At Evenstar's one of the most popular resin incenses is frankincense. Many of us probably first heard of frankincense as one of the gifts of the magi, a gift on par with gold. So what is this fabulous fragrance and what makes it so special and what are the sustainability prospects for this remarkable resin?
Frankincense is the hardened sap from a small, shrubby tree of the Boswellia family that is native to desert climates. There are over 20 species of Boswellia that can be found growing from West Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and as far south as Tanzania and Madagascar. Some species grow in India.
Frankincense resin is harvested by tapping the sap of the tree and allowing the sap to harden. The resin can be picked off the bark or collected from the ground. Because the process is like "milking" the tree, the resin is known as olibanum in Arabic. The "pearls of the desert," has become known as frankincense from the old French meaning pure, nobel, or high-quality incense.
The resin is highly valued as a spiritual aid, a medicine, an aromatic, and oil and has been in use by humans for over 5000 years. It has been so highly valued that it was once worth more than its weight in gold. Roman emperor Nero, for instance, whether out of grief or vanity, burned at the funeral of a mistress an entire year’s worth of frankincense. The Egyptians used it as an embalming agent (because of its astringent properties). After removing the organs, they would fill the body with frankincense, the astringent properties would dry out the body and its fragrance would hide the smell of decay.
The medical uses of frankincense are related to its properties as an anti-inflammatory, an astringent, and as an emmenagog. Frankincense has been used for reducing pain and inflammation and for boosting immunity. When applied to the skin frankincense should tighten and tone loose tissue; people have used it to combat signs of aging, wrinkles, and acne. With deeper penetration, its anti-inflammatory properties have been reported to alleviate joint or muscle pain from arthritis or rheumatism and improve blood circulation. When inhaled, it can ease breathing by drying up congestion and reducing phlegm and mucous in the respiratory system and sinuses.
Its physical properties also make frankincense a powerful antiseptic; it is used to eliminate bacteria and viruses and can help disinfect an area — use it as an aromatherapy spritzer or burn the resin for this purpose. When thus used as a fumigant, frankincense is believed to both physically and spiritually cleanse an area (in much the same way that we use sage) which is why major religions use frankincense in their most sacred rituals.
There are various ways frankincense can be used by the home practitioner. The resin can be used to make an infusion for use either as a topical lotion or as a tea. Use 4-5 small pieces of resin per quart of boiling water. Allow to steep for four-six hours or overnight. If the infusion is cloudy or has un-dissolved resin you can strain. As a tea, it is helpful when you are feeling congested. Many will also use the infusing to reduce inflammation in arthritic or painful joints.
Burning frankincense is common for meditation. You can burn 3-4 pieces (or more) of the resin directly on a glowing charcoal. This will produce the smoke commonly used as a fumigant. Alternatively, you can place the resin in an "oil burner" with a candle or tea light underneath. Heating the resin this way will release the fragrance but not produce the smoke or the "burning" smell associated with charcoal. Always use fireproof containers when burning resins or incense.
Frankincense when used in meditation or aromatherapy can help you ground, become present and calm, find peace, and remove anxiety and stress.
Lastly, in recent years there has been growing concern about the sustainability of frankincense, and the future is not good. Land use practices and overharvesting in Ethiopia and Somalia (where most of the world's supply of frankincense comes) are having a great impact. Rising demand in the essential oil industry have pushed up prices of the resin some 500-600%, stimulating over-harvesting, but other economic and biological factors have probably caused greater impact. The boswellia tree may take as long as forty years to reach maturity when it can consistently survive the scarring process that produces the resin. Farms have started to increase the frequency of tapping (traditionally the tree would be tapped once a year; now trees are tapped continuously) and to reduce the age of the tree at which tapping will begin. This constant tapping has inhibited the boswellia reproduction processes, so there are fewer boswellia saplings are being germinated. Furthermore, clearing and cattle grazing in the horn of Africa is crippling boswellia sapling production, and mature trees have fallen victim to the long-horn beetle which lays its eggs underneath the bark, killing the tree. In all, the introduction of widespread cattle-farming and invasive species will probably doom East Africa frankincense production this century.
Through its valued use as an essential oil, a fumigant, and a medicine, frankincense has long been the most noble of the incenses. Our growing awareness of environmental impacts coupled with a broad and growing spiritual awakening and its central importance in many world religions may be the salvation for this beloved resin.
Ernst, Edzard E. "Frankincense: Systematic Review," BMJ [British Medical Journal], December 2008, 337ff. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a2813
Groenendijk, Peter, Abeje Eshete, Frank J. Sterck, Pieter A. Zuidema, Frans Bongers. "Limitations to Sustainable Frankincense Production: Blocked Regeneration, High Adult Mortality and Declining Populations." Journal of Applied Ecology 49, Issue 1, (December 2011): https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2011.02078.x
Melina, Remy. "Christmas Staple Frankincense 'Doomed,' Ecologists Warn." LiveScience, December 20, 2011, https://www.livescience.com/17563-frankincense-doomed-ecologists-warn.html
Mercola, Joseph "Frankincense Oil: The 'King' of Oils," Mercola, June 02, 2016, https://articles.mercola.com/herbal-oils/frankincense-oil.aspx
Morgenstern, Kat. "Frankincense," Sacred Earth: Ethnobotany and Ecotravel. December 2006. http://www.sacredearth.com/ethnobotany/plantprofiles/frankincense.php
Patinkin, Jason. "World's Last Wild Frankincense Forests are Under Threat," AP News, December 24, 2016, https://apnews.com/500f051cbfa84421b3b4b0c77db16e0c
Rijkers, Toon, Woldeselassie Ogbazghi, Marius Wessel, Frans Bongers. "The Effect of Tapping for Frankincense on Sexual Reproduction in Boswellia papyrifera." Journal of Applied Ecology 43, Issue 6 (August 2006): https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2006.01215.x
Zabel, Steph. "Frankincense: A Sacred Resin," Cambridge Naturals, December 27, 2016, https://www.cambridgenaturals.com/blog/frankincense-a-sacred-resin
"How to Use Frankincense," Enfleurage--Aromatics from the Natural World, n.d., https://www.enfleurage.com/how-to-use-frankincense/
 Exodus 30: 34-38.
 Emmenagogs stimulate or increase menstrual flow and should be avoided by pregnant women. Some sites report frankincense as an abortifacient.
 The medical uses of frankincense have been reviewed by Edzard E. Ernst, "Frankincense: Systematic Review," BMJ [British Medical Journal], December 2008, 337ff. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a2813.
 Disclaimer: we are just reporting here what other sites on the www have said about frankincense. Evenstar's Chalice endorses no claims about medical benefits of frankincense or its use. As always, you are responsible for your behavior.
 Patinkin (2016); Rijkers, et al., (2006).
 Groenendijk (2011)