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
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.
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.
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.