Frankincense / Olibanum

Frankincense  - let's explore one of the most treasured and mystical aromatic resins in the world. In the days of ancient Arabia, frankincense was one of the most valuable commodities and worth more than its weight in gold. Caravans of up to 400 camels traveled "The Frankincense Route", carrying precious stones, spices, silk, brocade, and precious aromatic gums and resins, most notably frankincense. The Frankincense Route: stretched from the Persian Gulf, through Oman and Aden, south to Africa and north to Mecca and beyond, eventually linking with Asia making worldwide trade possible. The location of the valuable frankincense trees were one of the best kept secrets of ancient times. Today, one of the first things that come to mind when people think of incense, is frankincense. 

The commonly recognized western name is said to have originated from the Frankish (French) Knights of the crusades in the Holy Land, who treasured it in large quantities. Boswellia species. It's a generic name for the gum resin and tree of approximately 25 different known Boswellia species. Frankincense is also commonly known as "Olibanum", or "Oil of Lebanon". I cannot validate this origin of the name. It appears a more accurate origin of the word Olibanum may be from the Arabic word for the resin, "Laben" or "Luban" which is a word that also means cream, so designated by the whiteness of the resin.

Today there is much confusion about the various species and origins of Frankincense. In this description we hope to shed some light on a few of these issues while providing a little interesting history of Frankincense.

Synonyms: Olibanum, Luban, Maidi, Beyo, Salai, Sheehaz, Manna, Mohor, etc.
Species: Oleoresin from approximately 25 different Boswellia species - B. sacra, B. serrata, B. carteri, B. papyrifera, B. thurifera, B. frereana, B. odorata, B. neglecta, B. dalzielli, B. bhau-dajaima, etc.
Botanical Family: Burseraceae 
Origins: Oman, India, Somalia, Aden, and Ethiopia
Colors: White, pale lemon, pale amber, pale green, dark amber
Aroma: fresh, fruity top notes, spicy, balsamic, slightly coniferous, resinous

The Frankincense tree is a small, scrubby, rather unsightly tree that grows in the wild. It grows to about 7 or 8 meters in height (approx. 20ft.) and usually branches out from its base. The Arabian, B. sacra (+B. carteri), produces small yellow- white colored flowers with five petals that are a favorite among bees; The African, B. papyrifera, produces small pale red flowers. They each produce small fruits, which are often fed to livestock. 

The tree prefers arid climates and only the moisture of morning mountain dew. It's said the best quality resin comes from trees just out of the reach of  monsoon rains were ideal average rainfall is less than 4 in. annually. The trees are most often found growing out of rocks and hillsides and dry river beds, wherever rich soil deposits of limestone are found..

In the worldwide trade of frankincense gum resin, the grading system used sorts resin according to species, size and color. Sorting from best quality to least,  first quality, pea-size, siftings, powder, garblings

For the most part B. sacra is found in Oman but other lesser known species thrive there as well. B. frereana is found predominantly in northern Somalia where it is called "maidi" (maydi). It is sorted in eight grades consisting of mushhad, mujarwal, fas kebir (kabeer), fas saghir (saqeer), jabaanjib, shorta, slif and foox in order from best quality to least. The top grades of maidi are widely used for chewing gum in North Africa and Arabia and seldom find their way to the West. Somalia is also home to B. carteri, known there as "Beyo." In 1987 THULIN and WARFA concluded that B. carteri and B. sacra were simply different variable forms of the same species and therefore should not be afforded separate species status. It's commonly agreed that the name B. sacra is given to the trees that grow in Arabia (Oman) and B. carteri to those found in Somalia.  In India, B. serrata is commonly found and known by the name "salai".

The species, B. carteri, gets its name from the Edinburgh botanist Johann Boswell and the English ship physician, H.J. Cater, who in 1846, were the first to describe the frankincense tree in detail.

The trees of course do not recognize the silly invisible boundaries created and mapped out by man and various species are found in each of the above countries. In fact a very good source of ours, who has been in the direct trade of frankincense for over 40 years, states that unless one is procuring frankincense direct from those who harvest the resins, then there is little chance one can be assured of the species they are receiving. As the collectors (middle men) of the gum don't make differences, many of them do not even know the differences, and get paid by weight, size and color not by species.

Emotional Attributes
Used since ancient times to awaken higher consciousness and to enhance spirituality, meditation, prayer and mental perception. Frankincense slows and deepens breathing, reducing tension and helping to calm and comfort oneself while lifting one's spirits. It is said to relieve past links and subconscious stress. Frankincense also has erotic attributes and mixed with sandalwood and cassia creates a wonderful sensuous fragrance.

Medicinal Attributes (see disclaimer below)
Widely used as an anti-inflammatory in many cultures and fast becoming popular in the West for such treatments. The University of Munich conducted a study which found frankincense very effective treatment to relieve joint pain. Ancient herbal books recommend suspending painful joints over the smoke of equal parts of frankincense, mastic and lavender. Frankincense is antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and an expectorant to the lung, genital, urinary and digestive tracts. It has been used extensively as an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal treatment and has proven excellent for mature skin and acne and to heal wounds and scars. It is very useful to those suffering from asthma. The gum was often crushed, mixed with myrrh and dried aloes juice to make an antiseptic powder for wounds. The astringent bark of the tree was dried and ground and taken as a stimulating and cleansing infusion. Frankincense was often used as a diuretic by chewing the resin or adding it to coffee. It was also chewed to relieve the head of mucus and to disperse phlegm. Humans and animals were exposed to the smoldering gum as treatment for many illnesses. In ancient Arabia, the gum was ground and made into pills for those who displayed symptoms of spitting up blood (most likely digestive disorders). Frankincense was used in the treatment of almost every imaginable disease by Greek and Roman physicians and many remedies appear in the Syriac Book of Medicine, ancient Muslim texts, and in Indian and Chinese medical writings.

Other Uses
Frankincense has been widely used for thousands of years in many parts of the world for burning as incense in religious ceremonies. Historically this has been done for several reasons; first it acts as a fumigant in a crowded space where disease might spread. Second, it has been shown to improve acoustical properties in a space. Lastly, it's smoke travels upward to the heavens as does one's prayers and in this way is regarded as a fragrant gift to the gods.

Olibanum resin is also distilled to yield its volatile oils for use in perfumes, soaps, lotions, creams and detergents. Solvent extracts are also prepared and both resinoids and absolutes are used in the same as fixatives. It is the key base ingredient in the world famous Arabian perfume called "Amourage".

Frankincense is a natural insecticide and was used in ancient Egypt to fumigate wheat silos to keep wheat moths away. The resin is also steamed and able to kill parasitic insects in food. The fumes from burning the resin is also said to repel mosquito's and sand flies.

Burning the resin has cooling effects and was recommended by the famous 11th-century Arabian physician, Avicenna, as a remedy for illnesses that increased the body's temperature and for infections.

The inner white root of a young plant was chewed for thirst-quenching purposes as well as a food. The leaves of the tree were often gathered to feed to weak and even favored livestock. Frankincense was also added to wine as a perfume though it is said that drinking too much of this would cause madness and even death. This wine was often given to inmates about to be executed in order to numb the pain and terror.

Soaking high quality resin overnight in water with a piece of iron and then drinking the resulting liquid in the morning was said to greatly improve memory.

The resin was also used as an adhesive, where the soft gum was applied to cracks or chips in utensils and other items, which then hardened to make a waterproof mend.

The soot from burnt frankincense was used to make permanent stains on the skin by using needles to create tattoos.

Fresh gums were molded into large cone-shapes and ignited as darkness fell to provide a candle type of light that would burn for hours.

Dioscorides described how the bark of the tree was put into water to attract fish, luring them into nets and traps.

In ancient Egypt, the resin was used as a key ingredient for embalming their dead.

Frankincense is said to cleanse a space of negative energies.

Every tree is owned, usually by a family or cooperative and profits are shared. Cooperatives usually employ collectors who must go by foot into areas with few roads and steep, rocky slopes with few waterholes to harvest the resin. The work can often be very hazardous.

Ducts inside the bark produce a milky white, sticky liquid that flows out when the tree is injured. The liquid solidifies into a resin when exposed to the sun, serving to heal the wound. To harvest the resin, a special tool called a "mengaff" is used. One end of the mengaff has a sharp edge, which is used to wound the tree by making deep longitudinal incisions about 4-8 cm long. The opposite end of the mengaff is blunt and used to remove the resin from the tree after it has hardened. Another harvesting method used is to simply scrape away portions of the bark without making deep incisions and allowing the resin to flow from this wound. A single tree may be tapped in one or more places according to the tree's size. After about a fortnight, the resin is collected only from the wound itself, leaving behind the inferior resin which had run down the tree to accumulate and be collected annually. The wound is then freshened and the process continues. 

There is much conflicting information on how often a tree is tapped and this seems to vary mostly by revenue demands of the group that owns the tree(s) and geography, which dictates how exposed the trees are to rainfall (which spoils the resin). Low prices are paid to sellers of the resin, which has led to overexploitation of easily accessible trees and under-exploitation of remote trees (which are dangerous to harvest). Ideally trees are tapped twice per year with each period lasting about 90 days. Intervals of about 15 days between tappings means there are about 6 tappings per period over which the resin quality gradually declines. It is said the large lumps of resin from the third collection and beyond in the hottest part of the summer are of the finest quality. Better quality resins comes from the younger trees while mature trees tend to produce a more transparent resin, and still even older ones produce an almost clear glutinous liquid of very poor quality. The first period of tapping occurs from January to March and the second from August to October. After a spell of tapping from 5 -6 years, the trees are rested. Average annual yield of a tree is about 2-3 kilograms. The gum is stored for about 12 weeks to harden to the required consistency. The best quality resin is pale in color, the lower quality gum is a darker amber or reddish color.

This tapping schedule however is not a hard and fast rule and oftentimes a tree is tapped continuously throughout the year. Rest periods however are very important to produce high quality resin and keep a tree healthy. Favorable conditions for tapping begin after the tree is 5 - 7 years old.

There are two kinds of resin that are generally recognized: "male" frankincense called zakana, which is deep yellow or reddish and "female" frankincense called kundura unsa, which is reddish-white, and pale in color. Female frankincense is the higher quality, more preferred resin.

Frankincense Products
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Sepasal Database -
Document Repository -
Frankincense and Myrrh: A Study of the Arabian Incense Trade - by Nigel Groom
The Complete Incense Book - by Susanne Fischer-Rizzi
Holistic Herbals - by David  Hoffman
Aromatherapy, a complete guide to the healing art - by Kathi Keville & Mindy Green

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