Frankincense trees—of biblical lore—are being tapped out for essential oils

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On a starlit night long ago, as the story goes, three wise men brought gifts to baby Jesus in a stable. One was gold, the others frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense, like myrrh, was highly prized—thought to be worth its weight in gold—but it wouldn’t have been hard to find: Trees that yield the fragrant resin were widespread in the lands of the Bible and beyond.

Two millennia later, Anjanette DeCarlo and a team of Somalians spent a sweltering day hiking to what they thought was a virgin stand of frankincense-producing trees in the mountains near Yubbe, a town in Somaliland. But, DeCarlo says, when they arrived, after traveling more than four hours by car and another four hours on foot, “we were absolutely in shock.”

When frankincense trees are cut, the sap that oozes out hardens into valuable resin

DeCarlo, an ecologist and director of a project called Save Frankincense, based in Somaliland—a self-governing region northwest of Somalia that isn’t recognized by foreign governments—hadn’t expected to find tree after tree whose trunks, from top to bottom, were marred by cuts.

Frankincense, woodsy and sweetly aromatic, is one of the oldest commercial commodities, spanning more than 5,000 years. Today, thousands of tons of it are traded every year to be used by Catholic priests as incense in thuribles and by makers of perfumes, natural medicines, and essential oils that can be inhaled or applied to the skin for their purported health benefits.

Most frankincense comes from about five species of Boswellia trees, found in North Africa and India, but also in Oman, Yemen, and western Africa. The trees look gnarled and knotty, like a desert bonsai. To collect frankincense, harvesters make incisions into the trunks and scrape out the oozing sap, which hardens into frankincense resin.

According to DeCarlo, the trees should be cut no more than 12 times a year to keep them healthy. But in that mountain forest in Somaliland, she counted as many as 120 incisions in a single tree. The resin that leaks out of the cuts acts like a scab, protecting the wound so it can heal. It’s the same with our bodies, she says. If you get cut once, “you’re OK, right? You put a band-aid on it….But if you get cut, you get cut, you get cut, and you’re cut…well, you’re going to be very, very open to infection now. Your immune system is going to take a big hit trying to save you, and your immunity’s going to crash.” She adds, “It is the exact same thing with a frankincense tree.”

During the past decade or so, the market for essential oils—worth more than $7 billion in 2018 and expected to double in value by 2026—has boomed, putting greater pressure on frankincense trees. Aromatherapy used to be a “healers’ niche,” says Tim Valentiner, vice president of global strategic sourcing for the essential oil company doTERRA, but now it’s more mainstream. He says the company, which was founded in 2008, doubled in size year-on-year at the beginning. (DoTERRA funds much of DeCarlo’s research into sustainable frankincense harvesting).

Just how badly Boswellia trees are doing is largely unknown—population studies are difficult in the remote, war-torn areas where these species often grow. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which evaluates the conservation status of plants and animals, has assessed one of the primary frankincense species, Boswellia sacra, as near threatened. But that was back in 1998.

Picture of frankincense being burned for its scent
Frankincense is used in incense, natural medicines, perfumes, and essential oils that can be inhaled or applied to the skin for their purported health benefits. PHOTOGRAPH BY EDWIN REMSBERG, VWPICS/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/GETTY

In the Bible, one of the three wise men gives the newborn Jesus frankincense. Today, the resin is burned as incense in Catholic ceremonies around the world.

Frankincense trees aren’t covered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the global treaty that regulates cross-border trade in plants and animals, but experts have argued that Boswellia species meet the criteria for protection.

National laws vary widely. In Somaliland, for example, it’s illegal under xeer—traditional law—to overharvest trees. Some of Oman’s frankincense trees are located in a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are protected by law. In other countries, however, few or no laws cover frankincense.

National Geographic

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