Frankincense Essential Oil – A Treasure Chest of Value

Posted on Friday 25 December 2009

Historical Significance

In western Judeo-Christian culture, frankincense (otherwise known as olibanum in Arabic) is mainly associated with the Christmas Story of the Three Wise Men (Magi) who journeyed from the East (Arabia) to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. Yet, in other cultures around the world such as the Middle East, China and India, Frankincense has been used reverently for thousands of years for medicinal, religious and ceremonial purposes, as well as to beautify the body. It was thought that the smoke from burning the resin of frankincense had divine powers and would provide a direct connection to God. Exemplification of its significance is evident with its inclusion in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamen (1341 BC- 1323 BC) as well as recorded in ancient Chinese medicine books dating back to 500 AD. The distinct Egyptian black eyeliner of seen in ancient Egyptian art was actually ground and charred frankincense resin known as kohl.

The origin of frankincense is traced back to the Arabian Peninsula. According to Herodotus (5th century BC Greek historian), “Arabia is the only country which produces frankincense, myrrh, cassia and cinnamon…” At one time, there was an active over-land frankincense trade route that started in the Dhofar region of Oman, went through Yemen and followed the Red Sea coast to reach Jerusalem and Egypt. The production and trade of frankincense may have lasted for up to 6,000 years, spurring the creation of villages and towns along the route. Caravans of camels transporting frankincense were often targets of raids, since frankincense commanded prices equal to that of gold. It is likely that frankincense grew in areas across the Red Sea, such as Ethiopia and Somalia, but the initiation of the frankincense trade route began with gum resin from Omani trees. Due to raiding, desertification and other religious zealotry, the trade route dried up after about 300AD.

Origin and Harvest

Frankincense is an oleo-gum-resin produced by several tree species of the Boswellia genus and the family Burseraceae, which is distinguished for its resin bearing ducts. There are about 15 members of this genus, native to the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, India and China. The method of extraction is simple and fairly unchanged since ancient times. An incision is made in the bark of the tree resulting in a milky gum-like substance exuding from the cut area which does no harm the tree. This oleo-gum-resin is then either scrapped off the tree with an iron tool or collected on palm mats when the resin drips to the ground. Resin is then dried and later sold in markets around the world.

The method of harvesting, or tapping, of Boswellia varies according to species and the customs of the region. For example, in Somalia tapping usually occurs in two separate periods, each lasting 3-4 months with successive 15-day intervals. The period between harvests depends upon the onset and extent of rains. In India, the collection is done once a year, commencing at the end of October. In Oman, there are ancient rituals pertaining to resin harvest as well as a sense of guardianship for the trees passed down to each generation.

Chemical Analysis

There are numerous species and varieties of Boswellia trees; major species being Boswellia serrata found in India, Boswellia carteri in East Africa and China, Boswellia frereana in Somalia, and Boswellia sacra in Arabia. Quality of frankincense resin is based upon colour, purity, aroma and age. In general, it is thought that the more opaque the resin the higher the quality with Omani frankincense regarded as the best in the world. The majority of ultra-superior Omani B. sacra is said to be purchased by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said the ruler of Oman.

Active medicinal ingredients of frankincense have been reported in recent science journals to be sesquiterpene hydrocarbons, monoterpenes, diterpenes and boswellic acids; compound variation differs between species and even among the same species depending upon the climate, geographic origin and harvesting conditions.

Medicinal and Therapeutic Uses

Uses of the oleo-gum resin, the essential oil as well as isolated compounds of frankincense has been studied, with more interest growing by the year. Frankincense oil exhibits antibacterial, antifungal and immunostimulant activity in vito. What is of current particular interest is the anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic activity of frankincense from Indian B serrata, with the active component being boswellic acids. Below are three traditional applications of frankincense for sickness and those that have received recent medical research attention.

Injury: Powder of the dried resin of Boswellia is a common ingredient of herbal plasters and pastes to treat wounds. A recent study from Hebrew University, Israel (J Cereb Blood Flow Metab. 2008 Jul;28(7):1341-52) indicated that Incensole acetate (IA), an isolated from frankincense resin, was shown to reduce neurological damage from head injuries.

Cancer: Throughout the centuries many illnesses, including cancer, have been treated using frankincense resin. Rising attention has been given to the possible anti-cancer uses of frankincense. A study published in March of this year investigated the induction of tumor cell cytotoxicity using Boswellia carteri. This study found that frankincense oil appears to distinguish between cancerous and normal bladder cells as well as suppress cancer cell viability. Such a finding might indicate use of frankincense as an alternative agent to treat bladder cancer.

Immune Stimulant: In many world cultures frankincense, whether as an essential oil, powder or burning of resin, is seen as an excellent plant product for treating most illnesses. A 2003 study conducted by Mansoura University, Egypt, supported such usage. Mansoura medical researchers found that Boswellia carterii essential oil demonstrated immunostimulant activity. Such a discovery adds yet another positive medicinal result of frankincense and further encourages its use for several immune disorders.


Frankincense has a long and favorable history with human kind, seen throughout the centuries as having traditional, ceremonial and medicinal significance. In ancient times its preparation and transport to other countries was often hazardous and costly; this was reflected in its great worth and how it was used. Frankincense was considered a valuable commodity for kings and queens alike and was also used for religious purposes. The Magi from the East certainly thought it a worthy gift for the child Jesus. For the past few years, pharmacological studies have given credence to some of the traditional uses of frankincense resin and have shown that ancient remedies might be applicable today, and in some cases such as arthritis and asthma, used as an alternative to conventional drugs. It is evident that interest is resurging in this plant product; we would all be wise as well to see the value of frankincense.

A wealth of information on using essential oil formulas and techniques in your life is available through Ananda Aromatherapy online.

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