What is Frankincense?
Frankincense is the aromatic resin used in incense and perfume obtained from five trees in the genus Boswellia.
The Frankincense or Olibanum trees have a papery bark, sparse branches, paired leaves and white flowers with yellow or red centres.
They are native to the arid stony dry lands of the Arabian Peninsula – Omen and Yemen, and to N.E. Africa – Somalia. When these scraggy hardy trees are 8 to 10 years old, all species are tapped three times a year to bleed drops of resin. The third tapping of each year produces the best quality. One species even grows in rock and has a bulbous disk-like swollen trunk which stops the tree from blowing over!
In ancient times the resin was more valuable than gold and a huge trade grew using camel transport. Frankincense was highly valued as far away as China. It was known to the Greeks. The fragrance is released by burning at very high temperatures. The Egyptians used the burnt fumes to purify the body cavities of mummies. Fumes from burning are still used today as incense in Catholic churches and in some Jewish ceremonies for meditation and to purify the air.
Today essential oil obtained by steam distillation is used in perfumes, for skin care by physiotherapists, for rubbing on new born babies and orally in medicine for diabetes and as an anti bacterial. There are now fewer trees as land is being cleared and burnt for grazing. Longhorn beetles are destroying the trees and heavy tapping is leading to poor seed production.