The Bible speaks of Wise Men who followed a star to baby Jesus’s birthplace in a stable. While it does not specify 3 Wise Men, it tells us of 3 gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. These were all expensive gifts and they remain so today. Frankincense has been prized for over 6,000 years. The Incense Route predated the Silk and Spice trade routes. Today, the Roman Catholic church alone is reputed to burn 50 metric tonnes in religious ceremonies per year. The high rate of consumption is projected to increase due to the growing public interest in essential oils and aromatherapy. Meanwhile, considerable concern about the sustainability of an endangered tree species in marked decline.
What is Frankincense?
Frankincense is the dried tree sap from a handful of trees in the Boswellia genus in the Burseraceae or Incense Tree family. It is a rather a dumpy-looking tree that possesses a remarkable ability to grow in inhospitable conditions. The tree has been found growing out of rock and on dry, precarious cliff edges as in the photo below right. It seems all the more remarkable that such a resilient tree should be struggling to survive, but overconsumption by Man is at the root of its endangerment.
The Frankincense Tree grows across the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Specifically refer to Somalia, Yemen and Oman and some of its difficulties become apparent. It is difficult to establish the true extent of existing populations when the trees grow in remote and inaccessible regions. Wars and conflicts hamper render proactive research impossible. Conservation and restoration efforts have an uphill struggle in such regions. Legal protections are few. Any laws that do exist are difficult to police. Boswellia is not covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. My research revealed a detailed November 2022 CITES report on the subject. The report exposes the complexities of the case (see the link below).
The much-desired sap is harvested via a process known as tapping. The trees have flaking, aromatic bark. Incisions are made into the trunks. The tree seeks to create a scab over the cuts by producing a gummy resin. The resin dries and hardens. After 15 days, teardrop-like pieces of hardened resin can be detached. Experienced tree tappers know to allow the trees some recovery time. It is hard to prevent the overharvesting of this high-value commodity from wild trees in remote regions that are otherwise poor in resources. Opportunistic, but untrained tree tappers cause irreparable damage. Recommendations suggest only tapping trees for their resin 2 to 3 times per year and allowing a year for recovery after a few years of tapping. Another source suggests a maximum of 12 times per year.
Harvested resin is classified into various quality grades. Grade A is considered the best as clear, white and free of impurities. Grade B relates to smaller granules of the same high-quality resin. Lower grades are decided based on size and impurity content. The top grades are destined for the export market and make a valuable contribution to the local economy.
Incense has been burned in religious ceremonies for thousands of years. Its use is deeply embedded in religious practices. The Roman Catholic Church alone is estimated to use 50 metric tons of Frankincense per year. Frankincense is the main ingredient in church incense. While a blend is created with myrrh, cassia and a selection of natural oils, the contribution of Frankincense to the fragrance is considered unique and irreplaceable. A supply change has already been noted. Churches are now receiving more of the lower-grade, small resin pieces. Prices are increasing as quality is reducing.
A combination of risks is threatening the survival of Frankincense trees. Overharvesting does not allow the trees time to recover. Weak trees cannot reproduce effectively. Saplings are overbrowsed by cattle before they have a chance to get established. A survey of one species established that no new trees had been produced in 50 years. Many older trees are dying or dead without succession. Climate change is creating severe drought and the threat of wildfires. War and conflicts prevent effective interventions like cattle enclosures, fire breaks, sustained conservation and restoration efforts. At the same time as demand is doubling, production is expected to halve. It seems extraordinary that a tree product that has been with us for 6,000 years, and that features so prominently in the Bible, should be so threatened today.
References and Further Reading
- Business Insider (2020): Why Frankincense and Myrhh are so expensive. YouTube. 10 October 2020.
- Cunningham, A. B. & DeCarlo, Anjanette (2022): Boswellia species in international trade: Identification, supply chains, & practical management considerations. CITES. Nineteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties Panama City (Panama), 14 – 25 November 2022
- Farmer, Rachel (2019): Incense in doubt as loss of Boswellia trees leads to global shortage of frankincense. Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS). 19 July 2019.
- Fobar, Rachel (2019): Frankincense trees – of biblical lore are being tapped out for essential oils. The fragrant resin gifted to the newborn Jesus may be at risk of disappearing. National Geographic. 13 December 2019.
- Hancock, James F. (2021): Spices, Scents and Silk. Catalysts of World Trade. CABI.
- Kew (2022): Boswellia sacra Flück. Plants of the World Online.
- Messages of Christ (2019): Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh: Gifts of the Wise Men. YouTube. 17 January 2019.
- Nesbitt, Mark (2016): The Botany of Christmas. The Linnean Society Podcast. YouTube. 16 December 2016.
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.