the world for thousands of years simply as ‘incense’, and has been  in use by mankind since  antiquity.

The word Olibanum comes from the Arabic al-luban and means 'the milk'  — the true incense.  The word Frankincense comes from the old French word fraunk-encens and means the true or real incense.

The Oleo-gum-resin.

Frankincense  in particular is an oleo-gum-resin.  Oleo-gum-resin is a term to describe oleo (oily or fatty in nature or look) gum (partly soluble in water) resin (partly or wholly soluble in alcohol).  Therefore, an oleo-gum-resin has a nature that is partly soluble in water and alcohol and looks oily.  It consists mainly of oil, gum and resin. Moreover, a good example of this would be Myrrh, Frankincense, and Opopanax.

Often the terms gum, resin, resinoid, essential oil are simply used to describe the steps in the processing of natural exudates from certain trees such as Myrrh and Frankincense.  These two wild trees, which to this day are still left in their wild state, organically grown, not cultivated, or farm-grown, are harvested by tribes such as the Bedouins in Somali.

            The trees are excised.  The globs of gum exude from the excision as a sticky white substance. This is obtained by first making deep vertical incisions in the bark. A narrow strip of bark about 4 inches  is peeled off and the milky white liquid comes out. After about three months, it solidifies into tear-shaped lumps. The globs (or tears) are collected, brought to market, graded according to size and color.  In the case of Frankincense, the smaller, lighter-colored tears are used in ritual and as church incense.  The tears are graded in the marketplace, purchased by large companies and sent to their home countries for processing. Frankincense  is about 65% gum (water soluble), 30% resin (alcohol soluble), and 4% essential oil  (oil soluble).

            The tears are processed by heat and extraction to produce the purified resin. The resin is then further processed via the application of alcohol in a vacuum extraction to produce the liquid resinoid.  The resinoid is then further processed with the application of heat, alcohol, vacuum-extraction, and distillation to produce the essential oil.  As each of these steps progress, less and less substance is produced, and the price goes higher and higher.

            A plasticizer has to be added in extremely small amounts (1/10th of 1%) to the essential oil to keep it in liquid form.  Leave an essential oil of Frankincense or Myrrh out in the air, and it will soon solidify as the alcohol and plasticizer evaporate.  Therefore, Frankincense and Myrrh, Labdanum, Galbanum, do not yield true essential oils according to strict aromatherapy terms.

Description of Olibanum.

            Olibanum, also called Frankincense, is a natural oleo-gum-resin.  It is a physiological, liquid product in the bark of several Boswellia species) It contains many interesting chemical compounds including verbenone that is an anti-fungal. Rosemary CT verbenone also contains this compound. A combination of essential oils of Frankincense, Rosemary verbenone, Spikenard, Palmarosa and Tea Tree would make a very potent combination to combat fungus infection.

            Trees are most abundant in Somalia , Southern Arabia and parts of India .

            Bedouins make incisions of the bark at regular intervals.  This increases the production of Olibanum.  The viscous oleo-gum-resin oozes out, but will resinify or solidify when left out in the sun.  This is then broken off its branches or collected from the ground.  It is sorted and graded in the port of Djibouti , Aden , etc.  Grading is strictly by looks.  The bigger the tear, the more complete is the resinification, and therefore, the loss of its essential oils.

            "Experience in selecting the correct material for distillation or for the extraction of resinoids or absolutes, is a rare and valuable skill, and is partly based upon years of experimenting with the distillation and extraction of all grades of Olibanum."  (Arctander)

The Botany and History.

In Fantastic Trees, Menninger divides odiferous trees into two categories:  the bouquets and the stinkers. In the same book, Botting describes Frankincense as follows:

            “The frankincense tree...looks like a decomposing animal.  It has stiff low branches.  The leaves are scant, curly, and indented.  A thick bark and a tiny whitish peel cling closely round the trunk of a peculiarly blotchy color.  The woody fiber of the tree, distended with sap, looks like rotting animal flesh, and the clear, yellowing-white resin comes from incisions with a strong aroma.  The fruit is a berry the size of a marble and the flowers are few, red and germanium-like on the end of short spikes.”

            Frankincense comes from certain species of trees that are found only in southern Oman , Yemen and Somalia . The resin and essential oil are also known as African Elemi. [although Elemi is normally considered to be Canarium schweinfurthii; East African Elemi is Boswellia frereana; and Manila Elemi is Canarium luzonicum and all used  in varnishes, printing  inks and ointments].

            Now, virtually all of the commercial Frankincense comes from Somalia . The Omani government currently exports the oil in limited amounts.

Ancient History.

These trees originated in the Dhofar valley region and were of great economic importance to people such as  the Queen of Sheba and King  Solomon. It has also been found to be exported to China during the Ming Dynasty. The earliest recorded use  of the substance was  found in an inscription on the tomb  of a 15th century BC Egyptian queen, Hatshepsut. It was found  inking Tutankhamen’s  tomb.

The Frankincense trade peaked at the time of the Roman Empire when in the first century BC,  the Emperor Nero burned it by the ton at ceremonies. The  trade route  ran inland roughly parallel to the Red Sea and covered a total distance of almost  2,100 miles. It flourished  for over a 1,000 years but fell into a decline with the drop in demand at the fall of the Roman empire and because of the high taxes that were levied.

The Scent and Uses.

            The slightly viscous  oil is pale  yellow to greenish with deep balsamic, fresh-resinous aroma. It has fruity and citrus notes of Lemon and Green Apple as well a deep rich spice notes.  This  very complex odor is useful in the perfume industry as well as in specialty skin care as well as the usual meditative/ritual uses.

            Frankincense  is used as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and astringent. Because of its verbenone content,  it  is also powerfully anti-fungal.  It is used for wounds,  acne and dry, chapped and for mature skin.   When inhaled  it also supports the respiratory system and the immune systems if weakened by flu, bronchitis,  coughs and colds.  Inhalation also soothes the nervous system during  times of grief, anxiety stress and nervous tension.

            Frankincense has the  ability to slow and deepen respiration, which allows feelings of calmness, comfort and  serenity. this helps a person  to feel centered,  introspective and meditative/

Resources and Bibliography

1.  Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin by Steffen Arctander.

2.  Volume 2, Guenther's The Essential Oils.

3.  Fantastic Trees by Edwin A. Menninger.

4.  Herbs & Things by Jeanne Rose.

5. Perfume 2000

6. The Plant-Book by D. J. Mabberly

7. 375 Essential Oils & Hydrosols.  by Jeanne Rose.

Source: A very lovely Aromatherapy Kit for Meditation is available from The Herbal BodyWorks. This contains 6 of the known ancient resinous oils that have been in use for thousands of years. The kit  is $65 and contains Frankincense, Myrrh, Galbanum, Spikenard, Gifts of the Magi, and Solomon’s Cedarwood. [415/564-6785].

©All Rights Reserved 2003, 2004. No part of this article may be used
without prior permission from The Aromatic Plant Project.
©Author's Copyright and Jeanne Rose,

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