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A silken sea, a sea of damassin,
With figured foam as flowers wove therein,
Where all the winds walk lightly.
From afar -- Clean-carven on the skies of cinnabar --
The palmy isles like azure malachite,
Along the horizon for a time retard
A morning fraught with frankincense and nard,
And purple fires, and amber-scented light,
And flame like flame of perfumes. 
-Clark Ashton Smith


The word frankincense has a wealth of sublime olfactory associations connected with it depending on the country and religious heritage one has grown up in. Yet in almost all cases is it linked up with feelings of devotion, prayer, contemplation and inspiration. The aroma of "mystery and wonder" created when the golden resin is placed upon smoldering embers seldom fails to pacify the heart and mind and turn it towards contemplation upon something which defies description. Even those who may not have any specific religious/cultural association with this magnificent odor are touched by its rare ethereal beauty.

Growing up in a catholic household the odor of frankincense impressed itself upon my mind at a very early age. Indeed the feelings it evoked are to this day associated with an intimate relationship with the divine. All the other vestiges of worship that existed in the church had little appeal to my heart as compared to that produced by frankincense. When that divine aroma drifted through the church, I was transported to a timeless place where all seemed clear, simple and perfect. What a perfect joy is contained in this beautiful essence. I think it is safe to say, that it has served as a bridge to understanding the beauties of many faiths both East and West. As shafts of light pierce into temples, mosques, monasteries, and simple households around the world illuminating clouds of gracefully billowing fragrant smoke rising from the censure or incense burner into the surrounding air, it is easy to see how the this simple sacrament became became a visible representation of the prayer issuing from the heart to that Hidden Power which nourishes the entire Creation.

On a practical level this subject has recently come into sharp focus for me because of a new sourcing relationship which has developed in Ethiopia. Until quite recently trade with Ethiopia was not easy to accomplish. Now the trade rules and regulations are being liberalized so that a more lively interaction can take place between indigenous and international businesses. Because of this relaxation of trade policies a nice new contact has arisen which, I think will prove wonderful for all those who love the odors of frankincense, myrrh, and opoponax. The small distillery that I am interacting with specializes in the hydrodistillation of the fresh oleo-gum resins of three species of Frankincense/Boswellia( Borana Region, that is where B. neglecta comes from, B. rivae and it comes from the Ogaden Region, B. papyrifera from the north, mainly form the province of Tigray. They also distill Opoponax/Sweet Myrrh and Myrrh as these are all indigneous to Ethiopia. What is particularly significant is that the material they are using is from the current years harvest ie fresh and that they have been able to correctly identify the different species being used for distillation with the assistance of the Kew Botanical Garden in UK. These good people have also done an excellent gc analysis of the different oils giving showing the wonderful array of aromatic molecules present in each oil.

I would also like to mention that it is a rare thing to be able to procure frankincense oil from freshly harvested material. Why is this significant? The fresh material possesses more of the subtle volatile aromatic molecules than aged material. If frankincense has to go to a wholesaler, where it is then stored until purchased by an oversea distiller(this was the common practice until quite recently when indigenous distilleries came up) then due to heat, the passage of time, etc some of the inherent essential oil components present in the oleo-gum-resin get vaporized off. Often frankincense oils are rich in heart notes but weak in top notes which is a consequence of the aging process of the material. There is in a freshly distilled frankincense a whole range of incredible topnotes which are worthy of exploration. The same holds true for Opoponax and Myrrh. So that is the exciting news on the frankincense front.

The word frankincense as it exists in the English language has beautiful etymological roots.

Frankincense -- The Word
NOUN : An aromatic gum resin obtained from African and Asian trees of the genus Boswellia and used chiefly as incense and in perfumes.
ETYMOLOGY: Middle English frank encens, from Old French franc encens, franc, free, pure, See FRANK1. + encens, incense. See INCENSE2.
ADJECTIVE : Inflected forms: frank-er, frank-est
1. Open and sincere in expression; straightforward: ³made several frank remarks about the quality of their work.²
2. Clearly manifest; evident: ³frank enjoyment.²
ETYMOLOGY: Middle English, free, from Old French franc, from Late Latin Francus, Frank.
NOUN : 1. a. An aromatic substance, such as wood or a gum, that is burned to produce a pleasant odor. b. The smoke or odor produced by the burning of such a substance.
2. A pleasant smell.
3. Flattering or fawning attention; homage.
TRANSITIVE VERB : Inflected forms: ‹censed, ‹cens·ing, ‹cens·es 1. To perfume with incense. 2. To burn incense to, as a ritual offering.
ETYMOLOGY: Middle English encens, from Old French, from Latin incensum, from neuter past participle of incendere, to set on fire. See kand-.
kand-Also kend-. To shine.
2. INCENDIARY, INCENSE1, INCENSE2; FRANKINCENSE, from Latin compound incendere, to set fire to, kindle (in-, in; see en ), from transitive *candere, to kindle.

Before proceeding into the practical dimensions of Boswellia/Frankincense species used for distillation, the harvest of the precious gum resin, the distillation of this special aromatic material, etc. I would like to share some of my favorite quotations about frankincense as it exists in English literature. I am certain there are many other precious quotes that could be added to this from other cultural heritages and I welcome any additions to what I have uncovered(Actually I have only included a few of over several quotes on frankincense that I have uncovered) Sometimes, I find in the images confured up by poetry and prose, feelings that are closest to what the aroma of a particular plant evokes . Fragrances and the feelings which fragrances evoke are often closely linked up with some of the most precious experiences in life. Once in a while a writer captures in a brief flash of imagary that magical and sacred realm which is not dependent upon any external stimulus.

Frankincense In Literature

Nor was the brightness of Tuscany's springtime confined to the country,
Strada, piazza and loggia in every part of Firenze
Brimmed and ran over with flowers, and at Easter their delicate fragrance
Conquered at mass and at vespers the odors of myrrh and frankincense
Stealing from censers of brass swung by thurifers at the high altars.
Adams, Oscar Fay, 1855-1919 , A Tale of Tuscany.

And purple paradise of pomegranate flowers,
Kopher, kinnámon, balsam, wealth of nard,
And things that thickets fill in summer hours,
Blue as a sky white-clouded, golden-starr'd,
Whereby we may surmise not far from thence
Mountains of myrrh and hills of frankincense.
Alexander, William, 1824-1911, SHIYR SHYRIYM TWO INTERPRETERS   

The major Frankincense or incense
route, in Nabatean times, follows the east coast of the Red Sea,
through what is now Yemen and Saudi Arabia, travelling through
Medain Salah and on to Petra in Jordan.
The route is about 2400 miles long.

Thus, from their coats involved of leaves and silk,
Slowly they freed the odorous thorn-tree's milk,
The grey myrrh, and the cassia, and the spice,
Filling the wind with frankincense past price,
With hearts of blossoms from a hundred glens
And essence of a thousand Rose-gardens;
Till the night's gloom like a royal curtain hung
Jewelled with stars, and rich with fragrance flung
Athwart the arch; and, in the cavern there
The air around was as the breathing air
Of a queen's chamber, when she comes to bed,
And all that glad Earth owns gives goodlihead.
Arnold, Edwin, Sir, 1832-1904, The Light of the World, AT BETHLEHEM.

"They laid their offerings at his feet;
The gold was their tribute to a King,
The frankincense, with its odor sweet,
Was for the Priest, the Paraclete,
The myrrh for the body's burying."
~from Longfellow's "The Three Kings"~

At once the maiden's body, steeped in dews
of nectar, sweet and odourate, dissolves
and adds its fragrant juices to the earth:
slowly from this a sprout of Frankincense
takes root in riched soil, and bursting
through the sandy hillock shows its top.
P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses (ed. Brookes More): book 4, line 167 [Book 4] Rosalind and Helen: A Modern Eclogue.

And rare Arabian odors came,
Through the myrtle copses, steaming thence
From the hissing frankincense,
Whose smoke, wool-white as ocean foam,
Hung in dense flocks beneath the dome--
That ivory dome, whose azure night
With golden stars, like heaven, was bright
O'er the split cedar's pointed flame;
And the lady's harp would kindle there
The melody of an old air,
Softer than sleep; the villagers
Mixed their religion up with hers,
And, as they listened round, shed tears.


The procession moved slowly on in pairs, the apostles bearing waxen lights on either side,
until the last white robe was concealed behind an arch at the other end of the extensive apartment.
The receding sounds of, "O sanctissima, O purissima," floated on the air mingled with clouds
of frankincense; and the young man pressed his hand to his forehead, with a bewildered sensation,
as if the airy phantoms of the magic lanthorn had just been flitting before him.
Child, Lydia Maria Francis, 1802-1880, The Rebels; or, Boston before the Revolution

And so he would now study perfumes and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily scented oils and burning odorous gums from the East. He saw that there was no mood of the mind that had not its counterpart in the sensuous life, and set himself to discover their true relations, wondering what there was in frankincense that made one mystical, and in ambergris that stirred one's passions, and in violets that woke the memory of dead romances, and in musk that troubled the brain, and in champak that stained the imagination; and seeking often to elaborate a real psychology of perfumes, and to estimate the several influences of sweet-smelling roots and scented, pollen-laden flowers; of aromatic balms and of dark and fragrant woods; of spikenard, that sickens; of hovenia, that makes men mad; and of aloes, that are said to be able to expel melancholy from the soul.
Oscar Wilde-Picture of Dorian Grey

The trail passes insensibly into them from the black pines and a thin belt of firs. You look back as you rise, and strain for glimpses of the tawny valley, blue glints of the Bitter Lake, and tender cloud films on the farther ranges. For such pictures the pine branches make a noble frame. Presently they close in wholly; they draw mysteriously near, covering your tracks, giving up the trail indifferently, or with a secret grudge. You get a kind of impatience with their locked ranks, until you come out lastly on some high, windy dome and see what they are about. They troop thickly up the open ways, river banks, and brook borders; up open swales of dribbling springs; swarm over old moraines; circle the peaty swamps and part and meet about clean still lakes; scale the stony gullies; tormented, bowed, persisting to the door of the storm chambers, tall priests to pray for rain. The spring winds lift clouds of pollen dust, finer than frankincense, and trail it out over high altars, staining
the snow.
Austin, Mary : The Land of Little Rain 1903

And Tom rolled up a lounge on one side of the bed, which after a fashion widened it, and Beverly brought up his mother's easy-chair, which had earned the name of "Moses' seat," on the other side, and thus, in a minute,the great broad bed was peopled with the whole family, as jolly, if as absurd, asight as the rising sun looked upon. And then! Flossy and Beverly were deputed to go to the fender, and to bring the crowded, stiff stockings, whosecrackle was so delicate and exquisite; and so, youngest by youngest, they brought forth their treasures, not indeed gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but what answered the immediate purposes better, barley cats, dogs, elephants and locomotives, figs, raisins, walnuts, and pecans.
Hale, Edward Everett, 1822-1909 : The Brick Moon, and Other Stories 1899

Frankincense - Historic Importance
If we approach the subject of frankincense from a historical prespective we can enter this enchanting world from another avenue. Frankincense and other precious aromatic substances factored strongly in the development of tradein the ancient world. The Frankincense Trail or Incense Road was once of the great trade routes of ancient times bringing frankincense from remote an inaccessible areas so it could be dispersed to China, India, Rome, Greeces and other countries. Early Historians such as Pliny the Elder and Herodotus preserved their unique perceptions of this ancienttrade in their writings which we, of the present time, can gain a sense of the dynamics of the industry.

VIII. Beyond and above Heliopolis, Egypt is a narrow land. For it is bounded on the one side by the mountains of Arabia, which run north to south, always running south towards the sea called the Red Sea. In these mountains are the quarries that were hewn out for making the pyramids at Memphis. This way, then, the mountains run, and end in the places of which I have spoken; their greatest width from east to west, as I learned by inquiry, is a two months' journey, and their easternmost boundaries yield frankincense.

[2] Such are these mountains. On the side of Libya, Egypt is bounded by another range of rocky mountains among which are the pyramids; these are all covered with sand, and run in the same direction as those Arabian hills that run southward. [3] Beyond Heliopolis, there is no great distance--
in Egypt, that is:1 the narrow land has a length of only fourteen days' journey up the river. Between the aforesaid mountain ranges, the land is level, and where the plain is narrowest it seemed to me that there were no more than thirty miles between the Arabian mountains and those that are called Libyan. Beyond this Egypt is a wide land again.
Such is the nature of this country.
Herodotus, The Histories (ed. A. D. Godley): book 2, chapter 8, section 1

CVII. Again, Arabia is the most distant to the south of all inhabited countries: and this is the only country which produces frankincense and myrrh and casia and cinnamon and gum-mastich. All these except myrrh are difficult for the Arabiansto get. [2] They gather frankincense by burning that storax1 which Phoenicians carry to Hellas; they burn this and so get the frankincense; for the spice-bearing trees are guarded by small winged snakes of varied color, many around each tree; these are the snakes that attack Egypt. Nothing except the smoke of storax will drive them away from the trees.
Herodotus, The Histories (ed. A. D. Godley): book 3, chapter 107, section 1

"Adjacent to the Astramitae is another district, the Minaei, through whose territory the transit for the export of the frankincense is along one narrow track. It was these people who originated the trade and who chiefly practise it, and from them the perfume takes the name of "Minaean"; none of the Arabs beside these have ever seen an incense-tree,and not even all of these, and it is said that there are not more than 3000 families who retain the right of trading in it as a hereditary property..."
(Pliny XII.xxx.54; transl. by H.Rackham).

"Frankincense, myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, and ladanum grow in Arabia alone of all countries. ... Over the trees that bear frankincense winged snakes stand guard, small in size and varied in appearance, a mass of them about each tree"
(Herodotus 3.107; 5th cent.BC; transl. by L.Casson).
See also similar stories in Photius, Cod. 250.98, 458b; Diodorus 3.47.1-2; Strabo 16.4.19, C778; Pliny XII. xvii. 85 &c. See also e.g. Pliny XII.xxx.51-52 (transl. by H.Rackham):

Following are some brief articles concerning the ancient Arabian Incense Trade http://www.celestialtides.com/Coven/bos/kitchen/frankincense.html#historic
Although much has been made of the differences between the different species of Boswellia, it is universally agreed that historically, frankincense was an economically important plant. Most Westerners will recognize frankincense as one of the gifts of the three wise men at the birth of Jesus. What most people don¹t recognize, however, is that the frankincense and myrrh were more valuable than the gift of gold.

The Boswellia species which produce frankincense are only found in a few areas around the horn of Africa; Somalia, the Hadhramaut region of Yemen, and Oman. (Britannica OnLine) Since the trade was based in this small geographic area, its demand far exceeded the trees ability to produce. Add to that the difficulty involved with distances and delivery of goods and a lucrative market was born.

It was the use of the camel and improved land routes around 11th century BCE when frankincense and other trade items where carried from Qana to Gaza (in Egypt). By sea these goods went straight from Qana to India. By 1000 BCE, myrrh and frankincense had already made its impact on the ancient world. Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Rome, Greece, and China all had use for this rare resin. (Arab Net) Its natural oil content and pleasant smell made it desirable to be used in temples as incense.

It was on the basis of the rich spice trade, and more specifically, the frankincense trade, that led the first century Greek writer, Pliny the Elder, claim ³that control of the frankincense trade had
made the south Arabians the richest people onearth.² (ArabNet) It was because of the demand for this resinthat the Romans sent Aelius Gallus in 25BCE to conquethe incense producing regions now found in Yeman and Oman. While they were initially successful, Gallus never madeit to the incense producing regions - lack ofwater kept them in Yemen. (ArabNet)

The height of the frankincense trade occurred during the second century CE
when some 3000 tons of frankincense wereshipped each year from south Arabia to Greece, Rome and the Mediterranean world. After the 3rd century CE the trade went into its decline, although demand still supported Arabia for another 300 years. Even into the Middle Agesfrankincense was an Arabian trading commodity. (Arab Net) Although records have shown that frankincense was important to the ancient world, it wasn¹t until recently that frankincense was found among archeological ruins. A 1500 year old site in southeastern Egypt, Qasr Ibrimin, revealedburnt frankincense far from where any Boswellia trees grow. This is a confirmation of extent of the trade routes of thetime - and the importance of frankincense. (ABC News)

Regardless of which Yemeni dynasty was the oldest, strongest or longest, the most recent archaeological researches find that the Iron age extended from 1200 BC until 332 BC. That is, the beginning of the flourishing history of Southern Arabian Civilizations was the beginning of the first thousand BC. The similar economic situations had imposed on the ancient dynasties to concern with agriculture and establish dams and canals to provide people with food.

The development of political systems was similar in the four dynasties. Their
location between India and Africa, on one hand, and between Egypt and Syria, on the other, brought to them a big income from taxes in return for their protection of camal caravans. These caravans were carrying incense from Hadhramout and Dhafar (Oman), with the most precious commodities which came by ships to Qana port on the Arabian Sea. From there, they proceeded across Hadhramite, Qatabani, Sabaean and Ma¹inte cities as far as Gaza on the Mediterranean coast. The cities and capitals were flourished, architecture and arts developed and temples established. The dams and irrigation canals around their capitals in Marib, Ma¹in, Tamna¹ and Shabwa. The capitals of southern Arabia civilizations had contacted with the civilizations of ancient east.

Before the birth of Christ (peace be upon him, the campaign of Romanian leader failed at the outskirts of Ramlat Al-Sabatain in controlling the incense route. But "Hibalous" the Greek sailor had already unveiled the secret hidden by the Yemenis for more than 1000 years. That is the secret of seasonal winds in the Indian Ocean, which flows east towards India in Summer and west towards Africa in Winter. It was followed by the prohibition of Christians of the use of incense in their churches.The incense route lost the reasons of its existence, the great dam collapsed, and so Saba lost its strength.

More famous is the "lost" desert city of Ubar, which lay below the sands to the north of thefrankincense-producing area and which is now being excavated. For almost 5,000 years, Ubar was a flourishing trading centre for frankincense.It was the nexus of routes bringing the incense 90 kilometres north from Dhofar, and thence in three directions across the vast Empty quarter.

The Ubar route for transporting incense became popular in order to avoid the extortionate taxes extracted by the powerful Yemeni kingdom at Shabwa (controlling another route). Successivekings there had decreed that all incense-carrying caravans should travel by way of their capital, and anyone attempting to leave Shabwa without paying tax, was executed, an effective deterrent against smuggling.

Pliny wrote how the caravans were expected to pay taxes at the gates of the city, to the temple, to the guards and to the porters, to the royal chamberlains and to the servants.

All along the 65 staging posts of the route they had to pay for accommodation, food, camel fodder, water, specialprotection money to local chieftains, as well as a gratuity to the Roman customs officials at Alexandria. These 'travel expenses' were slightly lower on the other routes, but they all reflected the length and dangers of the journey. Small wonder that incense was valued as highly as gold. Originally the overland transport was accomplished by donkeys and mules, which needed frequent rest and watering. But from the 11th century BC, they were substitutedby large caravans of camels, which could plod along all day and part of the night without stopping, and didn't require
fresh water every day.Soon the caravans grew in size, and up to 2,000 to 3,000 camels in one caravan became a frequent sight. Roadposts with soldiers and places for lodging and food were needed, and thus the famous caravanserais grew up along the Incense Road.

The prosperity of these caravanserais grew, and eventually many of them became rich city-states.This wealth made it possible to construct sophisticated dams and irrigation systems, as at Marib in Yemen, for the agricultural industry serving growing populations.

The Incense Route became the main artery for booming trade and thus civilisation over a huge are of Arabia. Since the ancient Omanis and Yemenis has mastered the monsoon winds and had a lengthy history of far-flung maritime trade, imports from India and China were transported along the same road. Goods such as silk andspices were landed at ports along the coast of south Arabia for the overland trek by camel caravan.

For centuries the Greeks and Romans believed that the kingdoms of south Arabia produced the luxuries of the Orient;hence the Roman description of the region as Arabia Felix or "Fortunate Arabia", a myth the Arabs were keen to perpetuate.

The frankincense trade reached a peak 2,000 years ago, after which its religious use began to decline. But essential oils for perfumery were still very much in demand and by the 7th century the Arabs controlled almost all the areas producing perfume ingredients, as well as the trade routes supplying them.

Their merchant seamen sailed incredible distances in their dhows, returning with other ingredients for perfumery industry, such as sandalwood from India, aloe wood and musk from China and ambergris from Africa.

Recorded histories in which Ethiopia is mentioned date back more than 4,000 years. The earliest records were compiled by two ancient centres of human civilisation, Persia and Egypt - both of which saw the Horn of Africa as an emporium of much-prized tropical products. Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions indicate that the Pharaohs obtained frankincense and myrrh from Ethiopia as long ago as 3,000 years before the birth of Christ. Trade with India also began in remote antiquity - the Horn has supplied the subcontinent with vast quantities of ivory from time immemorial.

On the Frankincense Trail

An archeologist travels ancient trade routes in search of clues to a lost civilization Frankincense and myrrh, aromatic resins from spindly trees, were once highly prized from Rome to India, and deemed essential for a host of uses ranging from religious to cosmetic. According to Christian belief, the three wise men who traveled to Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child brought gold, frankincense and myrrh asgifts. Thanks to the domestication of the camel, a complex trade network evolved to transport the priceless resins from the remote valleys, where the trees grew, to themarkets where kings and emperors vied for the finest grades.

Last June, an expedition led by archaeologist Juris Zarins set out to explore some of the most remote areas of the Arabian Peninsula to find clues to the lost civilization that once controlled the trade in frankincense, which was perhaps themost precious commodity in the world 4,000 years ago. This expedition built on a previous one in 1991 that uncovered an Iron Age fortress at Shisur ("Ubar") in Yemen. Zarins believes it was the first confirmation of a sophisticated culture in the region. The recent journey into the remote Mahra governate of Yemen, a hostile desert environment of relentless heat and terrain that would challenge the most hardy adventurer, resulted in new evidence of the existence of the Incense Road, which was as important to the civilization of the West as the Silk Road was to that of the East. When Zarins and his team explored the desert and coastal areas, their road map was Landsat photographs, which see far more than the human eye. These images revealed faint traces of camel caravan trails, which the researchers followed in their search for evidence of ancient settlements. Combining this technology with Islamic, biblical and classical references to the trade caravans, Zarins and his team discovered several major sites worthy of excavation that will help unravel the mystery. http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues98/oct98/yemen.html

More sites on the Frankincense Trail
http://www.discoveringarchaeology.com/webex/webex041300-caravan.shtml http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ubar/tools/tools2.html landsat photos of ubar http://www.mercatormag.com/305_ubar.html road to ubar http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ince/hd_ince.htm ancient incense route
http://www.gpc.org.ye/Ancient3.htm route with map http://www.christian-thinktank.com/qnocamel.html camels and the incense trade
the Jewish community and the spice trade
phonecian ships

With this bit of etymological and historic background on frankincense we can now proceed forward with the fascinating study of the plant and the different issues surrounding its production and use. In brief, even with the increasing availability of frankincense oils coming from different countries(Oman, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, etc) and supposedly distilled from different species of Boswellia, there remains a good deal of uncertainty about the exact origin of each material. It is a complex issue which will be examined in the following section of this monograph. We will begin by indentifying the major species used for distillation and then discuss the problems in actually identifying them correctly, in order to have a more specific knowledge of the actual aromatic constituents of the oils.

As fortune would have it, I recently came in contact with one of Ethiopia's foremost researchers in the field of oleo-gum-resins(of which the country has a great treasurehouse) As our conversations evolved I was delighted to discover that he was distilling frankincense according to three distinctly identified species. Along with doing careful distillations he and his students were also doing in depth analysis of each oil. In fact it was this interaction that served as an impetus to put the Frankincense Newsletter together. I had never encountered this type of knowledge and expertise before. The identification of Boswellia species is very difficult and the detailed and accurate gc analysis is also quite rare so I was delighted to have this interaction as part of my understanding of the subject. So let us proceed with our investigations and see where it leads us.

Frankincense Images:
http://members.nbci.com/rashid4/oman/luban/luban.html http://www.mobot.org/MOBOT/research/library/kohler/1761_082.jpg
fine image of frankincense
excellent image, takes a while to load but shows both Boswellia sacra tree and how oleo-gum-resin exhudes from the trunk
molecular image of frankincense resin-stunning
frankincense resin congealing on trunk
frankincense tree
harvesting frankincense
This site has images of many plants of the bible including frankincense-You need to scroll down the list almost to the bottom to reach Boswellia but there are several excellent pictures of the tree, its flowers and the varioius grades of resin


Frankincense -- Plant Description of Boswellia species

The Boswellia species which yield the classical olibanum of commerce are all small trees or shrubs growing in the dry areas of northeast Africa and southern Arabia. They are able to grow in very steep or exposed situations and are often found in rocky slopes or gullies.

B. sacra is a small tree, occasionally up to 8 m tall, branching from the base. It occurs in South Yemen, Oman and northern Somalia. (Those who regard B. sacra and B. carteri as distinct species identify the former as growing in Arabia and the latter in Somalia.) B. frereana grows to a similar height as B. sacra but is restricted to northern Somalia. B. serrata, the source of Indian olibanum, occurs in the drier parts of northern India. http://www.fao.org/docrep/v5350e/V5350e11.htm

The species of Boswellia producing frankincense The genus Boswellia Roxb. ex Colebr. is composed of 20 or so species extending from Ivory Coast to India and south to N.E. Tanzania and N. Madagascar but most numerous in N.E. tropical Africa. These are unarmed shrubs or small to medium-sized trees exuding a watery aromatic substance from the bark which slowly hardens to a resin on exposure. In tropical East Africa, the genus Boswellia is represented by four species: B. papyrifera, B. rivae, B. neglecta and B. microphylla. These are easily distinguished by the number, shape and size of their leaflets.

True frankincense is obtained from B. carteri Birdw, and some other species growing in northern Somalia, Dhofar and Hadhramaut. In tropical East Africa, the main species producing frankincense is B. papyrifora, found in Ethipia, Sudan and Somalia and B. neglecta S. Moore (B. hilderbrandtii Engl.) which is abundant in dry bushland of northern Kenya(and southern Ethiopia). The latter grows on basement complex or lava and red sandy soils at altitude 200-1300 m with less than 600 mm of annual rainfall.

Now we will take up the description of Boswellia sacra to give some idea of how much intense investigation and observation goes into identifying even one species. This is from the fantastic SESAPAL database which organized by Kew Botanical Gardens in UK. This site is a pure joy to investigate with regards to frankincense. http://griffin.rbgkew.org.uk/ceb/sepasal/bsacra.htm
In depth DESCRIPTION of Boswellia sacra-

Problems associated with identification of Boswellia and Commiphora species

Despite their early recognition, classification and nomenclature of members of the two genera, Boswellia and Commiphora in tropical East Africa have remained unstable. They have been described by various botanists as taxonomically difficult, frustrating or simply confusing. This is largely because of the nature of the plants themselves, appearing leafless and in drought-dormant condition for much of the year and the difficulty of obtaining complete specimens showing both male and female flowers, leaves, fruits and bark, the useful characters in identifying members of these groups. The flowers and fruits are seldom produced with the leaves and are therefore difficult to identify. The situation is worsened further by the fact that Commiphora is a gregarious genus and where one species is found, several others are likely to occur as well (Beenje, 1994). This has led to the practice of describing species from inadequate and often sterile material. As a result some species have beendescribed by different botanists under different names. Also, sterile plants from other genera have been described as species of either Boswellia or Commiphora. For example, six plants described by Engler (the chief worker on the genus Commiphora) as new species of Commiphora belonged in fact to other genera and were in other families:two to Lannea and two to Sclerocarya (Anacardiaceae), one to Platycelyphium (Papilionaceae) and one to Combretum (Gillett, 1973).

Even today sterile plants of Lannea continue to be mistaken for Commiphora. In Lannea, the bark is tough like string and nearly always some of the hairs are stellate. Such bark does not occur in Commiphora and neither do such hairs. Also, sterile specimens of Boswellia neglecta S. Moore Rae readily confused with Lannea alata Engl. which often occurs together with it and may be distinguished by its narrowly winged leaf-rachis. Several plants within the two genera therefore have been known, simultaneously or successively, by two or more different names. Recent classifications separate the two genera using the fruit as follows:
Fruit a (2)3(4-5) - valved pseudocapsule, releasing 1 - seeded nutlets on dehiscence; calyx-lobes and petals 5, stamens 10; leaves pinnate; true spines absent.

Fruit a dehiscent drupe, splitting into 2(-4) valves disclosing a 1(-2)-seeded stone which is usually surrounded (at least at the base) by a red or orange, fleshy pseudoaril. Calyx-lobes and petals 4, stamens 8 (rarely 4). Leaves simple, 1-3-foliate, or pinnate; spines often present.

Frankincense -- HARVESTING-THE HUMAN ELEMENT (From the article which appears on my web site)

Up to this point we have discussed the plant, its habitat, and olfactory characteristics but of equal importance to this story is the human element which is all to easy to forget unless we may a sincere effort to imagine people leading ways of life quite different than our own. Tragically, many of the rich aromatic traditions surrounding such plants as frankincense are in danger of being lost as people turn from the simple agrarian lifesyles that they possessed for hundreds if not thousands of years for the convenience of modern ways. At one time plants like frankincense provided indigenous people with a great variety of uses including ceremonial worship, deodorants, dyes, cosmetics, etc. A whole ethic of honoring and venerating these profound gifts of nature existed which gave dignity and meaning to the peoples lives. Many of us yearn to recapture the spirit of the ancient ways in our own lives and wish that we had the connection with the natural world that such cultures possessed. We do not have those skills and techniques which come to one through long generations of living in close proximity to the earth and deriving ones needs from ones immediate environment but our hearts feel a kinship with that type of wisdom and knowledge. It behooves us therefore to think upon these swiftly disappearing lifestyles so that in some way,shape or form this knowledge will not completely die out.

The Communities which Harvest Frankincense

In the frankincense gathering areas of Oman two different communities of people are engaged in the harvest of frankincense, the Jabali's in grass lands and the dry plateau and the bedouins in the desert regions. The people of the Jabali community are a cattle-based community and have lived in the mountains vegetative region for thousands of years. Today there population stands at around 20,000 and still they maintain many of their traditional ways although the convenience of procuring ready-made goods is making inroads into their ancient lifestyples. In the entire history of their presence in the region, there is little evidence of environmental degradation. They have been conscientious about keeping their cattle from overgrazing and live in simple circular stone houses surrmounted with a doomed roof frame made from branches of trees and covered with grass and soil. They build similar structures for there animals which besides cattle include some goats, camels and sheep. The bedouins community are nomadic tribes people who live on the edge of the desert as they have for thousands of years. They have been quicker to adopt modern conveniences which in some instances has had greater environmental impact in the area where they live. In the Road to Ubar, Nicholas Clapp gives us a vivid depiction of an ancient way of life that still exists today in the Dhofar mountains:

"That we might see more of the living history of the highlands of Dhofar, Ali Achmed invited us to visit a remote Shahra settlement. Driving by night, we arrived at dawn at a compound of four thatched huts clustered around a brushwood corral. Three of the huts sheltered the cattle; the fourth was the home of the extended family. Though the hut was windowldess, two doors let in sufficient light to illuminate the single large room. Its walls and domed ceiling were woven of twisted, blackened tree trunks and branches, the best wood to be had in this arid land. Two young girls were rolling up sleepingmats. A baby was sqaulling in the corner. Two older men and a woman crouched by an open fire, making their preparations for the day, a daymeasured by the burning of frankincense.

Though the woman wore a long, hooded black dress, she was unveiled. A gold ring pierced her nose, her eyes shone with self-assurance. She was the settlement's matriarch. With brass tongs she picked embers from the fire and placed them in a brightly painted clay incense burner shaped like a horned altar. The she added crystals of frankincense, which glowed brightly and immediately gave rise to a fragrant smoky plume. All the while she chattered with the two men in the Shahra's strange 'language of the birds.'

"Incense is most pleasing to God," she said, adding more crystals.
"But enough, woman, enough!" interjected one of the men, his eyes smarting from the smoke.
"Too bad for you," she said laughing, and led the way outside.

The men downed handfuls of pine nuts, the last of their breakfast, and followed. Withclouds of incense billowing skyward, the little group circled the compound's corral. And in the light of day we saw that the men were wearing elegant purple robes looped over their right shoulders, a rarely seen traditional dress. They paused to offer prayers and incense at the entrances to the three domed huts in which their cattle had spent the night. The incense wasn't tf offset the smell of the cattle(though it helped); rather it was offere to protect the animals-from djinns." The

This precious substance which from morning to night plays such an important part in the people's lives is harvested at different times of year yieldingvarious grades of frankincense. Traditionally there appears to have been a spring harvest(March-May) and a fall harvest(late September through October) The frankincense produced from the fall harvest was acclaimed to be the best. The trees were scored at various places along the main trunk and branches with a tool called a mengaff. Basically a mengaff is a wooden handled implement with a relatively sharp broad metal blade inserted in which isused for penetrating the bark of the tree where the frankincense reservoirs lay. The small wounds in the bark produce the milky white exhudate whichhardens and changes color during the two week which is allotted for it to dry on the tree. Only that material is collected which drys on the wound itself, the material which runs down the stem is allowed to collect at the base of the tree during the harvest season and is collected all at one time. The globular tears that are scraped off at 2-3 week intervals are considered superior in quality to that which collects on the ground. Even the frankincense collectedfrom the wounds is graded with the first several collections be considered inferior to later ones.Once the seasons collection is completed, the raw frankincense is allowed to cure for three months before being sold for domestic or international use. It is stored on the floor of dry caves during thisperiod of maturation.

Each tree is by unspoken agreement owned by the families living in a particular area where they grow. The guardianship of the trees is past on from generation to generation. There are ancient rituals surrounding the harvest of the exhudate. In the Road to Ubar the author witnessed one such occasion.

"A few days later we watched a band of little children dancing along behind two tribesmen-one wiry, one corpulent-as they crossed an arid valley and approached a scattering of scraggly trees with reddish bark. Bent and twisted, many of the trees were only waist high. Yet their resin, or sap, was once as valuable as gold. They were frankincense trees, found where the mountains of Dhofar gave way to the great interior desert of Arabia.

The wiry man's craggy face was framed with a handsome white beard and a black turban. He wore a saronglike garment with a traditional silver dagger at his waist, complemented by a recent-issue assault rifle slung over his shoulder. Approaching a frankincense tree he noisily exhaled then chanted"

"Ab st't d'h'la fe lh'ya!"(Exhale)

"Al as'r m'sly l'yo tr'le'ha!"(Exhale)

His age old song of harvest had a driving, intense rhythm, punctuated by strange, percussive exhalations. Moving in time to his song, the wiry tribesman slashed bits of bark from the tree. A few yards away his partner - a pashalike fellow topped by a large red turban - mirrored his movements. The little children ran from one man to the other as, giggling and laughing, they played tag in groves of antiquity. The chant ended in a loud exhalation. The tribesmen and the children drifted off across the land, a moonscape dotted by small groves of frankincense.The shouts and distant laughter of the children dissolved into a desert breeze, which now bore the piney, slightly raw scent of freshly cut frankincense.Each slash in a tree's bark produced a dozen or so thick white globules of resin. Slowly these globules would lose their milky opacity and gain a silvery translucense as the frankincense hardened and crystalized. Fifteen days hence, the men would return to scrape it into special shallow baskets"

Frankincense -- PROCESSING


Most resin is obtained by making deliberate incisions into the bark of the tree. The milky liquid that exudes hardens on exposure to air into droplets or "tears" which are then easily detached by the collector. Occasionally, some tears are produced by accidental injury or from splits which occur in the stems or branches of the tree.

Details of the tapping, particularly the time of year it is undertaken, its duration and the interval between individual tappings, vary according to the species and the customs in the area of production. In Somalia, there are usually two periods when B. sacra (B. carteri) is tapped, each lasting 3-4 months and involving successive tappings at approximately 15-day intervals. B. frereana is tapped over a single 8-9 month period with a longer, but variable, tapping interval. In both cases the timing of the tapping periods depends on the onset and extent of the rains.

Tapping involves removing small areas of bark from the tree, sometimes using a specially designed tool, otherwise an ordinary axe. New tapping points are made at the same place as old ones after removing hardened resin from the previous cut. If the tapping interval is short then a light scratching of the wood is usually sufficient to cause the resin to flow again.

The gum oleo-resin obtained by tapping Boswellia serrate, commonly known as Indian olibanum, Indian frankincense or salai-guggul, is at present mostly used as incense and fumigant. The maximum yield of gum oleo-resin is obtainable from the bark portion and hence deep blazing is unnecessary and may also adversely affect the growth of the tree. The tapping operations are generally carried out from November up to end of May. The gum is collected in a semi-solid state and kept in a bamboo basket for up to a month whereupon the fluid portion known as Ras flows out. After this, oil is separated from the raw gum oleo-resin; the latter is dried thoroughly and sometimes treated with soapstone powder to make it brittle. It is then broken into small-sized pieces by wooden mallet or chopper and graded depending on its colour, impurities, etc. The constituents of gum oleo-resin can be separated either by steam distillation or solvent extraction followed by steam distillation. The resin obtained by these processes can be utilized as a substitute for the imported Canada balsam and micro-oil (oil immersion used in microscopy) (30).

Havesting (In this contribution from the SESAPAL database many references are cited as to harvesting techniques regarding Frankincense. It is worth reading them all as each description gives a bit different angle on the techniques hence giving a more complete picture.-Christopher's Note) http://griffin.rbgkew.org.uk/ceb/sepasal/bsacra.htm

Yields and quality variation
It is not possible from official records alone to estimate how much resin, on average, is obtained from a tree. Figures of 1-3 kg per tree per year have been cited for olibanum in Somalia. It is known that yields and quality decline during each tapping season as well as over the longer term, particularly in prolonged periods of drought. Drought conditions also affect yields indirectly since there is more competition for labour: watering and grazing places for livestock need to be sought more actively by the herdsmen and there may be less time devoted to tapping.

Unlike most essential oils, there has been no systematic study of the intrinsic variability of olibanum, myrrh and opopanax oils within the natural resource. This is due in large part to the fact that the botanical origin of any particular consignment of resin is not known with any certainty, at least in the case of myrrh. http://www.fao.org/docrep/v5350e/V5350e11.htm

Supply sources

The principal producers of olibanum, myrrh and opopanax and estimates of their exports in 1987 are shown in Table 18. Somalia and Ethiopia are by far the biggest producers of the three resins. Somalia supplies most of the world's myrrh and opopanax (ca 1,500 tonnes in 1987) although some of this originates in neighbouring Ethiopia and, more recently, Kenya. Somalia is the only source of maidi-type olibanum, exports of which were estimated at 800-900 tonnes in 1987. Smaller quantities of the "beyo" type of olibanum are produced.

Ethiopia and Sudan produce the most widely traded olibanum, the Eritrean type, and in 1987 this was reckoned to amount to some 2,000 tonnes. More recent estimates are not available although production is believed to have declined as a result of severe droughts in the region and some loss of demand.

Most Indian olibanum is used domestically for making incense sticks. Volumes of exports have been erratic in recent years but averaged about 90 tonnes pa for the six years 1987/88-1992/93. Some countries outside the natural range of Boswellia and Commiphora (for example, Indonesia) sometimes record "frankincense" in their export statistics but the botanical source in these cases is not known and they have been ignored in the present discussion. With this background we are now ready to approach the subject of distillation/extraction of Frankincense as it exists today.

Currently Frankincense is steam-distilled, hydro-distilled, solvent extracted for the Absolute, and CO2 extracted for the select extract. Facilities for distillation/exist both in the countries of origin(this is a fairly recent phenomenon) and in places like Europe and the USA. At the time of Stephen Arctander's book, Fragrance and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin, there were few indigenous distilling units but his comments on the subject of frankincense distillation are excellent hence its inclusion here.

"To increase the production of olibanum from the bark, the natives(mostly Bedouins) make incisions in the bark at regular intervals. The viscous oleo-gum-resin which oozes out will soon resinify, and is either broken off the branches or collected from the groundwhere it sometimes may fall. The collected material is sorted and graded locally or at the port of departure(Djibouti, Aden, Morgadiscio, Berbera, etc.) The grading is primarily an "appearnce" grading, and the author strongly disagrees with published statements such as '--dust and siftings: because of its low price, the most suitable for distillation.'

When resinous material is being evaluated, it is of paramount importance to remember that the larger the surface, the more complete the resinification, and consequently, the higher the loss of volatile matter, i.g. essential oil. Usually the dust and siftings give a comparatively low yield of essential oil of a very poor odor(from a perfumery point of view.) Furthermore there is not straight rule as to which color of olibanum "tears" or "lumps" will yield the best oil. The odor of the crude botanical will give certain indications; an experimental distillation will give the best answer. Experience in selecting the correct material for distillation or for extraction of resionoids or absolutes, is a rare and valuable skill and is partly based upon years of experimenting with distillation and extraction of all grades of olibanum.

Olibanum appears as pale yellow or pale amber-colored tear-shaped or drop-shaped, egg-shaped or almost round lumps varying from pea-sized to walnut-sized. Other grades may be orange-yellow, orange-red or brownish in color, and the tears may be aggluminated into large lumps..."

Arctander's observations about olfactory characteristics of Frankincense Absolute and Essential Oil Olibanum/Frankincense Absolute-

"Olibanum Absolute is solid but somewhat plastic mass of pale amber colored (particuarly pale when cold processed)... ...it has the characteristic odor of olibanum; it is free from terebinthinate or so-called "paint-can"-like odor. It has a fresh-balsamic, yet dry and resinous, slightly green odor with a typical, fruity-green topnote of great tenacity. The oily-green topnote can remind one of unripe apples or certain fruit-esters... The Absolute is used as a fixative with its distinct lemony-green, dry, fresh balsamic note as a special effect. In combination with spice oils, particularly with a high grade cinnamon bark oil, olibanum absolute creates quite surprising odor complexes. A typically "powder"-effect in fragrance is created with combinations of olibanum, cinnamon bark, cinnamic alcohol, nitromusks and courmarin or courmarin derivatives. ..A truly Oriental note can be xreated basically with sandalwood oil, vetiver oil, olibanum absolute and cinnamon bark oil for further perfume developing work..."-Arctander

Frankincense Essential Oil

"Olibanum oil is a mobile liquid, pale yellow or pale amber-greenish in color. Its odor is strongly diffusive, fresh terpeney, almost green-lemon-like or reminiscent of green, unripe apples(peel) but not terebinthinate. A certain pepperiness is mellowed with a rich, sweet-woody, balsamic undertone. Depending on the method of distillation of the oil(time, vapor pressure, etc) the odor is more or less tenacious with an almost cistus-like, ambre-like, balsamic dryout note. Olibanum oil is used in fine perfumery for the notes described above and in the monograph on Olibanum Absolute. It gives delightful effects in citrus colognes where it modifies the sweetness of bergamot and orange oils. A similar effect is obtained in rather difficult "fresh" perfume notes such as verbena, citrus, etc where olibanum and citral form useful bases for further modifying work. Olibanum in itself is a base for all "incense" or "olibanum" type perfumes and specialties, and it is an important ingredient in many Oriental bases, ambres, "poweder type perfumes, floral perfumes, citrus colognes, spice blends, violet perfumes, "men's" fragrances etc"-Arctander

I hope this information has proved enjoyable and useful to all of you. There are many interesting avenues to explore on this subject and I have just touched on a few here. It would be quite easy to put an entire volume together, perhaps several on frankincense. From the ancient past to the modern times this aromatic substance has captured the imagination of people throughout the world. From a sourcing standpoint, some incredible new opportunities are arising as local distilleries become involved in the distillation of fresh material from the local area. Hopefully, as we become more informed about the qualities of different oils, be they distilled from frankincense or any other precious aromatic plant, a richer and finer palette of aromas will become available to us.

Friendly regards,