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Frankincense - The Holy Resin

The history of incense

So many stories, so many myths. No resin of this earth is as well-known as the incense - the resin that was offered together with myrrh and gold to the baby Jesus in the manger. That resin that is used in almost all cultures and religions for blessing and that not only opens the heart and mind, but also unfolds its healing power in the body. The resin of the frankincense trees has been one of the holiest resources of this earth for millennia.

The frankincense tree

Botanically, the frankincense tree belongs to the family Burseraceae, the balsam tree family, which hosts over 15 genera and up to 600 species. In addition to the frankincense tree, the genera include Commpihora (for example, myrrh), Canarium (for example, Elemi) and Bursera (for example, Palo Santo), to the family of Balsambaumgewächse. Anyone who knows the scent of the various resins immediately understands why these plants are called balsam tree plants.

The resin and its extraction

All balsam tree genera have fine capillaries under the bark which produce a balsamic, spicy-scented resin when the bark is removed or the trunk and branches are scratched. The resin that comes out through the cuts is nothing more than a secretion that the tree produces to heal the superficial wound. These plant excreta solidify in the air to a solid mass. Even if the comparison is not quite correct biologically, one could compare the resin of the tree with the wound secretion, which ensures in our body after an injury of the skin, that the wound is cleaned by germs and heals. The "Wundsekret" Balsambaumgewächse is an aromatic, highly coveted resin, which under the name "Frankincense" makes our life in many ways more valuable.

Where incense grows

Many people are unaware of where incense grows everywhere. Some know the Indian frankincense because they have heard of frankincense, others know the frankincense from Oman. But there are many countries where the incense tree grows. Although there are occasional incense and populations in other countries, the largest population of various species of frankincense is found in Africa, or more specifically in the "incense belt", which is ideal for tree growth due to its soil and climate.

Various types of incense

Boswellia Sacra

Although the frankincense tree is predominantly native to Dhofar / Oman, it also grows in Somalia. Yes, there are definitely Boswellia sacra trees in Somalia, so there is often the misconception that Boswellia carterii and Boswellia sacra are the same tree. He is not, they are both brothers and their own species. Recent studies and analyzes show this very clearly. In a future post I will discuss the topic in more detail. In Yemen, the neighboring country of Oman, you will also find some trees, although not as numerous as in Oman itself.

Boswellia Carterii

The Boswellia carterii grows in Somalia, more precisely in Somaliland and Puntland, as there is no longer a united Somalia (see Wikipedia). The largest population can be found in the region Sanaag (Somaliland) and in the Bari Region (Puntland).

Boswellia Frereana

The Boswellia frereana grows to my knowledge also exclusively in Somalia and also in the same regions, as his brother Boswellia carterii. Although the Boswellia frereana needs a different soil and is more likely to be found in higher elevations, the two frereana and carterii brothers grow close together in many regions of Somalia.

Boswellia Papyrifera

The Boswellia papyrifera does not have such high demands on the composition of the earth and is fairly common in Africa. Although most of the incense is harvested in Ethiopia and Eritrea, hundreds of tons of frankincense are also exported from Sudan each year. Other stocks can be found in Chad and even further west in Nigeria, but there only sporadically and without real crop culture.

Boswellia Dalzielii

The Boswellia dalzielii is rather unknown in this country and I would be happy, if this frankincense tree and its special resin would get some more attention. It is very similar to Boswellia sacra, both in its scent profile, appearance, shape and probably in the composition of boswellic acids. What makes this frankincense special is that the tree is not harvested as intensively as in Oman. This is partly due to the fact that the regions in which the Boswellia dalzielii grow are politically rather uneasy, but the lesser crop culture is one reason. The Boswellia dalzielii grows in Nigeria, Senegal and Burkina Faso. There is also a Boswellia dalzielii in Cameroon, but analyzes have shown that it is not a Boswellia dalzielii tree.

Boswellia neglecta and rivae

When creating the distribution map I was still ignorant. Well, certainly not ignorant, but I kept Boswellia neglecta and rivae for different trees. However, a container delivery in October 2018 revealed to me that the incense Boswellia rivae, which mainly comes from Ethiopia, and the frankincense Boswellia neglecta, which originates from Somalia, are identical. These botanical confusions are not so rare. The frankincense tree Boswellia neglecta is found in Kenya (often the resin of the tree Commiphora Confusa is traded as Neglecta incense), Somalia and Ethiopia. Trees have also been sighted in Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan. There is hardly any appreciable harvest there.

Frankincense as a resin, in water, as a tincture

The question that arises is what do you want the frankincense to be for. Do you want to use the essential oils in incense or are you aiming to get as much boswellic acid as possible? In second place is the resin itself, which is in the form of capsules or in pure form. Through the bile, the resin is dissolved quite well and so can the pure frankincense very well processed by the body and absorbed the boswellic acids. Therefore, the best to take the incense for eating! In the last place lands the frankincense tea and incense. Although this is the most traditional use of frankincense, less of the acid is released from the resin in the water.

The incense harvest

Even though the harvesting techniques sometimes differ somewhat from each other, they all have one common goal: to get to the precious incense resin. This can be done by making some deeper cuts on the tree from which the resin flows out of the cut, or even with a tree "healthier" or, say, less hurtful variety in which the bark of the tree is simply scraped off centimeter-millet Will get removed. In earlier times, and even today to some extent a scraping knife called Minqaf (Somalia) and Manqaf (Oman) is used, which looks more like a spatula from the hardware store, as a real knife. But with this scraping knife, the bark can be removed well without injuring the tree too deeply, which would be very bad for the tree, as it would take much longer than three years for the bark to regrow. When the bark of the tree is removed for harvest, that layer of the tree is exposed, in which lie also the fine capillaries that produce the fragrant resin. A bit like our wound fluid, the tree forms a wound secretion, more specifically an exudate, which has the actual purpose of closing the superficial wound on the tree. The removal of the bark and thus the injury of the tree takes place not only at one point on the tree, but in several places, but at how many places is dependent on several factors. Using the example of the Boswellia Sacra tree from Oman, the number of "cuts" depends on the size of the tree, the size of the trunk and the branches, and the number of leaves of the tree. After removal of the bark then forms a milky-cloudy liquid that flows out of the tree. This first resin is considered impure and is of inferior quality. Normally, the exudates of the first and second step are disposed of, but this does not apply to all crops and varieties. After about 10-20 days, depending on the tree, location and season, then this first resin is scraped off as it is cured enough to allow the resin to be harvested. This cycle of scraping, re-injuring and reaping then repeats itself up to ten times and more. How often and how long a tree is harvested, whether twice a year and with only 5 cut sequences or throughout the year, is very different and is determined by many different factors. Using the example of the Boswellia Sacra tree from Oman, the number of "cuts" depends on the size of the tree, the size of the trunk and the branches, and the number of leaves of the tree. Thus, in a small incense tree of 1-3 meters, with a circumference of less than 30cm and no leaves only 1 to 3 interfaces are used, while in a tree over 3 meters, a diameter over 80cm, and healthy tree with numerous leaves up to 18 interfaces used to harvest the incense. Of course, this harvest cycle does not only affect one tree, but hundreds of trees, because according to age, location, variety and other factors, a tree "only" spends between 2-8kg of frankincense. There are often hundreds of trees that sometimes stand together on just one hectare of land and are harvested at the same time. Often, the land is leased to the incense and come at harvest time hundreds to thousands of harvest workers, often "cheap labor" from abroad, then take over for a bit of money, food and clothing this hard job of harvesting. Since the price of frankincense has fallen rapidly in the last century and the price is only slowly rising again, it has simply made no sense for many harvest families to continue this sacred profession of incense harvesting. That's why the cheap laborers have often taken over this job. There is no question that this is not optimal, because these inexperienced harvest workers literally do not know what they are doing. But the dangers to the tree at harvest will be brought to my attention in more detail in the last chapter of this book, Frankincense, a Dying Tree. Once you hold incense that does not consist of tears or grits, but looks like a molten mass, it's because of the wrong harvest. In some countries of the world, such as Burkina Faso, there is no well-organized harvest. A well-organized harvest with several harvests, baskets and enough shading drying options for the frankincense ensures that the frankincense is well recognizable as frankincense despite the heat of the day. But this is not the case everywhere and in some types of resin, as in many Canarium trees, even almost impossible. While drying the harvested incense, it should not stay in contact with the sun for much longer, otherwise the pieces of resin just stick together. After harvesting, the incense, usually unsorted, is placed in baskets and other receptacles in a dry, shady place, if possible in caves or under trees that provide enough shade. There, the resin is stored until it is cured. This can take a few weeks and of course depends on the season and the weather. Then the frankincense comes to the sorting points of the dealer. The incense is poured into a big pile and the sorters, often women, go to work sorting the frankincense into different qualities.

Eat frankincense

What has already been part of everyday life in other countries for millennia, is finding more and more interest in our western world. For thousands of years, incense has been used as a remedy in so many cultures and forms of medicine, whether Ayurveda or traditional Chinese medicine. However, frankincense was once a well-known medicine in our latitude, but has been increasingly replaced by the modern pharmaceutical industry, as many other natural remedies. In Oman, India, Egypt or even Africa, people chew and inhale incense to strengthen their bodies, to fight inflammation or to fight stomach infections. Frankincense can be taken in many forms, as a dietary supplement in the form of an extract (general frankincense capsules), here, however, only the Indian frankincense, Boswellia Serrata included, since only he has undergone a proving. Many drink incense tea, others make their own capsules. Of course you can eat frankincense, but the sale of frankincense for food is not allowed in Germany, because frankincense is not approved as a medicine. In African countries you chew incense and just swallow the incense. Others take a small tear in the morning, about 2 grams of frankincense and swallow it down with some milk or water. It makes sense to take the frankincense for eating, because frankincense is lipophilic and thus increases the bioavailability with oily food. Please consider: Frankincense is not yet approved as a medicine and there are few studies. The intake is therefore at your own risk!


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