There has been much confusion over the exact identity of this tree - for the simple reason that the substance known as Frankincense has been obtained from several different species of Boswellia trees. Omani trees (Boswellia sacra) are small, shrubby desert trees with pinnate leaflets and thorny branches. The Indian species, Boswellia serrata are more stately trees, often with divided trunks. The wood is very resinous, which protects them in case of injury. Small, whitish-yellow, 5-petaled flowers appear in axillary racemes. The trees often appear to be growing directly out rocks and boulders. They cling to the rock faces by means of special adaptive disk-like swelling that grow at the bottom of the trunk, but only develop in terrain that makes the necessary and useful, e.g. on steep mountain-sides. Excessive harvesting reduces the number of flowers and size and viability of the seeds. Cattle and camels browse on the leaves and branches, especially in times of draught.
Frankincense is a fairly generic name that describes various species of Boswellia. It is thought that the name arose from the fact that Frankish Crusaders introduced this incense to the Occident. Its other name 'Olibanum' is derived from the Arab word 'al Luban', which means 'milk' and is a reference to the milky sap that exudes from the tree upon incision.
Familiar by name, yet otherwise perfectly obscure - this much fabled Arabian tree has been as famous as it has been elusive since long before the birth of Christ, when the three wise men from the East brought it as a gift to that humble stable in Bethlehem. We do not know how far the use of Frankincense goes back in time, but we do know that it already scented the Egyptian Temples to honour Ra and Horus and it is said that Queen Sheba brought a great number of Frankincense trees as a special gift for King Solomon. Unfortunately those trees were destined to die as Frankincense trees only grow in a very limited geographic range and very arid conditions. Nevertheless, it's the thought that counts and bringing all these trees was indeed a very strong sign of honour and respect. In the ancient world incense trees fuelled the economy of the Arab world as oil does today. Trading cities positioned at important points of the spice or incense routes prospered considerably thanks to the thoroughfare business. At one time Frankincense was more valuable than gold - needless to say, a situation much relished by the traders who only benefited from the obscurity and remoteness of the trees. Legend had it that the trees only grew in the most inhospitable mountainous places, guarded by dragon-like creatures that would readily strike out at any intruder. Obviously such stories were invented to scare off any attempts of enterprising and adventurous young men who otherwise perhaps might have ventured in search of the trees to do a little harvesting themselves. But, scare tactics aside, the long journey across the desert was no amble down the garden path - it was fraught with peril and as potentially dangerous as it was lucrative.
There are several regions where Frankincense grows, of which Oman, Somalia and Ethiopia are the most important suppliers today. Now as in the days of Solomon the most important use of Frankincense was as a sacred offering for the Gods. And although the worldwide demand for it has broadened, the actual worldwide consumption used to be far greater than it is now. Much Frankincense is still gathered in the traditional way from wild growing trees. The trees, although provided by nature, 'belong' as deliberated by unspoken agreement, to particular families who live nearby and who claim the right to harvest them. In the ancient world all Frankincense trees were decreed to belong to the King and only he negotiated the harvesting rights with the various merchants for a goodly fee. Studies have shown that where families take a 'guardian' position towards the trees they are far better cared for and protected as naturally any desert dweller will be quite careful to protect the source of their livelihood compared to roving harvesters who do not have any vested interest in the welfare of a particular tree.
Harvesting Frankincense is quite a time consuming process. A deep incision is made into the trunk (actually several incisions per tree, although according to recent research more than 5 incisions causes considerable stress to the trees.) and a small piece of bark next to it is removed. This wounding causes the tree to 'bleed' a milky white substance that seals and heals the wound and prevents infection. After three months the resin has hardened enough to be scraped off the trunk. However, to obtain the best quality Frankincense the process of wounding is repeated 3 times and only the resin collected from the third harvest is considered to be of superior quality. The solid resin is sorted into various qualities, some as tears, and some as grains of different colour and sizes. The quality is determined by the degree of opacity. Resin destined for distillation is shipped off while still slightly sticky on the inside, which denotes high concentration of volatile oil.
Its use as incense, especially in Catholic ceremony, still represents the greatest proportion of its worldwide usage. Locally it has also always been used medicinally for various conditions and as an ingredient of cosmetic preparations and unguents. This use was spread beyond local use in the days of the ancients and many of the early medical writings, e.g. of Pliny, Dioscorides and Avicenna report its range of medicinal uses. The western world had all but forgotten about the therapeutic qualities of Frankincense until quite recently Frankincense created some new ripples of excitement in the medical community - and not just in the alternative medicine scene. In fact, although it is widely used in Aromatherapy, mostly as an antidepressant, the herbal community makes little use of it.
The traditional applications of Frankincense are very diverse - ranging from dental disease to skin conditions, to respiratory complaints and digestive troubles - to name but a few. Throughout the ancient world, from Egypt to China and from India to Rome - not to mention the Arabian countries where Frankincense was grown, used not only the oleoresin, but practically every part of the tree: root and bark, bud, flower and fruit - as well as the resin and the essential oil all had their various uses.
The powdered bark was made up into an astringent paste which was used as a soothing ointment as a remedy for swelling (oedema). As a treatment for mastitis the dried or fresh gum was boiled in milk from the patient, to form a thick paste which was applied to the affected part.
The bark was brewed into a stimulating and cleansing tea, while the white inner root of young plants was chewed to treat stomach problems. The singed, powdered bark was commonly stored as a first aid remedy for wounds. Mixed with water it was applied as a 'ready to use' dressing for wounds and burns, though if available, the fresh bark was also used for this purpose- particularly as an antiseptic wash to clean dirty or infected wounds. The resin's antiseptic properties have been utilized as in ingredient for eye-washes to treat various ophthalmic diseases, while in Ethiopia the soot of the resin is thought to be beneficial for the eyes and sore or tired eyes are fumigated with the smoke.
The bark also found application in the setting of broken bones. Two pieces of the wood were used as splints, with strips of Frankincense bark wrapped around them along with bandage soaked in soft resin, which upon drying helped to provide firm support for the mending bone.
The resin was chewed to stimulate the gums and treat dental infections and sore gums and to generally strengthen the teeth. Buds and fruit provided a cleansing tonic for the digestive system. Brewed into a decoction with Cinnamon and Cardamom the resin was used to treat stomach aches. Burnt as incense it was not only thought to keep off the demons of disease and reduce pain, but it was also thought to act as an expectorant and was used to clear phlegm from the head and chest in cases of colds, flu and conditions of the upper respiratory tract.
Frankincense was thought to improve memory and dispel lethargy. As an admixture to white wine and the lungs of a hare it was also used as a remedy for epilepsy, while the smoke of the smouldering resin was used to treat severe and persistent headaches.
The smoke is also a powerful insect deterrent and thus served as a prophylactic to prevent the bites of malaria carrying mosquitoes.
In Dhofar the bark was made into an ointment to treat severe muscle pain, but only in India was the oleoresin noted as a remedy for rheumatism - one of the foremost conditions for which Frankincense has been rediscovered in recent times.
The bark's astringent properties have been incorporated in ointments to treat skin sores and chapped skin, while Emperor Nero utilized a pomade made from the gum mixed with wax to disguise the tell-tale bags beneath his eyes that appeared after a night of debauchery.
Frankincense also played a role in women's medicine - the bark was chewed for morning sickness and a potion made from the resin dissolved in wine with snakeskin was thought to ease difficult labour. During and after birth frankincense was burnt for 40 days in order to protect mother and child. The mother would also fumigate herself by squatting over the smouldering resin in order to restore muscle tone, support healing of any birth scarring or laceration and to speed recovery from the strains of labour.
Modern research has focused on Frankincense' anti-inflammatory properties, particularly in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and soft tissue rheumatism for which it appears to be extremely useful. Other effective treatments include extracts administered for gastro-intestinal diseases such as colitis and Crohn's disease.
Since ancient times the clean, fresh, balsamic fragrance of Frankincense has been utilized to as perfume - the very word perfume derives from the Latin 'par fumer' - through the (incense) smoke, a direct reference as to the origin of the practise of perfuming. Clothes were fumigated, not only to give them a pleasant smell, but also to cleanse them. Perfuming is a cleansing practice. In Dhofar not only clothes were perfumed, but other articles such as water jugs were also cleansed with smoke to kill bacteria and energetically purify the vessel of life-giving water, just as smudging is practiced today as a method of cleansing ritual objects and purifying the aura of participants as vessels of the divine spirit.
Today, Frankincense essential oil is used as a fixative and precious oil not only in the perfume industry, but also lends its scent to soaps, detergents and numerous cosmetic articles. In ancient times the charcoaled remains of the smouldered resin was powdered and mixed with waxes, oils and other substances to create Kajal (Khol) - the black eye-liner, which can be observed in every depiction of ancient Egyptian divinities and is still available as a beauty product today - though most brands no longer contain Frankincense. In ancient times this eyeliner was not just used for cosmetic purposes though - it was also believed to have protective properties and improve vision.
The adhesive qualities of the gum have been used to seal minor crack and repair pottery and other utensils, as the gum hardens upon drying. Combined with other substances it has also been used to caulk ships.
In ancient Egypt Frankincense and Myrrh were among of the most essential ingredients of the sacred embalming lotions with which the mummies were prepared.
© Kat Morgenstern, December 2006
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