Boswellia Sacra/Carterii

On the Frankincense trail in Cal Madow. http://conseverthecalmadow.org

If a Frankincense tree falls, does anyone hear it? A report from the forest.

In a time when we increasingly hear about the loss of rainforests and green space, wildlife habitat and species, and with more of us concerned about purchasing sustainable and fair trade products,  it is difficult for the average consumer of Frankincense essential oil and resin to get a clear answer from anyone about the state of these desert trees in the world.

Are they thriving?  Are they declining in numbers like many other species? Are they properly tended? Are they being sustainably harvested? Are the people and communities that traditionally rely on the harvest adequately compensated, are they also thriving? Will there still be Frankincense trees, resin, and essential oil in another 10 or 100 years? If not, is anyone doing anything about it?

Much of our education about essential oils comes from essential oil companies whose collective profit from selling us Frankincense essential oil is measured in millions of dollars. One might wonder if an unbiased and independent examination of the trade in Frankincense would provide different answers to our questions about ethics and sustainability.

As consumers, we have enormous power to effect change in the world. But we can’t make informed choices unless we have accurate information.

IMG_1032

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bad news about our Frankincense trees.

With a growing demand and poor management on our part, our supply of Frankincense from around the world is shrinking at an alarming rate. Trees are dying much faster than they can reproduce. Little is being done to reverse the trend, address the problems, or remedy the situation. The future of Frankincense is getting bleaker by the moment.

The majority of our world’s supply of Frankincense comes from

  • Ethiopia
  • Somalia/Somaliland.
  • India
  • Oman and the Arabian peninsula
  • Sudan and Kenya

It is safe to say, that beyond minor variations, the Frankincense trees in all these countries are disappearing for the same reasons. Even as, or perhaps because, our world demand for Frankincense is steadily increasing.

Currently, all Frankincense and Myrrh resins are harvested from wild trees. There are no functional agricultural plantations, reforestation, or propagation programs of that can take some of the pressure off the wild stock.

An exception is Guy Erlich’s Balm of Gilead farm, which is home to a thriving plantation of Frankincense Sacra trees by the Dead Sea in Israel. Though his orchard is steadily expanding, it may be decades before his trees produce a meaningful amount of resin.

P_20170315_063118_vHDR_Auto

The Jericho Valley Balm of Gilead and Frankincense farm

 

The factors contributing to the decline of wild Frankincense and Myrrh trees stem mainly from poor management on our part.

  • Over harvesting
  • Improper harvesting methods
  • Agricultural encroachment
  • Use as fuel, (Charcoal), fencing and lumber
  • Grazing animals
  • Wildfires
  • Diseases and insects
  • Poaching

In 2011, a study done in neighboring Ethiopia projected 90% of Ethiopia’s Frankincense trees would be gone within 50 years. This conclusion was based solely on the impact of insects, wildfires, agricultural encroachment, collection for charcoal, and grazing. It did not factor in the loss of trees from unsustainable harvesting practices.

20170115_135021

Community concern for the trees and the trade is escalating.

 

Displaced communities

The effects of a loss of Frankincense trees run deeper than just scarcity and higher prices for us. Communities throughout the harvesting regions depend on the yearly harvest and in many cases, it provides their sole source of income and livelihood for the year.

These are indigenous cultures that have developed close cultural identities with the trees over centuries.  Frankincense and Myrrh trees often have a special sociocultural status and are woven deeply into local traditions. It is not uncommon sees individual Frankincense trees that have been preserved and left untapped for decades to be given as dowry.

If the Frankincense trees are lost, the communities which depend on them will lose their ancient ties to the land, their cultural identity, history, and heritage. They will become displaced refugees, seeking new lives and livelihoods in the cities and towns.

A spike in our demand for Frankincense essential oil

A recent study done by Dr. Anjanette DeCarlo in Somaliland indicates a sharp increase in our demand for Frankincense essential oil the past decade has compounded the stress on the already declining tree population and accelerated their deterioration. In other words, our supply of Frankincense resin is growing smaller, even as our demand for it grows.

Dr. DeCarlo reports a noticeable increase in dead and dying trees compared to a visit she made 6 years ago. I would assume this trend is felt in all Frankincense harvesting regions since the demand for the essential oil is unilateral. We are rushing blindly towards a collapse of the trade in Frankincense and Myrrh. If we don’t wake up and do something about it soon, it will be too late.

DSC_0246

Dead Frankincense and Myrrh trees. Over-tapped they soon succumb to insects and pathogens.

Other findings that Dr. DeCarlo shares in her reports are an increase in over harvesting, improper tapping methods, harvesting from immature trees, and the decline in quality of resin from stressed trees. Instead of being tapped in the traditional manner, with a tool called a Mingaaf, with 6-8 cuts each summer for two years, then rested for one, many trees are cut continuously with machetes year round, up to 100 cuts, summer and winter, year after year. Not only do they yield less resin and lower quality resin the more they are tapped, but the trees have no time to rest and regain their strength. This makes them vulnerable to attack by the longhorn beetle and pathogens it brings with it.

Over-harvesting also drastically reduces the germination rate of their seeds, making it unlikely they will be able to reproduce. When they can no longer yield resin, their bark is stripped and sold as low-grade incense material which is a death sentence for the tree. Though this is likely the work of poachers, it is transforming the landscape in many areas.

 

Dr. Decarlo recently visited 10 out of 40 major harvesting centers in Somaliland, traveling great distances inland up the mountains to revisit the trees and the harvesters. She discovered that in some areas, traditional harvesting methods were still implemented and in others, large tracts of both Myrrh and Frankincense trees had been over-harvested to the point of death to meet the increased market demand.

If not addressed and corrected, these trends indicate we will soon see the end of our Frankincense supply. Considering it takes 30-50 years for the trees to reach harvesting age in the wild, we are already in the middle of a serious supply crisis. We just don’t feel it yet. In an ideal world, we would have started replanting and reforestation programs in all resin harvesting regions a long time ago. 

20161008_155617

A tagged tree that was thriving 6 years ago will soon be dead, decades prematurely.

The good news about our Frankincense trees

We live in a garden world of medicinal and aromatic plants, and regardless of boundaries, borders, politics, languages, religions and cultures, we all share it, for better or worse. These problems belong to all of us. As do their solutions. Since we in the West have most of the financial resources in the world, it is we who have the power and responsibility to change things for the better. Especially in poorer and less developed countries.

 

20161013_131247

Dr. DeCarlo revisits harvesters in Somaliland.

 

 

A glimmer of hope for Frankincense and Myrrh-An interview with Dr. Anjanette DeCarlo

The good news about Frankincense is Dr. Anjanette DeCarlo. She is not just a trained researcher, but a seasoned activist. At this point, it is clear that only carefully planned and executed action can save our Frankincense and Myrrh trees from the brink of extinction.

Funded in part by socially responsible companies concerned with issues of sustainability and fair trade in the products they sell, Dr. DeCarlo is conducting in-depth, open-source studies of the Frankincense trade in Somaliland. She has identified problems, graphed the trends and is developing solutions that could work to not only save the existing Frankincense trees but regenerate this precious resource over time.

Open source, in this case, means the results of her studies are public. Open and accessible to all. I strongly urge you to watch the video below and follow her future work closely. Especially if you want to become an educated consumer and make informed decisions that will contribute to the health and well-being of the world’s Frankincense and Myrrh trees. With the right information and guidance, we can all make a difference.

IMG_1059

Cal Madow.  A mountain oasis

Somalia and Somaliland are home to the world’s largest Frankincense “forest” and have been supplying the Western world with its Frankincense and Myrrh since before we learned to write the words Frankincense and Myrrh in our ancient texts and tomes. Most of these Frankincense and Myrrh forests are found in the Sanaag region which stretches between Somalia and Somaliland. Cal Madow is a very special part of this area.

The Cal Madow mountain range catches and precipitates the mists and clouds from the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, making it the lushest area in the region. It is home to cliff hanging forests of Frankincense and valley groves of Myrrh trees, rare species of animals, birds, and plants found nowhere else in the world.

 

20161008_163006

Desertification is spreading steadily throughout the region and Cal Madow.

Cal Madow is quickly succumbing to loss and degradation from the same human encroachment and poor management that we see in other resource-rich and unprotected areas of the world. It needs to be conserved before it is lost along with its Frankincense forests and groves of Myrrh.

The deteriorating state of this beautiful green zone makes it a symbol of everything that is wrong with the current trade in Frankincense and an ideal place to start rectifying the loss of Frankincense trees and their natural environment before it is too late.

Cal Madow needs to be designated a UNESCO world heritage site, but since Somaliland has not received UN recognition as an independent country, this type of global assistance and protection is not yet available.  So what can we do in the meantime?

Dr. DeCarlo has established the “Conserve the CalMadow”  website where you will find more information on her work. She has also set up Conserve the Cal Madow Facebook page which is a place where everyone, including local residents, can involve themselves in the conservation efforts.

If solutions developed through her research are successful in Cal Madow and Somaliland, they can be implemented in other Frankincense growing regions. Then, we might have a chance to stop the loss of our Frankincense and Myrrh trees before it is too late, while preserving this unique natural resource.

What can we, as concerned consumers, do about the demise of our Frankincense trees?

Many of us, as Western consumers, don’t realize the power we hold in our hands as a group. Our opinion, public opinion, can make or break businesses, corporations, and even governments. Every individual “Like”, “Share”, and purchase we make online shapes the world around us, and collectively, our power is immeasurable.

So, now that you are a little more educated about the condition of our world’s Frankincense trees and have a clearer idea of what their future looks like, you might ask yourself, what can I do as an informed consumer to help reverse the damage and create a sustainable source of Frankincense for everyone before it is too late?

14522203_198792510550184_692344513_o-copy-copy

Frankincense Frereana and Carterii trees have a love of sheer rock faces making resin collection perilous for harvesters. Every year harvesters are injured or killed from falls and snakebites. 

  • First of all, Dr. DeCarlo is organizing first aid kits for harvesters. Frankincense Frereana and Carterii prefer to grow right out of the rock often on vertical cliff faces. The work of tapping and collecting the resin is extremely dangerous. Every year harvesters are injured and killed from falls and poisonous snake bites. They have no medical facilities and lack even basic first aid products. We can’t help the trees without helping their harvesters. Providing the harvesters with first aid kits and minimal medical care is something any one of us can do.  From March to the end of April, Dr. Decarlo will collect donations of first aid kits that she can distribute to the harvesters when she returns to Somaliland in May. Kits can be sent to the project’s talented research assistant, Stephen Johnson at-Conserve CalMadow C/O Stephen Johnson 4670 144th PL SE, Bellevue, WA 98006.   This is the first in a series of projects that are geared to improve conditions for both the harvesters and the Frankincense trees.  If you would like to help make changes in this industry, this is a good place to start. Providing rudimentary climbing and safety gear, snake proof shin guards and access to anti-venom are a few of the future projects on her list.
  • Ask your suppliers of Frankincense resin and essential oil whether their products are ethically and sustainably sourced. If not, invest your world-changing purchasing power with a company that actively supports sustainability and fair trade. As individual consumers, it is up to us to put pressure on our suppliers to be part of the solution and not the problem.
  • Like and follow Dr. DeCarlos “Conserve Cal Madow” Facebook page. In our world where each click, share and like, translates into trends of public opinion, these small actions are accumulative and send ripples of potential change through the world. Add your voice to the call for action.
  • Keep your eye on Dr. DeCarlo’s Conserve the CalMadow Facebook page so you can keep abreast of developments and further tangible actions you can take to help the Frankincense trees and the harvester communities who depend on them. She will need your support to make real changes in the industry.
  • Educate yourself then pass it on. The more of us that “hear the trees falling” and are aware of the current state of affairs in the world of resins and essential oils, medicinal and aromatic plants, the more power we have as a community that can create positive change. Educate others.
  • If you want to help this project in a more direct way and can volunteer your time, you can contact Dr. DeCarlo at-somalilandconservation@gmail.com.

 

 

Dan

Boswellia Serrata-India

Make a Frankincense resin oil with Boswellic acids

As promised, here is the method I use for making a medicated oil from an extract of frankincense resin. Since writing the post on extracting Frankincense resin and Boswellic acids with water, a number of people have contacted me expressing difficulty dissolving the resin extract homogeneously in a vegetable oil. It is very important to follow the steps in the order they are laid out below.

This method also works well when making a medicated oil using our local northern Pine, Spruce and Fir oleoresins which offer us an equally broad range of largely untapped,  :-),  therapeutic compounds.

An extract of Frankincense in oil

Frankincense has a long and growing list of therapeutic applications. Coupled with ongoing research and investigation of new and promising compounds such as the Boswellic acids, Incensole and Incensole acetate, this list will likely continue growing into the foreseeable future.

A medicated oil, in this case, a solution of the extract of Frankincense oleoresin dissolved in a vegetable oil, makes an excellent vehicle for Frankincense’s most valuable therapeutic compounds. It has some advantages over a powdered extract and an alcoholic tincture because it can be applied topically directly to the skin and is easily incorporated into salves and cremes.

Though it can be taken internally and is readily digested and assimilated, taking powdered Frankincense is likely a better way to get all the therapeutic compounds into our bodies. I personally take 1/2 to 1 level teaspoon of powdered Frankincense 3-5 times a day, washed down with water when I feel the need. I use an oil extract/infusion of Frankincense forexternal applications only.

Boswellia Serrata-India

Frankincense-Boswellia Serrata-India-Olibanum

In Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medical system, Frankincense Serrata has been used in formulas for hundreds of years to address a wide range of diseases and health issues. Though not as well documented, Frankincense also has a long history of traditional use in Africa, the Arabian peninsula, Asia and is a staple of TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine where it is referred to as “Ru Xiang”.

A short list of the main known uses for Frankincense would include, but is not limited to the treatment of-

Arthritis, Osteo and Rheumatoid arthritis, Asthma, coughs, colds and congestion, inflammation of joints, inflammation of the bowels, ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcers and Crohn’s disease, inflammations, irritations and infections of the urinary tract, halitosis, and oral issues. Frankincense is a traditional ingredient in beauty products, skin, face and eye cremes, helps moisturize the skin, is believed to increase its elasticity and promote a more a youthful look.

Frankincense is also used traditionally to increase memory and brain function, raise the spirits, reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, as an aphrodisiac, to restore sexual vitality, increase sperm count and address fertility issues. Lately, it has become popular in the west as a “Home remedy” for age spots, skin tags, moles and is thought to help in the treatment of various types of skin cancer.

A medicated oil of Frankincense oleo-resin

An  warm oil infusion of Frankincense Neglecta oleo-resin

Frankincense is anti-inflammatory, its Boswellic acids are considered NSAIDS or Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs, showing promise in the treatment of many chronic inflammatory conditions without the side effects associated with steroids.

Recent research has shown great promise in the laboratory for the use of Frankincense and Boswellic acids in selectively killing cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact and generating no substantial side effects. Some cancers that Frankincense shows effectiveness combating include ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, bladder, liver, colon cancer and  leukemia, while other studies have shown its effectiveness in reducing the size of brain tumors, reducing swelling and inflammations of the brain due to trauma or stroke. It is important to keep in mind that many of these studies are still in-vitro preliminary studies in the laboratory and not clinical trials tested on humans. See the link at bottom of this post for some  research and references to the therapeutic effects of Boswellic acids.

Separation of Frankincense Papyrifera into its 3 components

Separation of Frankincense Papyrifera into its 3 components. Not presented here in their naturally occurring proportions are-resin dissolved in oil on the left, gum dissolved in water on the right and essential oil center stage.

Using Frankincense essential oil VS the whole oleoresin

The essential oil of Frankincense, as with most other oleoresins, only contains a small portion of the healing compounds the tree offers us. Though essential oils are very concentrated, they contain only the volatile compounds that evaporate at up to 100 degrees centigrade, the boiling point of water. All the heavier compounds which make up the Frankincense resin do not distil over with the essential oils except in trace amounts. This includes all the Boswellic acids and the much-studied AKBA or Acetyl-Keto-Boswellic-Acid. The essential oils make up from 1%-10% of the raw Frankincense oleo gum resin, the rest is composed of approximately 30% water-soluble gum and 60%+ resin, comprised mainly of Boswellic acids. To be perfectly clear, the essential oil of any type of Frankincense contains only a small portion of its healing properties and does not contain Boswellic acids in any substantial quantity.

The only way to utilize the Boswellic acids in our medicine is

  1. By using the whole raw oleo-gum-resin.
  2. Extracting the resin portion with solvents.
  3. Extracting/isolating the resin and essential oil by removing the water-soluble gum.

Though the water-soluble portion of Frankincense is used in traditional Arabian and Iranian medicine, and likely has its own important healing compounds, they are not yet as well known, well researched, popular or understood.

Water bath with multiple vessels and ingredients warming to the same temperature.

Water bath with multiple vessels and ingredients warming to the same temperature.

Preparing a therapeutic oil from Frankincense resin extract

In the preceding post, I shared instructions on how to use water to extract or isolate the resin/Boswellic acids and essential oil from Frankincense oleo gum resins. To date, the Boswellic acids have been confirmed in 3 of the 6 main types of Frankincense on the market. Boswellia Serrata from India, B. Papyrifera from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan, and B. Sacra/Carterii from Somalia and Arabia.

Boswellia Sacra/Carterii resin extract beneath B. Papyrifera resin extrac

Solid at room temperature the resin portions of Boswellia Sacra/Carterii beneath that of B. Papyrifera do not distil over with the essential oils. This is the residence of  the Boswellic acids.

Here then are the best methods I have found, mainly through trial and error, to make a medicated oil from a Frankincense resin or oleo-resin extract.This solution of Frankincense oleoresin in oil can be used as it is or as a therapeutic component in a salve or creme.

  • Set up a water-bath with two containers/jars/vessels. (See the post-A solid moustache wax recipe)
  • In one jar place the extract of Frankincense resin, Note that the same process of dissolving oleoresins also works well dissolving Pine, Spruce and Fir oleoresins in oil since they have no water-soluble gum and can be dissolved in the warm oil straight from the tree. Frankincense Frereana from Somalia can also be dissolved as a raw oleoresin in the oil since it’s water soluble gum portion is usually minute and does not interfere in this process.
  • Using the oil of your choice, measure 5 to 10 times the weight of the resin extract you are using and place it in the second jar. I use extra virgin cold pressed olive oil and it works well for me. I have not tested the process with other oils except Jojoba which also dissolves the resin readily. A 1:2 ratio of resin extract to oil will give you a very thick solution, more difficult to work with. I personally prefer a 1:5 ratio of oil to resin extract and find it works well. One can use a ratio of up to 1:10 and still expect an effective medicine.
  • Bring the water in the bath to a boil.
  • The resin will start to soften and slump at about 60-70 degrees centigrade.
  • Wait till the resin gets as soft and as mobile as it’s going to get and let both jars reach and sit at their maximum temperature a few minutes. Occasional stirring helps disperse the warmer material and speed up the process. (Make sure the level of the hot bath water is a bit above the level of the oil and the resin in your jars to guarantee they are heated through evenly). You can use a digital thermometer to accurately measure their respective temperatures, or “eyeball it” and leave them in the hot water a little longer to assure they are evenly heated. Loosely covering the jars also seems to facilitate even heating of the materials.
  •  Pour or transfer a very small amount of the hot oil into the hot resin, (about a teaspoon to a tablespoon), and stir it into the resin till the resin is evenly diluted by the oil.  When it looks like the resin is thinner and more liquid and not clumping or layering with the oil, add a bit more oil to the resin, and stir as before till the resin is completely dissolved. If you are pouring the oil directly, make sure no water drips into the resin from the sides of the oil jar while you are pouring.
  • Repeat with increasing quantities of oil till you have added all your oil to the resin.
  •  When the oil and the Frankincense resin are homogeneously blended, pour the mix through a fine mesh filter into a clean jar or bottle. A fine metal mesh coffee filter above a funnel works well.
  • If you like you can add a little Vitamin E to preserve the oil from rancidity, but in my experience a high ratio of resin in a vegetable oil preserves it for quite a long time. Remember these oleoresins have been used for thousands of years to embalm, mummify and preserve bodies, some of which are still intact today..
  •  You will be left with a fairly homogenous solution. It will sediment a bit as vegetable oil does not completely dissolve all the components of the resin. I find this sedimentation does not interfere with any of the products I make with the oil. When making a salve or creme I stir it well and find it blends well with both.  To create a complete dissolution of resin, one must use harsher solvents which I like to avoid. A little sedimentation seems a small price to pay for a more natural product.
  • Please note-You will encounter difficulties if you do any of the following- 
  •  If you heat the oil and the resin in the same container,
  • If you don’t wait till they are close to 100 degrees centigrade and the same temperature,
  • If you pour all your oil in at the same time.
  • If you pour the resin into the oil.
  • Also-Never use a microwave for this process or heat the materials directly on the stovetop without a waterbath.

Your oil is now ready to use as-is or added to a compound product such as a salve or a creme, following any recipe you are used to or one of many from the internet.

Clarifying some terms.

In general, many of the terms used over the years to describe tree resins have been interchangeable and confusing. I am equallly guilty of perpetuating this. So- for the sake of clarity in this post I will add that-

  • All Frankincense and Myrrh types are in fact oleo-gum-resins because they all contain oleo or volatile oils, also called essential oils, they all contain resin, made up mostly of terpenes and resin acids. And they all contain water soluble gum, made up mainly of polysacharrides containing a bitter principle.

When we wash away the water soluble gum, we are left with the pure oleoresin, or resin and essential oil. This is now a true oleoresin. If we evaporate or otherwise remove the essential oils we will be left with a resin. Both resin and volatile oils are soluble in oils, the gum is soluble in water and is not soluble in oil.

Pine, Spruce and Fir trees bear true oleoresins because they contain only resin and volatile oils and no water-soluble gum.  For this reason they will dissolve readily into warm oils with no extra processing or extraction required.

Though they are sometimes called saps, these fragrant materials are produced by special ducts beneath the outer bark in response to injuries, and are not really the sap of the tree which collects and delivers nutrients throughout the tree and is accessed through tapping the tree deeply.

Here is a link with a good overview of Frankincense and Boswellic acids. Though this is only one study, it covers many of the therapeutic properties and applications of Boswellic acids and provides links to quite a few studies on the subject. It is written with regard to Boswellia Serrata, but it is equally applicable to both Boswellia Papyrifera and Boswellia Sacra/Carterii, since all three species have been proven to share similar chemistry and content of Boswellic acids and Incensole. Makes for an educational and informative read. Enjoy!

Frankincense (乳香 Rǔ Xiāng; Boswellia Species): From the Selection of Traditional Applications to the Novel Phytotherapy for the Prevention and Treatment of Serious Diseases

That’s about it.

Feel free to post any questions you have in the comment section below.

And remember to always take clear notes..

Your future self will thank you.

Dan

Queen Hatsheput's expedition to the Land of Punt. Returning with living Frankincense and Myrrh trees.

Letters from the land of Punt

I did not expect this blog to receive much attention except from those who might want to work with oleoresins or buy some Frankincense from my shop.

However, within a year of publishing it, it has grown into a homing beacon for Somali and Somaliland Frankincense harvesters who have found a voice that echos their frustration at the disparities and inequalities of the trade.

Over the past year I have received many messages and emails from Somali harvesters, often deeply moving and sincere expressions of the desperation felt by a culture with their back against a wall.

The traditional Frankincense harvesters tend their hereditary trees and sell their precious resins within a status quo that leaves them locked in poverty while others reap the profits and sell as their own, what has been their unique heritage for thousands of years.

Now, with the voices of the harvesters contributing, my monologue is becoming a dialogue. And with dialogue between people anything is possible. The question is, what needs to happen?

deir_el_bahri_jul_2006_0050

Queen Hatsheput’s expedition to the Land of Punt. Returning with living Frankincense and Myrrh trees.

Somalia is considered by most, the ancient land of Punt. Referred to thousands of years ago by the Egyptians, and other civilizations as the home of Frankincense and Myrrh. Somalia is the only place in the world where the rare and valuable Frankincense Frereana, know as Maydi, can be found in abundance.

All Somali Frankincense is bought invariably by middlemen, often from desperate harvesters who are willing to barter for bags of rice at heavily inflated prices just to guarantee their family’s sustenance for the year. Poor harvesters have been known to borrow money from middlemen ahead of the harvest to make ends meet, only to return the loan twofold in precious resins. These are only a couple of representative stories I have heard from different sources that reflect the current state of the harvesters in the country. There are many more to share.

Queen Hatsheput's expedition to the Land of Punt. Returning with living Frankincense and Myrrh trees.

Queen Hatsheput’s expedition to the Land of Punt.

From west of the Somali Puntland through the independent state of Somaliland we find much of our world’s Frankincense and Myrrh trees. Often other, more developed countries across the gulf who can not grow enough for their own market demand, purchase these resins at rock bottom prices from harvesters who have no one else to sell to. They make excellent profits and market the resins and essential oils as their own.

Decades of conflict have isolated all but the boldest western buyers from the area leading to a long chain of middlemen and money-making exchanges before we see any of these precious resins or essential oils in the western world.  The harvesters see a disproportionately small amount of this profit.

These are the traditional stewards of some of our world’s rarest aromatics and medicinals. There is no one in the world better positioned, trained, or with the proper incentive to preserve these precious resources. This is an ideal opportunity to move to a different paradigm of sustainable world ecology and commerce, but first we must recognize that the most elegant and effective way to sustain our world’s natural resources is to support those that already do so. The livelihood of these traditional resin harvesters rests entirely on the well-being of these trees and the time proven methods of harvesting.

The harvesters need an open and “Fair trade” market, where they can sell directly to buyers, dispense with middlemen and reclaim the ancient and revered name of  Frankincense from the Land of Punt.

Queen Hatsheput's expedition to the Land of Punt. Returning with living Frankincense and Myrrh trees.

Queen Hatsheput’s expedition to the Land of Punt. Returning with living Frankincense and Myrrh trees.

The sought after and esteemed “King of Frankincense”,  Maydi, or Frankincense Frereana, also known as Coptic Frankincense, is much rarer than B. Sacra/Carterii and only grows abundantly in Somalia and neighboring Somaliland with a smattering of trees east to Kenya and perhaps west to Yemen. (See Maydi the king of Frankincense”). It is coveted in Arabian countries as a high-end natural chewing gum, special occasion incense and medicine. We in the west are the last to see it due to its extraordinary value in the East. It gets no credit as being the pride of Puntland or exclusive to Somalia. Nor do the harvesters reap the rewards they should for one of the world’s rarest resources.

Frankincense Frereana oleoresin, a rare and sought after commodity.

Frankincense Frereana oleoresin, a rare and precious commodity.

This Blog has taken a direction of its own and I don’t know where this dialogue will lead. There is obvious room for improvement in the trade of fragrant and medicinal oleoresins both in ethics and sustainability. There are likely  more voices to come, and who knows, there might even be some change in the wind.

I’ll keep you posted.

Dan

.

A visual comparison of 5 types of Frankincense-Boswellia- Papyrifera, Neglecta, Frereana, Rivae, Carterii/Sacra Apothecarysgarden.com

A Chart of Frankincense solubility

Here is an often referred to, unique and useful chart my friend in Addis Ababa, Professor Ermias Dagne, compiled and posted on his website Aritiherbal.com a few years ago. Due to various issues it has rarely been accessible on his website.

Frankincense tree in the wild

Frankincense tree in the wild

Many have asked for such a comparative tool for the various types of Frankincense, so, here it is. Much more study and research needs to be done on these precious aromatic and medicinal oleoresins. Not only to accurately discern the many compounds they share and distinguish themselves by, how these compounds affect our physiology, or interact with other compounds and medication, but to deepen our understanding of the trees that bear them as important cultural, economic and ecological entities.

Seeing to the prosperity and well-being of the harvesters and clans that care for these trees in the wild, still seems the most direct and efficient method to preserve and tend to them. For this reason, “fair trade” products and practices shine for their effectiveness in balancing the resources of the world, and carry with them a clear message of benefit through conservation.

Young Frankincense harvester bringing his daily harvest down from dangerous rocky terrain where the Frankincense Frereana  trees grow.

Young Frankincense harvester in the remote mountains of Somaliland brings his daily harvest down from dangerous rocky terrain where the Frankincense Frereana trees grow. Photo courtesy of Asli Maydi

Fair trade practices establish direct relationships with the harvesters, assure us of the freshest and best quality products, support conservation in ways large organizations cannot, and ensure fair value on all sides.

Though world demand for these healing natural products is growing, I think the first step is to preserve what we have in nature. From there we can devise methods to expand the harvest in ways that maintain both cultural and ecological balance.

The lives of the harvester families and clans often centers around the production, harvest and sale of these aromatic oleoresins, and must be accounted for. They are the only stewards of these trees and have been for centuries. If trees are damaged or lost, that loss is personal and beyond mere financial inconvenience. These trees grow wild in the most remote regions as do these families and clans. They are dependent on each other, and these trees are integrated deeply in their social and cultural lives.

Onward to the chart. Courtesy of Prof. Ermias Dagne, Addis Ababa and Aritiherbal.com

A Visual comparison of Boswellia Species-Frankincense

A Visual comparison of Boswellia Species-Frankincense

There are six common Boswellia species whose resins are traded and these are:-

Extractability of resin: Table 1 shows extractability data using 500 grams of gum-resins of 4 frankincense species with four solvents

Species name Common name

Water

Ethanol

Acetone

Hexane

B. papyrifera Tigray-Type 90 mg/ 18% 360mg/70% 240mg/48% 275mg/54%
B. rivae Ogaden Type 195 mg/ 39% 307mg/60% 287mg/57% 390mg/80%
B. sacra Beyo
(56 -178N)
93 mg/ 19% 370mg/74% 470mg/95% 220mg/45%
B. sacra Beyo Hilary 88 mg/ 18% 315 mg/63% 325mg/65% 249mg/50%
B. frereana Meydi Hilary 2 mg/ >0.5% 395mg/80% 386mg/77% 450mg/90%
B. frereana Meydi 56-178P 0.5 mg >0.5% 495mg/99% 220mg/44% 490 mg/98%