Frankincense, a Gift of the Maji

Boswellia sacra of the Burseraceae or Frankincense Family

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Photo Credit:

[Untitled photograph of a boswellia sacra tree]. Retrieved from

Other Frankincense Species:

Boswellia sacra

Center of origin: Arabian Peninsula and northeastern Africa (Oman, Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia).

Currently grown: Northern Somalia, and in the mountainous areas along the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula (Oman & Yemen).

Secondary Chemicals: Boswellia sacra contains triterpene and boswellic acids, some of which are known to be anti-inflammatory, while others are being studied for their effects in killing cancer cells. "The Boswellia resin's chemical structure is similar to that of other pentacyclic triterpenes, which closely resembles that of anti-inflammatory steroids. Salai guggal has been shown to exhibit strong immunostimulant activity (17), and in the Ayurvedic Indian tradition, inflammatory polyarthritis and other forms of rheumatism have been successfully treated with herbal mixtures containing Boswellia resins or extracts (16)." (Chevrier, 2005)

Medicinal uses: Traditional uses of frankincense ranged from treating things such as dental disease, to skin conditions, to respiratory and digestive troubles. (Morgenstern, 2006) Today, frankincense is used medicinally as an anti-inflammatory agent in treating rheumatoid arthritis, (Chevrier, 2005) skin conditions, wounds, and acne. Frankincense is also being investigated as a possible treatment for some cancers, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, anxiety and asthma, as well as other conditions. (Cohen, 2011)

Modern uses: Frankincense essential oil is used medicinally or used as scent in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps and detergents. Frankincense is also continuing to be made into incense for burning, which is commonly used by the Catholic Church. (Morgenstern, 2006)

Historical Uses: Frankincense is strongly associated with Christmas, because of the story of how the three wise men brought it to baby Jesus as a gift, along with Gold and Myrhh. Historical evidence suggests that the frankincense given to baby Jesus, by the three wise men (maji) was either of the highly prized Arabian species: Boswellia sacra, or the prized African species Boswellia Carterii. (Johnson, 2012) Either way, the fact that frankincense was brought as a gift to God, shows the great significance of frankincense during this time period. This is the time period when B.C. became A.D.

("A.D. or anno domini" means In the Year of Our Lord). However, Frankincense had been used for thousands of years by many cultures previous to the birth of Christ. (Boswellia sacra (frankincense))

Ancient Egyptians, like many cultures today, valued the sweet smell of burning frankincense (Boswellia resin). (Boswellia sacra (frankincense)) In ancient Egypt, frankincense was used in religious ceremonies. (Stallinga, 2009) The ancient Egyptians also used frankincense to anoint the mummified bodies of their kings, to treat wounds and sores, and to repel insects. These Egyptians believed that frankincense was the sweat of gods, fallen to the earth from above, and that the Phoenix bird made its nest out of frankincense twigs and fed on the resin. (Boswellia sacra (frankincense)) Aside from the use by ancient Egyptians, Frankincense was also commonly recommended as a remedy for various ailments in Greek, Roman, Arabic, Indian, and European mid-evil documents. (Stallinga, 2009)

Cultural Uses: Frankincense is used in many cultures today. It is common in the practice of Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda (Hindu medicine), and the aroma therapy common in America. (Cohen, 2011) Frankincense is also used ceremonially in the Jewish religion (Frankincense), hence why it was brought to Jesus as a gift. It is commonly used in the Catholic faith as well. (Morgenstern, 2006) Frankincense is a plant that has spread across the world. It is used in the medicinal practices of various cultures, it is used ceremonially in various religions, and is is used as a scent in various products distributed throughout the world. I wouldn't say that frankincense really "belongs" to one culture more than another, but I would say its roots are definitely in the Middle East/North Africa/Arabian Peninsula area, and from there it has spread.

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Photo credit:

Tolera, M. (Photographer). Tapping a tree for Frankincense resin. Retrieved from

Frankincense or Olibanum

Frankincense is commonly known as olibanum. (Boswellia sacra (frankincense)) Olibanum (incense) is the resin from the Boswellia sacra tree. All parts of the tree contain resin, including the leaves, but most resin is found in the bark.

How it is harvested: Though resin can be found in all parts of the tree, it is harvested from the tree trunk, under the bark. Collecting frankincense is a slow process that must be be done properly. Frankincense can only be harvested twice a year - once in the spring (March to May) and once in the fall (September to October). The process, if done properly, takes two weeks to complete.

A week before harvesting the resin, strategic slashes are made in the outer bark with a specially designed knife. These slashes allow the liquid resin to ooze out of the tree. Sometimes a different harvesting method is used, where instead of cutting deep slashes into the bark, portions of the bark are scraped away, allowing the resin to flow from the scraped off area. The resin begins to crystalize and harden with the exposure to oxygen.

The longer the resin is left on the tree, the harder it gets. In about a week the resin will have hardened up enough to be cut off the tree. Its takes about another whole week to collect all the crystal resin off the trees. Because the resin is collected at different times, and each crystal of resin is a bit different from the others, different types and grades of frankincense are created. The quality of the frankincense is based on color, purity, aroma, age, and where it is grown. The Most common grade of frankincense is called the first grade. It is a brownish resin that contains a lot of bark particles, hence the dark color.

After the hardened resin is gathered from the trees it can be sent to a distillery where it is crushed into powder, put into an oil bath, and steam distilled to extract the oil from the resin, creating frankincense essential oil, which can be used in a plethora of products. (Olibanum (Frankincense))

[Untitled photograph of frankincense resin]. Retrieved from


Boswellia sacra (frankincense). (n.d.). Retrieved December 1, 2015, from

Chevrier, M., Ryan, A., Lee, D., Zhongze, M., Wu-Yan, Z., & Via, C. (2005, May 1). Boswellia carterii Extract Inhibits TH1 Cytokines and Promotes TH2 Cytokines In Vitro. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from

Classification | USDA PLANTS. (n.d.). Retrieved December 1, 2015, from

Cohen, J. (2011, June 27). A Wise Man’s Cure: Frankincense and Myrrh. Retrieved December 2, 2015, from

Frankincense. (n.d.). Retrieved December 2, 2015, from

Johnson, S. (2012, May 1). The True, Legendary Omani Frankincense: Boswellia Sacra. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from

Morgenstern, K. (2006, December 1). Frankincense (Boswellia sacra) - History and Uses - Sacred Earth Ethnobotany Resources. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from

Olibanum (Frankincense). (n.d.). Retrieved December 1, 2015, from

Sharmani. (2014, August 11)., Skin Care Pharmacy and Blog Specializing in Anthelios and Mexoryl Sunscreens. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from

Siddiqui, M. (2011, May 1). Boswellia Serrata, A Potential Antiinflammatory Agent: An Overview. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from

Stallinga, E. (2009, March 1). Olibanum tree /as mediators. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from

Woolley, C., Suhail, M., Smith, B., Boren, K., Taylor, L., Schreuder, M., . . . Young, D. (2012, June 28). Chemical differentiation of Boswellia sacra and Boswellia carterii essential oils by gas chromatography and chiral gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from