Information About Frankincense And Myrrh
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Holiday Tree Info: What Is Frankincense And Myrrh
By Amy Grant
What is frankincense and what is myrrh? They're actually trees with a very interesting history. Learn more about these holiday symbols and their rich history in the article that follows.
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Frankincense & The Magi's Endangered Tree
Every December has its hard-to-find treasure—a toy or game that captures the zeitgeist and flies off the shelves. In the past several years, one holiday symbol has become increasingly scarce: Frankincense, the original Christmas gift, the one that preceded them all. The aromatic resin became embedded in Christmas tradition when, according to the apostle Matthew, the Biblical Magi brought gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold to a Bethlehem nativity. Once abundant, frankincense is now threatened with near-extinction, as the trees that secrete the ancient resin have joined the international Red List of Threatened Species. In the holiday tradition, however, there is hope. Recently, botanists may have discovered the trick to sustainable harvesting, and increasing the tree's numbers.
Boswellia sacra trees in Dhofar, southern province of the Sultanate of Oman. Photo by: Helen Pickering / Kew.
Boswellia is a genus of 19 trees that grow primarily in the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and India. Frankincense is derived from four species, including Boswellia sacra, the source of a particularly fine frankincense, and believed to be the tree with Biblical notoriety. Frankincense is harvested by incising the tree trunks and collecting the residue (in this case, it emerges milky white), much like when harvesting maple syrup. The excreted resin hardens and forms so-called "tears." These tears are the essence of frankincense and have been lauded by different cultures for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians believed that frankincense tears were the sweat of gods condensing on earth. When the mythical Phoenix bird rose from the ashes, it was said to have built a nest from Boswellia twigs and fed on frankincense tears.
A Boswellia sacra tree at Wadi Dowkah Natural Park (Dhofar, Oman). Photos by: Mauro Raffaelli & Ben Norvell (bottom left).
Despite its long history as a sacred plant, Boswellia trees today are looking at a grim future. According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, the trees are threatened by various pressures that may reduce their numbers by 90 percent in the next few decades. Young saplings are not surviving, trees are seeding less frequently and with decreased viability. Over-harvesting is a factor, but so are predators and increased fires.
In 2012, hope was found in a paper in the Annals of Botany. By mapping the tree's anatomy, botanists from the Netherlands and Ethiopia discovered a new approach to tapping the trees, one that will yield more resin with less harm to the tree. Motuma Tolera, an author of the study, explains: "Tapping the tree creates wounds in the stem that take resources to be healed, and more wounds create more opportunities for insects to attack the tree. It's not a surprise that some trees die." When he and his colleagues discovered an intricate network of canals in the inner bark, they saw "an option to reduce the number of cuts, and reduce the damage to the trees."
Tolera says, "Our results suggest that tapping can become more efficient. A cut that goes deeper, earlier in the tapping cycle, may drain the resin more effectively. This opens new ways for a more sustainable frankincense production system."
While botanists study the tree in Africa, horticulturalists in the United States can begin their own frankincense research. A New York Times article profiles an Arizona-based Boswellia cultivator who managed to grow all 19 species of the genus.
Editor's Note: This article was authored in 2011.
Drought-tolerant suitable for xeriscaping
USDA Zone 10a: to -1.1 °C (30 °F)
USDA Zone 10b: to 1.7 °C (35 °F)
USDA Zone 11: above 4.5 °C (40 °F)
Where to Grow:
Can be grown as an annual
Soil pH requirements:
From seed sow indoors before last frost
This plant is said to grow outdoors in the following regions:
On Sep 24, 2020, ralphja from Kent,
United Kingdom wrote:
I grew my Boswellia from seeds via The Netherlands, one successful germination from five seeds. It is in a pot, indoors, and grows very slowly. I will experiment adjusting the alkalinity of the soil.
On Aug 14, 2014, GardenGrandpa from Ridgecrest, CA wrote:
Crush lime stones into sand and small stones. Spread on sand in direct sunlight.
Spread seeds on top of the limestone base you have created. Cover the seeds with no more than 1/4 of crush limestone.
Spray the area with water from a spray bottle. Dampen the soil as deep as the seeds are planted, but do not allow water to puddle. Spray in the mornings and then allow the area to dry in the afternoons. This mimics conditions during which morning fog dampens the seeds and then the seeds dry out for the remainder of the day.
Continue this process of spraying and dampening the seeds with moisture each morning and then allowing the seeds to dry out for the remainder of the day. After 3 weeks look for seed. read more lings.
Continue spraying seedlings with water each morning for several months. Seedlings do not need to be protected from the heat, but they must be protected against frost. Older, well established Frankincense trees can survive an occasional frost, but seedlings cannot.
Continue spraying plants with water in the mornings until the plants are well established and are at least 8 inches tall. Stop watering and allow the root system to develop and find its own sources of moisture.
On May 13, 2014, TreekeeperChar from San Diego, CA wrote:
I just received Frankincense seeds from MiniaTree in AZ. I am now in need of info on how to best attempt germination.
I have 3 acres of medicinal trees that I tend in Balboa Park, San Diego. CA. I think that our soil and climate will be appropriate with a little additional watering at the right time. I am eager to add Frankincense to the collection of over 70 trees of healing value and to help preserve the species by growing it here.
Thanks for all the previous comments they were helpful. Anyone with helpful hints on sprouting the seeds? And, since I cannot plant this in the park until it reaches a reasonable size . how fast does this grow?
On Feb 22, 2014, DavidLMo from St Joseph, MO wrote:
A good source for many different Commiphora (C.), Boswellia (B.) and Bursera is Sacred Succulents in Sebastapol CA.
I have purchased a C. mukul (syn wightii or guggul), a B. sacra and seeds for B. sacra from them and I can highly recommend them. Friendly, pleasant and courteous - even for the small buyer such as myself.
Another good source for many of these types of plants is MiniaTreeGarden whom I have purchased a C. mollis from. They too are excellent to deal with.
For anyone interested in getting in to these types of plants, these two firms are a great and reasonably priced starting point.
Note that for the trees I purchased (as well as a Bursera fagaroides from another vendor) my intention is Bonsai.
On Apr 14, 2013, azant from Phoenix, AZ wrote:
I will say this plant is slow to grow in a pot, even an oversized one unless it has high humidity. Once in ground though, it grows real well. weird considering we have very low humidity here, single digits sometimes. I feel more people should grow this tree, and other species if you can locate them $$. The leaves and flowers, not to mention form make it worth it
On Nov 19, 2012, johneddy from Cos Cob, CT wrote:
I've recently purchased a tree from Miniatree (through eBay) .
I have it on a timed, full-spectrum grow light with a heating pad for this upcoming winter and would like to get it to a decent size, maybe make a bonsai, and maybe try harvesting a little resin- I love the smell and it seems to do me good health-wise.
I've also purchased some seeds and will try my hand at the less-than-promising germination process.
I'm interesting in chatting with others about their experiences, so if you grow them, let me know:)
On Jul 12, 2011, TNAndy from Sevierville, TN wrote:
I've grown my Frankincense for a few years now, in a square container, just shy of 1 cubic foot. It has a thick trunk and roots (what few I can see) for such a sparse, squat shrub. New leaves begin lime green, deepening to an oak leaf green as they reach full size. Stems grow in fits and starts. Where the stems pause, the foliage appears tufted. As the trunk and branches age, layers of bark similar to onion skin split and peel away. (Think Paper Birch with fewer layers showing.) Even the oldest part of the trunk is green underneath this peeling bark.
I read it prefers an alkaline pH, so I mulched the potting mix surface with limestone gravel. I fertilize with a granular, slow release commercial product. I give it a spoonful of fireplace ashes a few times a year, too.. read more My zone 6 winter is far too cold for Frankincense. I bring it into my sunroom well before the first frost. I'd say a safe minimum temperature is 40 degrees F / 5 degrees C. However, last winter mine survived a "heater incident" where the temperature dropped below freezing, perhaps more than once that week. I'm sure the fact there was no wind helped. The plant's normal response to stress is to drop its foliage, and it lost a lot of leaves. To prevent root rot, I rarely watered it until I saw new leaves.
It has recovered well this summer. It sure seems to like the humid summer here whether there are thunderstorms or not. I figure it is a desert plant and rarely give it any extra water. What moisture it does get drains away fairly quickly. I give it all the sunlight I can, summer and winter.
It flowered late last winter for the first time, but nothing developed into fruit or seeds.
I certainly haven't dared cut into my specimen to see if any incense oozes out. From time to time I've pulled off (mostly) dead leaves and sometimes a bit of white goo comes forth. There hasn't been enough to collect, so I can't say what it smells like.
I'm pretty sure my plant is a rooted cutting rather than seed-grown. I tried to take an air layer from one green stem during a pause in its growth. I used rooting hormone, sphagnum moss, wrapped in aluminum foil--the same method I had seen used on azaleas in Florida. The hormone caused no roots to sprout and the stem ultimately died. Try something else.
Plants and seeds are frequently available from a single vendor on a well-known internet auction site infrequently from other online vendors. Be patient reasonably priced plants do show up sooner or later.
Frankincense makes an interesting bonsai and conversation piece, if not the most attractive house plant.
On Oct 21, 2007, wolfblacksmith from San Francisco, CA wrote:
I have searched a long time to find this plant, I was able to purchase 100 seeds, but frankincense is notoriously difficult to germinate, and I had no success. I have found a grower in Arizona that occasionally sells on Ebay, they are called http://www.miniatree.com they have wonderful plants, and I purchased two Boswellia's and they arrived in very healthy, bug free and bare root condition, they are growing and sending out new leaves in my Southwest bay window in my Sunny San Francisco flat. If you have any questions about these wonderful sacred plants, please email me. Thanks Wolf.
On May 4, 2007, Cactusdude from Miami, FL (Zone 10b) wrote:
Similar to other plants in the genus, as well as Bursera. Grow in full sun, water when in active growth, keep dry when dormant. Protect from frost, likes heat. Expensive to purchase on the internet, yet very easily grown from cuttings.
As with any product or food you use, it’s important to consider their health risks, if any. Frankincense essential oils are used in aromatherapy. Many essential oils used in that way are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and therefore might be harmful if used on the skin. Problems with essential oils could include:
The body reacts to different chemicals in different ways. As an essential oil, frankincense contains many chemicals that could make your body react negatively. One possible side effect is an allergic reaction.
Signs of an allergic reaction include difficulty breathing, hives, and itchy skin. If you experience one or more of these symptoms soon after coming into contact with frankincense essential oil, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
Similar to allergies, people who use frankincense essential oil may experience skin discomfort or sensitivity. This is also a way your body lets you know that it’s coming into contact with something that doesn’t agree with it.
If you experience discomfort, pain, dry skin, red patches, or itchy skin after taking frankincense essential oil, it’s a good idea to seek medical advice.
Reaction with Medication
Another side effect frankincense essential oil could lead to is a negative reaction when interacting with any medications you’re taking. It’s important to talk to your doctor before using frankincense essential oil to see how it might react with medications you take regularly and how to prevent side effects.
13 Bible Verses about Myrrh
Then they sat down to eat a meal. And as they raised their eyes and looked, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing aromatic gum and balm and myrrh, on their way to bring them down to Egypt.
“And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn over her, because no one buys their cargoes any more— cargoes of gold and silver and precious stones and pearls and fine linen and purple and silk and scarlet, and every kind of citron wood and every article of ivory and every article made from very costly wood and bronze and iron and marble, and cinnamon and spice and incense and perfume and frankincense and wine and olive oil and fine flour and wheat and cattle and sheep, and cargoes of horses and chariots and slaves and human lives.
After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the best products of the land in your bags, and carry down to the man as a present, a little balm and a little honey, aromatic gum and myrrh, pistachio nuts and almonds.
Moreover, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take also for yourself the finest of spices: of flowing myrrh five hundred shekels, and of fragrant cinnamon half as much, two hundred and fifty, and of fragrant cane two hundred and fifty, and of cassia five hundred, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil a hin. read more.
You shall make of these a holy anointing oil, a perfume mixture, the work of a perfumer it shall be a holy anointing oil. With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the testimony, and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the laver and its stand.
Gerben Boersma, CEO of Three Kings Incense, a Holland-based supplier of incense to Catholic churches around the world, says frankincense prices have been going up in recent years even as the quality of the resin has gone down. Makers of frankincense-based products are compensating for the scarcity by mixing in high-quality essential oils and other things, such as sandalwood and flower blossoms.
The long-term solution to shortages, Boersma says, is to revert to old, more sustainable ways of harvesting frankincense. “When you grow a tree, I think it takes 25 years before it starts supplying its first incense. So you have to find some crazy person who’s willing to spend all of that time and have that patience to work like that. And that’s getting more and more difficult.”
Bongers helped develop guidelines for how to tap trees sustainably, such as by allowing them a full recovery year for every few years of tapping. He also recommends fencing and firebreaks to protect forests from wildfires and cows that overgraze saplings. He acknowledges that encouraging people in difficult circumstances to implement such measures is challenging. “I’m not sure that these guidelines are very well studied, let’s put it that way,” he says.
Because enforcement is so difficult in the remote, resource-poor areas where frankincense grows, Bongers believes that consumer demand for responsibly sourced products will spur change for the good of frankincense forests.
Some companies—including doTERRA, which sells 36 products containing frankincense, and the cosmetics company Lush, which sells 16—cater to more informed customers. They’re actively advertising that their frankincense is ethically sourced. (National Geographic has not independently verified company practices and supply chains.)
So much effort goes into making essential oils, says Kevin Wilson, director of public relations for doTERRA, that consumers have to understand that pure, sustainably sourced frankincense won’t come cheap. “If a bottle of frankincense is selling for $9 or $10 at a local grocery store, they can probably be sure that may not be the pure product,” he says. DoTERRA’s 15-milliliter bottles (imagine a bottle one twenty-fourth the size of a 12-ounce soda can) sell for about $90.
For Gabbi Loedolff, African hub coordinator for Lush’s buying team, selecting suppliers who care about sustainability largely revolves around growing new trees. “We’re really in this mindset of moving toward regeneration, so how can you actually create a surplus….And that’s certainly what we’re working on trying to figure out for frankincense.” Loedolff says she and other company representatives make a point of traveling to source forests to see how the harvesting is done, and they select suppliers who show commitment to sustainability.
Some researchers and harvesters, including DeCarlo and Dhunkaal, say that growing frankincense trees commercially on plantations would help, rather than relying exclusively on wild trees.
Dhunkaal has established a nursery of Boswellia carterii in Somaliland. Using his own money and donations from doTERRA and Lush, he built a greenhouse, collects clippings from wild trees, plants the clippings in his nursery, and pays men to water the saplings by hand. “Propagation is the best solution,” he says. He also provides training to frankincense harvesters to help discourage overcutting of trees in the wild.
If nothing changes, DeCarlo says, consumers have to ask themselves: Are we willing to lose frankincense in a few generations? “We’ve loved frankincense for a long time,” she says. "What I don’t want to see is that we love these trees to death.”