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Frankincense: The story behind the resin

BY Yasemen Kaner-White

2nd Mar 2023 Life

Frankincense: The story behind the resin

We've all heard of frankincense and know it's been treasured in the past, but do you know all about its source, history and uses?

Frankincense, also referred to as olibanum, is a fragrant substance that is obtained by scoring the trunks of Boswellia trees, so the milky sap bleeds out, is exposed to the air and slowly hardens into jewel-like amber-coloured resin, aka frankincense, which is harvested by scraping it off.

The trees are mainly found in Oman, Yemen, North Africa, West Africa and India. The word frankincense derives from the term franc encens, meaning quality incense in old French. 

A brief history of frankincense

Treasured throughout history, the prized resin even got a mention in the Bible as one of the gifts from the three wise men to baby Jesus, along with gold and myrrh. Frankincense has long created a line of communication between East and West.

"There are many sayings and superstitions around the resin, for example legend states flying snakes protect the frankincense trees"

From the Neolithic Age (4300 BC2000 BC) until the late Islamic Period (eighth century—13th century) the frankincense trade network expanded from the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Mesopotamia (Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria), India and China, carried by boat or land, such as upon camels’ backs. There are many sayings and superstitions around the resin, for example legend states flying snakes protect the frankincense trees. 

What is frankincense used for?

What is frankincense, exactly?—Frankincense burning on a hot coalFrankincense is an aromatic resin used for religious rites, incense and perfumes. Photo: fotomem

Historically the main uses were medical, religious, incantation and burial rituals. Still today frankincense is used to treat illness, for instance in Oman, it is common for locals to place one or two particles of resin in a half litre bottle, leave it overnight and drink it the next day to address stomach upset for example, you will also see some locals chew it as you would a piece of gum to freshen their breath and clean their mouth. More modern uses include using it to infuse its wonderful fragrance into food, such as frankincense ice cream and sweets, as well as the essential oil featuring in beauty products and perfume.

Of course, it is readily, as has always been the case, burnt as incense to perk up any place, I’ve also heard of it being used to burn under musty clothes, so the scent freshens them. Some believe the smoke is protective, warding off evil and deterring mosquitoes.

Are there any health benefits?

The purported health properties of frankincense are wide and include the ability to combat conditions such as osteoarthritis, kill cancer cells, boost immunity, fight infections, reduce anxiety and depression, the latter qualities are why it is ideal to burn as incense as well as a few drops of essential oil in a diffuser to calm the mind. Some of its healing rationale is that it contains boswellic acids which are known to possess strong anti-inflammatory qualities, hence why you’ll see it being used to treat asthma and arthritis for example. Frankincense has antibacterial qualities so the natural breath freshener makes sense, but it is also used topically on wounds and skin conditions such as acne. It is also great to ease chesty coughs as it is an expectorant, meaning it can clear pesky built-up mucus.

"Some of its healing rationale is that it contains boswellic acids which are known to possess strong anti-inflammatory qualities"

The essential oil is seen in a range of beauty products, such as face creams for its instant rejuvenation and hydration qualities, as well as its antioxidant properties helping to protect the skin from sun damage and pollution, frankincense water is a good option for a toner to keep skin soft yet firm with its collagen protection properties.

Museum in Oman

Entrance to the Museum of the Frankincense Land in Salalah, OmanThe entrance to the Museum of the Frankincense Land in Salalah, Oman. Photo: Glen_Pearson

Known as the perfume capital of Arabia, Salalah in Oman is renowned for its production of frankincense, much like diamonds, frankincense, known locally as luban, has varying grades, with Hojari from Wadi Hojar, being the best, it was worth more than gold in ancient times.

One of the experiences you can do in-situ is a guided frankincense tour with Al Baleed Resort Salalah to one of the most significant frankincense sites: Wadi Dawkah, where thousands of frankincense trees make it the largest concentration of Boswellia sacra in the southern Dhofar province, in Salalah they even have a Museum of the Frankincense Land.

Africa and India

Frankincense is still an important income for families where it grows, such as the border communities on the Somalia-Ethiopia border, sadly in the remote border district of El Barde landmines prevent locals from harvesting it, which is why trusts were set up to clear the landmines, enabling harvesting.

"Frankincense is still an important income for families where it grows, such as the border communities on the Somalia-Ethiopia border"

In India, frankincense is part of Ayurvedic medicine, and it can be purchased over the counter in capsule form.

Research and sustainability

Frankincense tree near Salalah, Oman
A Boswellia (or frankincense) tree growing in the desert near Salalah, Oman

The ongoing interest and study of frankincense is demonstrated in the
Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, a non-departmental public body in the UK sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is an internationally important botanical research and education institution. In Kew's Economic Botany Collection it has 140 frankincense specimens. It is important to acknowledge that frankincense is a wild-harvested product and sadly there is proof that overharvesting is affecting trees, so efforts to remain sustainable need to be upheld.

So, the next time you see this revered resin, first clarify if it is the edible kind, if so, create some infused treats, or indeed treat an ailment, or if inedible, burn it and fill your house with the amazing scent that comes from the fantastic, fragrant frankincense.

Banner photo: Frankincense resin and oil. Credit: Madeleine_Steinbach

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