Frankincense consists of dried sap from trees belonging to the Boswellia genus. Most frankincense comes from Boswellia sacra trees, but several species provide different grades of the resin. The highest grades are Silver and Hojari.
Producers harvest frankincense by cutting the bark of the Boswellia trees and letting their sap ooze out. The sap eventually hardens to form strips called tears.
The Franks reintroduced the resin to Europe, but that’s not why it’s called frankincense. The name describes the resin’s quality. Another name for it is olibanum, from the Arabic al-luban, indicating that it comes from milking. In other words, it comes from milking the Boswellia tree. One of the Chinese names for it is ru xiang.
Historians believe that the Sultanate of Oman is the oldest source of frankincense. Omanis have been trading frankincense for thousands of years. Between 1000 BCE and AD 400, the trade in frankincense was the most lucrative in the world. In the ancient world, Arab traders shipped the resin from Oman to the Mediterranean and different parts of Asia. Frankincense made southern Arabia a crucial part of the world’s economy and connected it to Europe, India and the famous Silk Road. The Romans attempted to conquer the region but failed, turning back due to the hot and dry desert environment. Both the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and the Romans used frankincense extensively in their religions. It was also an important part of funeral and embalming rites as its intense fragrance could be used to cover up the stench of a dead body.
Herodotus knew the resin’s region of origin — Southern Arabia — but wrote that it was hard to acquire because the trees were infested with venomous serpents. Theophrastus, Pliny the Elder and Zhao Rugua all mentioned frankincense. Zhao was a Chinese customs inspector from the 13th century.
Today, most of the world’s Boswellia trees grow in the Horn of Africa, Oman and Yemen. However, the trees are declining because of climate change and over-tapping to meet the demand for frankincense. A study suggests that 90 percent of Boswellia trees could die in the next 50 years.
Frankincense flavor profile
While frankincense is rarely used in cooking, it can provide some crucial aromatic notes. The aroma of frankincense is musky and earthy with piney and resinous overtones. Some types of frankincense will have notes of citrus as well.
Health benefits of frankincense
The medicinal compounds in frankincense include:
- Boswellic acids: The compounds collectively called boswellic acids are triterpenoids. They can prevent the formation of inflammation-causing molecules called leukotrienes.
- Monoterpenes: Alpha-thujene is a monoterpene in frankincense, and it acts as an antioxidant among other benefits.
You can use frankincense to treat or prevent ailments like:
- Inflammatory diseases: The main health benefits of the healthy compounds in frankincense seems to be that they fight inflammation. You can use frankincense to treat a wide range of inflammatory conditions including asthma, arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
- Infection: Frankincense has been shown to have antimicrobial benefits. You can use it to prevent infection from Candida albicans and Staphylococcus.
- Menstrual problems: Frankincense may be used to stimulate blood flow in the uterus and is thought to be helpful in stimulating menstrual flow.
Frankincense is primarily used in perfumery and for religious ceremonies, but it edible as well. Common uses include as an alternative to chewing gum. The steam-distilled essential oil may be used as a flavoring similar to mastic in pastries.