Frankincense, also called olibanum is an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia, particularly Boswellia sacra, B. carteri, B. thurifera, B. frereana and B. bhaw-dajiana (Burseraceae). The English word is derived from Old French “franc encens” (i.e. high quality incense) and is used in incense and perfumes.
(Image above from Wikipedia) There are four main species of Boswellia that produce true frankincense and resin from each of the four is available in various grades. The grades depend on the time of harvesting. The resin is hand-sorted for quality.
Frankincense is tapped from the scraggly but hardy trees by slashing the bark, which is called striping, and allowing the exuded resin to bleed out and harden. These hardened resins are called tears. The aroma from these tears are more valuable for their presumed healing abilities and are also said to have superior qualities for religious ritual.
There are several species and varieties of frankincense trees, each producing a slightly different type of resin. Differences in soil and climate create even more diversity of the resin, even within the same species. Boswellia Sacra trees are considered unusual for their ability to grow in environments so unforgiving that they sometimes grow out of solid rock.
The initial means of attachment to the rock is unknown but is accomplished by a bulbous disk-like swelling of the trunk. This growth prevents it from being ripped from the rock during violent storms that frequent this region. This feature is slight or absent in trees grown in rocky soil or gravel. The trees start producing resin when they are about eight to 10 years old. Tapping is done two to three times a year with the final taps producing the best tears due to their higher aromatic terpene, sesquiterpene and diterpene content.
Generally speaking, the more opaque resins are the best quality. Fine resin is produced in Somalia and along the northern coast of Somalia, from which the Roman Catholic Church draws its supplies.
Recent studies have indicated that frankincense tree populations are declining, partly due to over-exploitation. Heavily tapped trees produce seeds that germinate at only 16% while seeds of trees that had not been tapped germinate at more than 80%. In addition, burning, grazing, and attacks by the longhorn beetle have reduced the tree population. Conversion (clearing) of frankincense woodlands to agriculture is also a major threat.
“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.”Frankincense has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa for more than 5000 years. A mural depicting sacks of frankincense traded from the Land of Punt adorns the walls of the temple of ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, who died circa 1458 BC. The charred remains of frankincense, called kohl, was crushed and used to make the distinctive eyeliner seen on ancient Egyptians.” [Sacred Earth]
“What made frankincense so precious that the wise men of New Testament fame bestowed it upon the infant Jesus? Scientists at Cardiff University in Wales have an answer that may have eluded the three kings of the Bible: It may help relieve and alleviate the painful symptoms of arthritis, which affects millions of people around the world.
Frankincense and the other plant-derived treasure given to the newborn Jesus in the New Testament narrative—myrrh—have a long history dating back thousands of years. Though perhaps best known for their use in incense and ancient rituals, these substances—both of which boast proven antiseptic and inflammatory properties—were once considered effective remedies for everything from toothaches to leprosy. ‘We have textual—and also archaeological—evidence that both frankincense and myrrh were used as medicinal substances in antiquity,’ confirmed Alain Touwaide, a historian of medicine at the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions and the Smithsonian Institution. Today, researchers like the Cardiff team are drawing on this centuries-old knowledge to develop modern treatments for a variety of disorders. Find out more about these healing gifts of the magi.” [History]
“Frankincense was one of the consecrated incenses (HaKetoret) described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud used in Ketoret ceremonies. The frankincense of the Jews, as well as of the Greeks and Romans, is also called Olibanum (from the Arabic al-lubbān). Old Testament references report it in trade from Sheba (Isaiah 60:6 ; Jeremiah 6:20). Frankincense is mentioned in the Song of Solomon (Song of Solomon 4:14).
“It was offered on a specialized incense altar in the time when the Tabernacle was located in the First and Second Jerusalem Temples. The ketoret was an important component of the Temple service in Jerusalem. It is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible book of Exodus 30:34, where it is named levonah (lebonah in the Biblical Hebrew), meaning “white” in Hebrew. It was one of the ingredients in the perfume of the sanctuary (Exodus 30:34), and was used as an accompaniment of the meal-offering (Leviticus 2:1, 2:16, 6:15, 24:7). When burnt it emitted a fragrant odour, and the incense was a symbol of the Divine name (Malachi 1:11 ; Song of Solomon 1:3) and an emblem of prayer (Psalm 141:2 ; Luke 1:10 ; Revelation 5:8, 8:3). It was often associated with myrrh (Song of Solomon 3:6, 4:6) and with it was made an offering to the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:11). A specially “pure” kind, lebhonah zakkah, was presented with the shewbread (Leviticus 24:7).
“While burning incense was accepted as a practice in the later Roman Catholic church, the early church during Roman times forbade the use of incense in services resulting in a rapid decline in the incense trade.”
“Frankincense was reintroduced to Europe by Frankish Crusaders, although its name refers to its quality, not to the Franks themselves. Although it is better known as “frankincense” to westerners, the resin is also known as olibanum, in Arabic al-lubān (roughly translated: “that which results from milking”), a reference to the milky sap tapped from the Boswellia tree. Some have also postulated that the name comes from the Arabic term for “Oil of Lebanon” since Lebanon was the place where the resin was sold and traded with Europeans.
“The lost city of Ubar, sometimes identified with Irem in what is now the town of Shisr in Oman, is believed to have been a center of the frankincense trade along the recently rediscovered “Incense Road.” Ubar was rediscovered in the early 1990s and is now under archaeological excavation.
“The Greek historian Herodotus was familiar with Frankincense and knew it was harvested from trees in southern Arabia. He reported that the gum was dangerous to harvest because of venomous snakes that lived in the trees. He goes on to describe the method used by the Arabs to get around this problem, that being the burning of the gum of the styrax tree whose smoke would drive the snakes away. The resin is also mentioned by Theophrastus and by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia.
“Southern Arabia was a major exporter of frankincense in ancient times, with some of it being traded as far as China. The Chinese writer and customs inspector Zhao Rugua wrote on the origin of Frankincense being traded to China:
“‘Ruxiang or xunluxiang comes from the three Dashi countries of Murbat (Maloba), Shihr (Shihe), and Dhofar (Nufa), from the depths of the remotest mountains. The tree which yields this drug may generally be compared to the pine tree. Its trunk is notched with a hatchet, upon which the resin flows out, and, when hardened, turns into incense, which is gathered and made into lumps. It is transported on elephants to the Dashi (on the coast), who then load it upon their ships to exchange it for other commodities in Sanfoqi. This is the reason why it is commonly collected at and known as a product of Sanfoqi.'” [Wikipedia]