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Frankincense from Yemen Frankincense 2005-12-31.jpg
Frankincense from Yemen
Boswellia carteri tree that produces frankincense, growing inside Biosphere 2 Boswellia-sacra-greenhouse.jpg
Boswellia carteri tree that produces frankincense, growing inside Biosphere 2

Frankincense (also known as olibanum, Persian : کندر [Kondoor] , Hebrew : לבונה [levoˈna] , Arabic : اللبانal-libān or Arabic : البخورal-bakhūr, Somali : Uunsi) is an aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes, obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia in the family Burseraceae, particularly Boswellia sacra (syn. B. bhaw-dajiana), B. carterii , B. frereana , B. serrata (B. thurifera, Indian frankincense), and B. papyrifera . The word is from Old French franc encens ('high-quality incense'). [1]


There are five main species of Boswellia that produce true frankincense. [2] Resin from each of the five is available in various grades, which depend on the time of harvesting. The resin is hand-sorted for quality.


The English word frankincense derives from the Old French expression franc encens, meaning "high-quality incense". The word franc in Old French meant "noble" or "pure". [3]

A popular folk etymology suggests a connection with the Franks (and often in particular Frankish Crusaders), who reintroduced the spice to Western Europe from their trade with the Byzantine Empire during the Middle Ages, but the word itself comes from the expression. [3] [4]

In Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament), Arabic, Phoenician and Hebrew, the name of frankincense is cognate with the name of Lebanon; this is postulated to be because they both derive from the word for "white" and that the spice route went via Mount Lebanon. [5]


Flowers and branches of the Boswellia sacra tree, the species from which people produce most frankincense. Boswellia sacra.jpg
Flowers and branches of the Boswellia sacra tree, the species from which people produce most frankincense.

The trees start producing resin at about eight to 10 years old. [6] Tapping is done two to three times a year with the final taps producing the best tears due to their higher aromatic terpene, sesquiterpene and diterpene content. Generally speaking, the more opaque resins are the best quality. Fine resin is produced in Somaliland, from which the Roman Catholic Church purchases most of its stock. [7]

Recent studies indicate that frankincense tree populations are declining, partly due to over-exploitation. [8] [9] Heavily tapped trees produce seeds that germinate at only 16% while seeds of trees that had not been tapped germinate at more than 80%. In addition, burning, grazing, and attacks by the longhorn beetle have reduced the tree population. [10] Conversion (clearing) of frankincense woodlands to agriculture is also a major threat. [11]

Chemical composition

Structure of b-boswellic acid, one of the main active components of frankincense Beta-boswellic acid.svg
Structure of β-boswellic acid, one of the main active components of frankincense

These are some of the chemical compounds present in frankincense:

See the following references for a comprehensive overview of the chemical compounds in different frankincense species. [15] [16]


Indirect burning of frankincense on hot coal Weihrauch.jpg
Indirect burning of frankincense on hot coal
Frankincense olibanum resin Olibanum resin.jpg
Frankincense olibanum resin

Frankincense has been traded on the Horn of Africa and The Arabian Peninsula for more than 6,000 years. [17] [18]

Frankincense was reintroduced to Western Europe by Frankish Crusaders, and other Western Europeans on their journeys to the Eastern Roman Empire where it was commonly used in church services. Although named Frankincense, the name refers to the quality of incense brought to Western Europe, not to the Franks themselves. [1]

The Greek historian Herodotus was familiar with frankincense and knew it was harvested from trees in the Horn of Africa. He reported that the gum was dangerous to harvest because of venomous snakes that lived in the trees. He goes on to describe the method used by the Somalis to get around this problem, that being the burning of the gum of the styrax tree whose smoke would drive the snakes away. [19]

Southern Arabia was an exporter of frankincense in antiquity, with some of it being traded as far as China. The 13th-century Chinese writer and customs inspector Zhao Rugua wrote on the origin of frankincense, and of its being traded to China:

"Ruxiang or xunluxiang (Chinese: 乳香 rǔ xiāng/ 薰陸香 xūn lù xiāng) comes from the three Dashi states [ Chinese: 大食 dàshí - the term used in the Song Dynasty to address Arab Muslims] of Murbat (Maloba), Shihr (Shihe), and Dhofar (Nufa), from the depths of the remotest mountains. [20] The tree which yields this drug may generally be compared to the pine tree. Its trunk is notched with a hatchet, upon which the resin flows out, and, when hardened, turns into incense, which is gathered and made into lumps. It is transported on elephants to the Dashi (Persian Gulf Muslim nations on the coast), who then load it upon their ships to exchange it for other commodities in Sanfoqi. This is the reason why it is commonly collected at and known as a product of Sanfoqi." [21]


Frankincense Olebanum.jpg
Frankincense is often prepared inside a censer, such as the meerschaum dabqaad traditionally used in Somaliland, Somalia and Djibouti. Dabqaad.jpg
Frankincense is often prepared inside a censer, such as the meerschaum dabqaad traditionally used in Somaliland, Somalia and Djibouti.
Frankincense (Boswellia carteri) essential oil FrankinsenceEssOil.png
Frankincense (Boswellia carteri) essential oil


Thousands of tons of frankincense are traded every year to be used in religious ceremonies as incense in thuribles and by makers of perfumes, natural medicines, and essential oils. It can be inhaled or applied to the skin for its supposed health benefits. Most frankincense comes from Somalia, and India, but also in Oman, Yemen, and western Africa. [2]

In Somalia, frankincense is harvested in the Bari and Sanaag regions: mountains lying at the northwest of Erigavo; El Afweyn District; Cal Madow mountain range, a westerly escarpment that runs parallel to the coast; Cal Miskeed, including Hantaara and Habeeno plateau and a middle segment of the frankincense-growing escarpment; Karkaar mountains or eastern escarpment, which lies at the eastern fringe of the frankinscence escarpment. [22] [9] The Habr Je'lo subclan of the Isaaq in particular were known to harvest and export frankincense from Sanaag. [23]

In Dhofar, Oman, frankincense species grow north of Salalah and were traded in the ancient coastal city of Sumhuram, now Khor Rori. [24]

Ecological status

In 1998, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warned that one of the primary frankincense species, Boswellia sacra, is "near threatened". Frankincense trees are not covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, but experts argue that Boswellia species meet the criteria for protection. In a 2006 study, an ecologist at Wageningen University & Research claimed that, by the late-1990s, Boswellia papyrifera trees in Eritrea were becoming hard to find. In 2019, a new paper predicted a 50% reduction in Boswellia papyrifera within the next two decades. This species, found mainly in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan, accounts for about two-thirds of global frankincense production. The paper warns that all Boswellia species are threatened by habitat loss and overexploitation. Most Boswellia grow in harsh, arid regions beset by poverty and conflict. Harvesting and selling the tree's resin is one of the only sources of income for the inhabitants, resulting in overtapping. [2]


In Chinese medicine, frankincense (Chinese: 乳香 rǔ xiāng) along with myrrh (Chinese: 沒藥yào) have anti-bacterial properties as well as blood-moving uses.[ citation needed ] It can be used topically or orally, also used in surgical and internal medicine of traditional Chinese medicine. It is used to relieve pain, remove blood stasis, promote blood circulation and treat deafness, stroke, locked jaw, abnormalities' in women's menstruation.

The Egyptians cleansed body cavities in the mummification process with frankincense and natron. In Persian medicine, it is used for diabetes, gastritis and stomach ulcer. [25]

The incense offering occupied a prominent position in the sacrificial legislation of the ancient Hebrews. [26] The Book of Exodus (30:34-38) prescribes frankincense, blended with equal amounts of three aromatic spices, to be ground and burnt in the sacred altar before the Ark of the Covenant in the wilderness Tabernacle, where it was meant to be a holy offering—not to be enjoyed for its fragrance. Scholars have identified frankincense as what the Book of Jeremiah (6:20) relates was imported from Sheba during the 6th century BC Babylonian captivity. [27]

Frankincense is mentioned in the New Testament as one of the three gifts (with gold and myrrh) that the magi "from the East" presented to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:11).

Generally the oil is also used in Abrahamic religions to cleanse the house or building of bad or evil energy - including used in exorcisms and to bless one's being (like the bakhoor commonly found in Persian Gulf cultures by spreading the fumes towards the body).

Essential oil

The essential oil of frankincense is produced by steam distillation of the tree resin. The oil's chemical components are 75% monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, monoterpenoles, sesquiterpenols and ketones. Contrary to some commercial claims, steam distilled frankincense oils do not contain the insufficiently volatile boswellic acids (triterpenoids), although they may be present in solvent extractions. The chemistry of the essential oil is mainly monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes, such as alpha-pinene, Limonene, alpha-Thujene, and beta-Pinene with small amounts of diterpenoid components being the upper limit in terms of molecular weight. [28] [29] [30] [31]

See also


  1. 1 2 Oxford English Dictionary.
  2. 1 2 3 Fobar, Rachel (13 December 2019). "Frankincense trees—of biblical lore—are being tapped out for essential oils". National Geographic. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  3. 1 2 "Frankincense". Etymology Online. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  4. "Frank". Etymology Online. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  5. Brown, John Pairman (1995). Israel and Hellas. Walter de Gruyter. p. 210. ISBN   978-3-11-014233-4.
  6. "Omani World Heritage Sites". Archived from the original on 2008-10-12. Retrieved 2009-01-14.
  8. Klein, JoAnna (5 July 2019). "Could This Be the End of Frankincense?". New York Times . Retrieved 5 July 2019.
  9. 1 2 Patinkin, Jason (25 December 2016). "World's last wild frankincense forests are under threat". Yahoo Finance. Associated Press. Retrieved 25 December 2016.
  10. Melina, Remy (December 21, 2011). "Christmas Staple Frankincense 'Doomed,' Ecologists Warn". LiveScience.
  11. Dejenea, T.; Lemenih, M.; Bongers, F. (February 2013). "Manage or convert Boswellia woodlands? Can frankincense production payoff?". Journal of Arid Environments. 89: 77–83. Bibcode:2013JArEn..89...77D. doi:10.1016/j.jaridenv.2012.09.010.
  12. 1 2 3 "Olibanum.—Frankincense". Henriette's Herbal Homepage. Retrieved 2009-01-14.
  13. 1 2 "Farmacy Query". Archived from the original on 2004-11-10. Retrieved 2009-01-14.
  14. Incensole acetate (@NIST)
  15. Chemotaxonomic Investigations on Resins of the Frankincense Species Boswellia papyrifera, Boswellia serrata and Boswellia sacra, respectively, Boswellia carterii: A Qualitative and Quantitative Approach by Chromatographic and Spectroscopic Methodology, Paul, M., Dissertation, Saarland University (2012)
  16. Phytochemical Investigations on Boswellia Species, Basar, S., Dissertation, Hamburg University (2005)
  17. Paper on Chemical Composition of Frankincense Archived 2008-12-09 at the Wayback Machine
  18. Ulric Killion, A Modern Chinese Journey to the West: Economic Globalis]ation And Dualism, (Nova Science Publishers: 2006), p.66
  19. Herodotus 3,107
  20. Kauz, Ralph (2010). Ralph Kauz (ed.). Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea. Volume 10 of East Asian Economic and Socio-cultural Studies - East Asian Maritime History. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 130. ISBN   978-3-447-06103-2 . Retrieved December 26, 2011. The frankincense was first collected in the Hadhramaut ports of Mirbat, Shihr, and Zufar whence Arab merchant vessels shipped it to Srivijaya, before it was then reexported to China. The term "xunluxiang" derives from the Arab word "kundur". . . According to Li Xun, frankincense originally came from Persia.92 Laufer refers to the Xiangpu 香譜 by Hong Chu . . . Zhao Rugua notes: Ruxiang or xunluxiang comes from the three Dashi countries of Murbat (Maloba), Shihr (Shihe), and Dhofar (Nufa), from the depths of the remotest mountains. The tree which yields this drug may generally be compared to the pine tree. Its trunk is notched with a hatchet, upon which the
  21. Kauz, Ralph (2010). Ralph Kauz (ed.). Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea. Volume 10 of East Asian Economic and Socio-cultural Studies - East Asian Maritime History. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 131. ISBN   978-3-447-06103-2 . Retrieved December 26, 2011. resin flows out, and, when hardened, turns into incense, which is gathered and made into lumps. It is transported on elephants to the Dashi (on the coast), who then load it upon their ships to exchange it for other commodities in Sanfoqi. This is the reason why it is commonly collected at and known as a product of Sanfoqi.94
  22. War-Torn Societies Project International, Somali Programme (2001). Rebuilding Somalia: Issues and possibilities for Puntland . London: HAAN. p.  124. ISBN   978-1874209041.
  23. Lewis, I. M. (3 February 2017). I.M Lewis: Peoples of the Horn of Afrcia. ISBN   9781315308173. |
  24. Coppi, Andrea; Cecchi, Lorenzo; Selvi, Federico; Raffaelli, Mauro (2010-03-18). "The Frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra, Burseraceae) from Oman: ITS and ISSR analyses of genetic diversity and implications for conservation". Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. 57 (7): 1041–1052. doi:10.1007/s10722-010-9546-8. ISSN   0925-9864. S2CID   11915388.
  25. Mehrzadi, S.; Tavakolifar, B.; Huseini, H. F.; Mosavat, S. H.; Heydari, M. (2018). "The Effects of Boswellia serrata Gum Resin on the Blood Glucose and Lipid Profile of Diabetic Patients: A Double-Blind Randomized Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial". Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine. 23: 2515690X18772728. doi:10.1177/2515690X18772728. PMC   5960856 . PMID   29774768.
  26. The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. VI, Funk and Wagnalls Company: New York 1904, p. 568
  27. Bower, A. (1734–1747). An Universal History, from the Earliest Account of Time to the Present; Compiled from Original Authors and Illustrated with Maps, Cuts, Notes, Chronological and other Tables (part i). 16. London. p. 257.
  28. Verghese, J.; et al. (1987). "A Fresh Look at the Constituents of Indian Olibanum Oil". Flav. Fragr. J. 2 (3): 99–102. doi:10.1002/ffj.2730020304.
  29. Hayashi, S.; Amemori, H.; Kameoka, H.; Hanafusa, M.; Furukawa, K. (1998). "Comparison of Volatile Compounds from Olibanum from Various Countries". J. Essent. Oil Res. 10: 25–30. doi:10.1080/10412905.1998.9700833.
  30. Baser, S., Koch, A., Konig, W.A. (2001). "A Verticillane-type diterpene from Boswellia carterii Essential Oil". Flav. Frag" J 16, 315-318
  31. Frank, A; Unger, M. (Apr 2006). "Analysis of frankincense from various Boswellia species with inhibitory activity on human drug metabolising cytochrome P450 enzymes using liquid chromatography mass spectrometry after automated on-line extraction". J Chromatogr A. 1112 (1–2): 255–62. doi:10.1016/j.chroma.2005.11.116. PMID   16364338.

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Onycha Unknown biblical substance used in incense

Onycha, along with equal parts of stacte, galbanum, and frankincense, was one of the components of the consecrated Ketoret (incense) which appears in the Torah book of Exodus (Ex.30:34-36) and was used in the Jerusalem's Solomon's Temple. This formula was to be incorporated as an incense, and was not to be duplicated for non-sacred use. What the onycha of antiquity actually was cannot be determined with certainty. The original Hebrew word used for this component of the ketoret was שחלת, shecheleth, which means "to roar; as a lion " or “peeling off by concussion of sound." Shecheleth is related to the Syriac shehelta which is translated as “a tear, distillation, or exudation.” In Aramaic, the root SHCHL signifies “retrieve.” When the Torah was translated into Greek the Greek word “onycha” ονυξ, which means "fingernail" or "claw," was substituted for shecheleth.


Boswellia is a genus of trees in the order Sapindales, known for its fragrant resin. The biblical incense frankincense is an extract from the resin of the tree Boswellia sacra, and is now produced also from B. frereana.


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Boswellic acid

Boswellic acids are a series of pentacyclic terpenoid molecules that are produced by plants in the genus Boswellia. Like many other terpenes, boswellic acids appear in the resin of the plant that exudes them; it is estimated that they make up 30% of the resin of Boswellia serrata. While boswellic acids are a major component of the resin, the steam or hydro distilled frankincense essential oil does not contain any boswellic acid as these components are non-volatile and too large to come over in the steam distillation process.

<i>Commiphora myrrha</i>

Commiphora myrrha, called myrrh, African myrrh, herabol myrrh, Somali myrrhor, common myrrh, or gum myrrh is a tree in the Burseraceae family. It is one of the primary trees used in the production of myrrh, a resin made from dried tree sap. The tree is native to the Arabian peninsula and to Africa. It is called 'mur' (المر) in Arabic, meaning bitter. It is the gum of the myrrh tree. Its oil is called oleoresin. It famously comes from Mecca, so it is called 'Mur Makki'.

<i>Commiphora gileadensis</i>

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<i>Boswellia sacra</i>

Boswellia sacra is a tree in the Burseraceae family. It is the primary tree in the genus Boswellia from which frankincense, a resinous dried sap, is harvested. It is native to the Arabian Peninsula, and northeastern Africa (Somaliland).

<i>Boswellia frereana</i>

Boswellia frereana is a species of plant native to Somaliland where the locals call it "Dhidin" or "Maydi" or the king of all frankincense. It is also known as the Yigaar tree and by the common name for all frankincense, Luban. The epithet is named after William Edward Frere, Member of Council at Bombay.

<i>Boswellia papyrifera</i> Species of African plant commonly used for incense

Boswellia papyrifera, also known as Sudanese frankincense, is a species of flowering plant and frankincense that is native to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan. The tree is cultivated in Ethiopia because of its valuable resin. The incense smoke is characterized by a fresh lemon-pine scent, and is therefore highly esteemed. In Ethiopia where it is called itan zaf, it comes in semi-translucent yellow tears. The gum resin of Boswellia papyrifera coming from Ethiopia, Sudan and E. Africa is believed to be the main source of frankincense of antiquity.

Stacte Unknown biblical substance used in incense

Stacte and nataph are names used for one component of the Solomon's Temple incense, the Ketoret, specified in the Book of Exodus. Variously translated to the Greek term or to an unspecified "gum resin" or similar, it was to be mixed in equal parts with onycha, galbanum and mixed with pure frankincense and they were to "beat some of it very small" for burning on the altar of the tabernacle.

Opopanax (perfumery)

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The incense offering, a blend of aromatic substances that exhale perfume during combustion, usually consisting of spices and gums burnt as an act of worship, occupied a prominent position in the sacrificial legislation of the ancient Hebrews.

<i>Zhu Fan Zhi</i>

Zhu Fan Zhi, variously translated as A Description of Barbarian Nations, Records of Foreign People, or other similar titles, is a 13th-century Song Dynasty work by Zhao Rukuo. The work is a collection of descriptions of countries and various products from outside China, and it is considered an important source of information on the people, customs and in particular the traded commodities of many countries in South East Asia and around the Indian Ocean during the Song Dynasty.

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Kindeya Gebrehiwot Ethiopian academic

Kindeya Gebrehiwot is an Ethiopian academic who is currently Professor of Forestry at Mekelle University (Ethiopia), undertaking research on forest regeneration, particularly frankincense trees. He studies the threats to this flagship species, particularly in relation to regrowth and tapping. He was also President of Mekelle University.



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