The Rich Tradition of Frankincense and Myrrh

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A large bag of harvested frankincense. Frankincense and myrrh not only have a rich cultural tradition and a wide range of uses from incense to skin care to traditional medicine. (Image: Liz Lawley via Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Frankincense and myrrh, at one time considered as valuable as gold, are still highly popular today in the form of incense and essential oils. These twin aromatic resins are harvested from the spindly Boswellia trees and Commiphora trees of the Burseraceae, or incense, family. 

History

Herbal knowledge of frankincense and myrrh dates back to an Egyptian medical papyrus, the Papyrus Ebers, of 1550 BC. They became standard gifts, along with gold, to honor kings and deities; with frankincense being offered as a perfume or incense, and myrrh as an anointing oil. 

In biblical times, the Three Kings presented Christ with these gifts, and in the Old Testament, Moses instructed priests to use Frankincense in the Holy of Holies inside the Ark of the Covenant according to the Jewish tradition.

Frankincense is referred to as the “King of Royal Oils” or “Olibanum.” One may describe its fragrance as the essence of the tree combined into a subtle earthy sweet-smelling nectar. 

When their bark is cut, incense trees release a fragrant sap which drips down the trunk of the tree, and is collected later after it hardens into drops of resin. (Image: Tribes of the World via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0) 

Harvest

Harvesting the sap from incense trees requires splitting of the bark. The tree “weeps” its gummy-tears which flow down the bark. Over the next weeks, the resin solidifies and forms amber, brownish red, white, or even green colored resin which is then collected.

There are five main species in the genus Boswellia which produce resin, yielding a variety of frankincense which are further separated into grades of quality. The milky oleo-gum is harvested by hand from the bark of the flowering tree after the bark is cut to make the sap flow. While Southern Arabia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and other central African nations all harvest frankincense, Somalia provides close to 82 percent of the world’s frankincense. 

While there are approximately 200 species of the genus Commiphora, myrrha is the primary species in the production of myrrh. The myrrh tree produces a milky or watery sap from its papery bark, (also purposefully cut) which forms a fragrant resin called gugal. While this tree is widespread over much of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Somalia, and eastern Ethiopia, it is most commonly found in northern India. 

Uses 

Egyptian physicians were among the first to utilize frankincense as a natural medication to cure tumors, inflammatory diseases, and to treat asthma. Hatshepsut, the Egyptian Queen of the 18th Dynasty, crushed burned frankincense into kohl eyeliner. It was also used, along with myrrh, in embalming mummies. Egyptians imported copious amounts of Frankincense around 3000 BC.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Frankincense (乳香 Ruxiang) is said to move qi, and is used to cure arthritis and even leprosy. The boswellic acid found in frankincense has strong antibacterial properties, useful in maintaining oral health. It is also highly prized for its fragrance, and is commonly used as incense and to scent soaps, lotions, and beauty products.

Frankincense and myrrh are valuable resins, prized not only for their fragrance, but also as medicinals. (Image: Mark Bonica via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The most therapeutic form of frankincense in the world is the Sacred Frankincense from the bark of the boswellia sacra tree. Its white or green resin is known as Royal Hojari Frankincense. Collected high in the mountains of Oman, it is considered the purest type of frankincense and is said to be conducive to meditation and prayer.

Myrrh has a sweet, soft, and warm fragrance and can be burned as incense to reduce airborne bacteria and to repel insects. TMC classifies myrrh as bitter and spicy. As a “blood-moving” medicinal, myrrh (mò yào 沒藥) was used to heal wounds, alleviate pain and swelling, and manage menstrual pain. 

In addition to its inherent antimicrobial, antiinflammatory, antiviral, antispasmodic, antiparasitic, and antifungal properties, myrrh has also been used to treat eczema, athlete’s foot, and minor skin irritation.

Medicinally, frankincense and myrrh are safe for both internal and external applications. Their combined properties appear to be extraordinarily potent. One study suggested that, combined with other essential oils, myrrh was “even better at killing the ‘persister’ forms of Lyme bacteria than standard Lyme antibiotics.” 

Trade

The Frankincense trade in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa existed for over 5,000 years. Myrrh was a commodity along the “Incense Route”  also known by many as “The Golden Road.” Arab desert caravans were the main carriers of frankincense and myrrh to and from South Arabia.

With a growing demand for frankincense, it quickly became one of the world’s most sought-after trade commodities.

Today China is the world’s largest market for frankincense and myrrh, where they are largely prescribed as medicinal treatments, often combined with other herbs and flowers. 

The market for essential oils has exploded in recent years, with the industry already valued at more than more than $7 billion in 2018, it is anticipated to quadruple by 2026.

Some incense trees are becoming endangered due to overexploitation. (Image: Rod Waddington via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Overharvest dangers

Incense trees in Northern Africa, India, Oman, and Yemen have progressively come under growing strain, owing primarily to overexploitation for their sweet-smelling resin.

Overharvesting trees is prohibited by xeer (ancient law) in Somaliland. According to Anjanette DeCarlo, an ecologist and the director of the Save Frankincense initiative, the trees should be stripped no more than 12 times a year. 

Some of Oman’s frankincense trees are legally protected under a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Boswellia sacra, one of the prime frankincense species, has been designated as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.