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Frankincense Profile
A Scent from the Bible

Jeanne Rose with  Rita C. Karydas

Name. Olibanum or Frankincense was named by George Christopher Molesworth Birdwood who lived from 1832-1917.  Boswellia carterii, the Latin binomial of one species of Frankincense was named after James Boswell [companion and biographer of Samuel Johnson] and the word 'carterii' after Professor H.J. Carter who described the Egyptian mummies and made the first scientific collection of specimens from Arabian frankincense in 1846. ...“Dr. H. J. Carter was surgeon in an East Indian company survey ship, the H.M.S. Palinurus which was surveying the south Arabian coast”.  He studied a branch of Frankincense tree thought to be a species similar to the Indian variety of Frankincense, B. serrata.  Later work showed that Dr. Carter had actually been looking at B. sacra. The tree originally found by Carter was named after him by Birdwood and called B. carterii.  Even later studies showed that in all probability the tree found by Carter and named by Birdwood was of Somali origin. There are at least 17 species of Boswellia and they are very difficult to distinguish.

            The family name is Burseraceae and includes Linaloe, Myrrh, Olibanum and Elemi. The name Olibanum is also derived from the arabic word al luban or the milk which refers to the milky exudate of the trees that is the resin.

Botany. Frankincense (Boswellia carteri) comes from a small tree native to North Africa ( Somalia ) and some Arab countries. When the bark of the tree is damaged it exudes a white emulsion, the resin, that is white and milky. When this emulsion comes into contact with air it slowly hardens and congeals into tears and drops that are whitish to amber or burnt orange in color about -1 inches. It is this emulsion or resin that is picked from the ground or off of the bark that is steam distilled to produce the pure essential oil of Frankincense, also known as Olibanum.

            The resin comes from schizogenous gum-oleoresin reservoirs within the plant.

Grading of the Gum.  The tears are brought to market where they are graded  according to color and size.

            1. Grade I (tears) : The best, white in color, usually picked off the bark with no sand attached, usually used as solid incense that is burned in ritual.

            2. Grade II (reddish) : Mixed of white and red in color, which contains particles of the bark.

            3. Grade III (dust and siftings) : Various colors, low price and the most suitable for the distillation of the essential oil.

Chemistry of the Essential Oil. The chemical components of Frankincense include 1-a-pinene, dipentene, phellandrene, cadinene, camphene, olibanol, and various resins. Olibanol is considered to be in reality a mixture of verbenone, verbenol, and some other terpene alcohols, including most likely d-borneol. According to Blumann and Schulz “olibanol” is C26H44O

Physicochemical Properties. —

Specific Gravity at 15°.............0.872 to 0.892

Optical Rotation...............The oils distilled prior to 1903 were laevorotatory, up to —17°; since then they are dextrorotatory, up to +35°. The cause of this change is not clear.

Refractive Index at 20°........1.471 to 1.482

Solubility.............................Soluble in 3.5 to 6 vol. of 90% alcohol, sometimes with slight turbidity.                        

Organoleptic Qualities. The Frankincense oil that I have from 1972 is deep golden in color, clear like water, very viscous with a deep intensity of scent and the fragrance is rich, spicy, balsamic, agreeable, with a citrus or lemon back note. It has a bitter aromatic taste. The Frankincense from 2003 is much paler gold in color, clear like water, not viscous, with a lighter smoother but not as richly pleasing an odor.

History. The historical use of Frankincense is in spiritual and religious rituals. It is one of the oldest herbs/resins used for this purpose. Rising smoke from burning resins was a means of communicating with the gods by the ancient peoples, and Frankincense was burned on hot coals for this purpose as well as for its healing properties and fragrance. Frankincense was considered a very sacred gift.

            In ancient times Frankincense was bought and sold everywhere. Arabia was the largest exporter and its trees produced the best quality Frankincense. In Babylon , every year 57,200 pounds of Frankincense was burned. In Assyria at the annual feast of the god Baal, nearly 60 tons of Frankincense was used. When Herod was buried, 5,000 slaves preceded the funeral procession carrying urns of the burning resin. At his wife's funeral in 65 AD, Nero burned all the Frankincense produced by Arabia in one year. [He needed to expiate his sins as what is not generally known is that he beat his pregnant wife to death].

             The story most people are familiar with is that of the three holy kings who presented what they considered the most precious gifts to the Son of God at Bethlehem : gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.

            The smoke of Frankincense fills churches and sacred spaces to this day as well as the ritual areas of many people. From this burning incense a fragrance issues that “that floats on an invisible thread to heaven to attract the attention of the Gods”.  For it is  on fragrance that the gods feed and it is fragrance that they desire.

            Dr. Michael Stoddord discovered that Frankincense contains a substance similar to sexual hormones which awaken sexual desire. Reports for the Academy of Science in Leipzig, Germany claim that when Frankincense is burned the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol is produced. This substance is thought to expand the subconscious. Inhalation of Frankincense slows and deepens the breath and is calming and relaxing.

Modern Uses. The use of the essential oil of Frankincense has expanded beyond spiritual use. It is a valuable addition to skin and body care products due to its astringent and antiseptic properties. It is useful in lotions, salves, soaps and oils and indicated for acne, skin problems, and boils. Frankincense essential oil benefits the skin by keeping it healthy and preventing wrinkling and aging. Used by inhalation in a candle diffusor, Frankincense beneficial in treating bronchitis, excessive mucus, colds, and coughs. Frankincense is a useful addition to aromatherapy blends  and potpourri, where it serves to fix the scent and acts as a base note. It is of particular value in perfume blends of the Oriental style, because it rounds out and gives alluring tones that particularly difficult to identify as to the source.

            In addition, Franchomme and Penoël suggest that the properties are anti-catarrh, expectorant, cicatrisant, immuno-stimulating and anti-depressant. It is indicated for excessive mucous in the bronchial tract, as an inhalant treatment for asthma, inhaled and massaged to stimulate the immune system and for nervous depression.

            There are no known contra-indications.

Aromatherapy Blends with Frankincense

Oriental PERFUME - 25%

5 drops of each of Frankincense, Patchouli and Ylang-Ylang + 3 drops each of Rose, Sandalwood and Coriander. Mix together by succussion and let age for 2 weeks. Then add 75 drops of 95% alcohol and age again. Add 50 drops distilled water. Shake  before using.


30 drops Juniper

20 drops Frankincense

20 drops Bergamot

Blended and added to 4 oz Pecan oil and  tsp. Vitamin E oil. Rub no more than 1 oz  all over your body after bath or shower.


Varying amounts of Juniper, Frankincense, and Bergamot. Because resins get sticky and dry out you must always clean your diffusor with alcohol after each use.

30 drops each of Frankincense, Lavender, & Neroli, Blend and add to 2 oz. Hazelnut oil + 2 oz. Calophyllum and 2 tsp. Vitamin E oil. Apply daily.


Bibliography for Frankincense.:

Franchomme & Penoel. l'aromatherapie exactement. Jollois, 1990.

Guenther, Ernest. The Essential Oils. vol. IV, pages 352-356. Krieger Publ. Malabar, FL 1972

Karydas, Rita C. Based on a paper, Frankincense . 2001

Plants of Dhofar. Publ. Adviser for Conservation of the Environment. Sultanate of Oman. 1988.

Rose, Jeanne. 375 Essential Oils & Hydrosols. Frog Ltd. Berkeley, CA. 1999

—————. The Aromatherapy Book.  North Atlantic Books. 1992.

Sellar, Wanda & M. Watt. Frankincense & Myrrh. C.W. Daniel. 1996.

Wildwood, Christine. Creative Aromatherapy.  Thorsons.     1993.

©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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