Christmas Scented Plants

Is Frankincense Going the Way of the Dodo?

Frankincense: one of the gifts of the Magi. Photo: artisanaromatics.com

Most Westerners well know the story of the gifts of the Magi: gold, frankincense and myrrh, brought by the wise men to the parents of baby Jesus. It’s a popular Christmas story, one told to generations of children. 

Not nearly as many know that frankincense and myrrh are valuable aromatic resins derived from plants. Frankincense comes from a tree called Boswellia sacra and other Boswellia species while myrrh comes from a related tree (both are in the Burseraceae), Commiphora myrrh. And even fewer are aware that there is considerable concern that one of the two, the frankincense tree, may be going extinct.

Then and Now

Incense being burned in a thurible.
Frankincense is the original incense. Photo: littleflowermemphis.org

Frankincense was, for a long time, mostly used as incense in Roman Catholic and Eastern-rite churches. It is the “true incense” (the word frank is from French franc for true) and since church attendance is decreasing in many areas, which many churches closing, you’d think demand would be decreasing.

However, there is currently a major upsurge in interest in aromatic plants, resulting from the global popularity of aromatherapy. Frankincense is now inhaled or applied to the skin for its purported health benefits and thus used by many more people than ever in the past.

The result is there now is a greater demand for true frankincense that the world’s trees can supply. This has pushed prices up sharply, but without decreasing the demand. And the harvesters of frankincense—poor people from the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa—are paid no more than before: the money is going to middlemen and sellers. Still, they’re pushed to harvest more and more and that endangers the plant.

Wild Trees

Frankincense scrub forest
Frankinsence trees (Boswellia sacra) grow in scrub forests in very arid climates. Photo: powo.science.kew.org

Almost all frankincense is harvested from wild trees. 

Frankincense trees are no beauties: they are short, gnarled, knotty trees growing under the harshest desert conditions. Cuts are made into the trunks and branches of the trees that react by producing resin to cover the wound and prevent infection. Harvesters then come by and harvest the resin, then make more cuts. 

💡 Did you know… that the Arab word for frankincense is luban. It means tree milk, for the sap that drips from wounded trees.

Local traditions in many areas insist that harvesting must be moderate and that trees should occasionally be given a year off to recuperate, but in the war-torn lands where the trees grow, these traditions are being replaced by a more “take what you can get right now” attitude. In many areas, pristine frankincense scrub forests that were never before harvested are now being exploited to the maximum and the trees are now too weak to produce viable seeds, so there are no longer any young trees to replace the older trees that are slowly dying. 

There are efforts to promote sustainable ways of producing frankincense and a few hardy souls are starting frankincense farms. But seedling trees are 15 to 25 years away from beginning sustainable production and tree farmers may not be able to wait that long. Several such projects, begun in the past, were abandoned long before harvesting even started, often as farmers fled approaching wars. Then starving migrants with no knowledge of frankincense harvesting release their goats and cattle into the farms and forests and they destroy the trees and eat any seedlings still left. Branches the animals can’t reach are then harvested for firewood. 

Fire is yet another threat to remaining frankincense forests. In war-torn areas, forests are often burned as a means of forcing local people out.

Sustainable Harvesting

Men harvesting frankincense resin.
Certain companies go out of their way to obtain ethically harvested frankincense. Photo: ayublab.com

Some essential oil companies, like doTERRA and Lush, only sell ethically harvested frankincense. But it’s very expensive. A typical 15-milliliter bottle of frankincense from regular dealers might cost $9 or $10; the same size bottle of sustainably harvested frankincense is about 10 times more expensive: about $90.

If aromatherapy is important to you, be prepared to pay a hefty price for an ethically harvested frankincense product and avoid cheap, exploitative substitutes. It may be the only way to save the species.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

4 comments on “Is Frankincense Going the Way of the Dodo?

  1. I have loved Frankincense since I first used it in 2004-5. I am sad to read about it’s potential demise. It is sooo healing. ❤️🦋🌀

  2. I had no idea that it was endangered. It seems like it should be grown on plantations in other regions, such as around the perimeters of the Mojave Desert (or wherever it would grow). Even if it takes many years to mature, it would be an interesting species to get started. It would be interesting to know if it has potential to naturalize and become invasive in places where it might be happy to grow.

  3. Fascinating as ever.!I always learn something interesting on your blog. The etymology of frankincense is particularly good.

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