Apothecary arts

Frankincense tree in the wild

Tapping into Frankincense and its Boswellic acids- an easy extraction method

How to isolate the resin and Boswellic acids from select Frankincense oleoresins with water

Boswellia Papyrifera-Pure Resin-Medicine, Perfume & Incense.

Boswellia Papyrifera-Isolated Resin-Boswellic acids-

Lately, we have been hearing a lot about the anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer compounds found in the frankincense family. The most publicized recently are the Boswellic acids and AKBA, or acetyl-keto-beta-boswellic acid,  pentacyclic triterpenes found in some species of Frankincense which make up a significant part of the resin in these oleo-gum-resins. The motivation for the increase in research, and much of the funding, from what I can see, is largely due the projected profit perceived by pharmaceutical companies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it provides the impetus for discovery, progress and knowledge, but good to keep in mind nonetheless.

With a rapidly growing aging population in the west, an increase in chronic inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, rheumatism, inflammatory bowel disease, and various cancers, the market is receptive. There are theories that most if not all age-related degenerative conditions are directly associated with inflammation. Frankincense’s history of use in traditional eastern medical systems as an anti-inflammatory makes it an excellent candidate for modern applications..

Frankincense tree in the wild

Frankincense Sacra/Carterii tree in the wild

Besides hearing about Boswellic acids in groundbreaking studies, some essential oil companies advertise that their distilled essential oils of Frankincense contain a high percent of Boswellic acids. This is misleading. Some essential oils of Frankincense may have a higher percent of Boswellic acids than other essential oils of Frankincense, but the Boswellic acids are not found in the essential oils except in trace amounts. They are found in the heavy resin portion and cannot be distilled into the essential oils except in minute quantities. Like politics, statistics in advertising can be misleading.

The Boswellic acids are heavy molecules called triterpenes, and while many beneficial compounds are light enough to separate themselves from the frankincense oleo-gum-resin when heated during the distillation process, the Boswellic acids are not. They make up the heavier resin portion. This is not to say that the essential oil of Frankincense is not a wonderful therapeutic oil with many valuable compounds and health benefits, but that when it comes to Boswellic acid content, it can only have trace amounts unless Boswellic acids were added to it manually and then it would no longer be an essential oil, but an oleoresin..

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

Made up mainly of Boswellic acids, and solid at room temperature, the  pure resins of Boswellia Sacra/Carterii beneath B. Papyrifera do not distill over with the essential oils.

The only products that can claim with verity to contain significant amounts of Boswellic acids are either the whole raw oleo-gum-resin of certain Frankincense types, or extracts that have been processed with solvents to isolate the resins that contain the Boswellic acids.  Boswellic acids are not found in the water-soluble gum portion of Frankincense or the distilled essential oils except as mentioned, in trace amounts.

Claims that the essential oil of Frankincense from any company, contains a high percent of Boswellic acids, that you should ingest their essential oils, or that their oils are “Therapeutic quality”, were developed to market their products and are not put forth in the interest of your edification or wellbeing.

Simply put-

  • There is no significant amount of Boswellic acids in any Frankincense essential oil when compared to the quantities naturally present in the unprocessed oleo-gum-resin, the pure resin or the extract.
  • You should never ingest essential oils without consulting with a qualified healthcare professional.

We have come to associate the essential oil of any given plant as the quintessence of its healing properties. While this may be true for some plants, it is far from the truth for oleoresins which hold many healing compounds in their undistillable resin portion.

If you would like to extract or isolate the Boswellic acids and the resin portion of Frankincense yourself, there is a simple way you can do this with the right type of Frankincense. Once you have the pure resin it is relatively easy to make a variety of products that utilize and deliver the Boswellic acids. The whole oleo gum resin of Frankincense will not dissolve easily in oil based products due to its water soluble gum content. It will also not dissolve well in water based products due to its oleo and resin components. The solution is to separate the water soluble part from the oil soluble part which is the point of this post and the following method.

Boswellia separated into 3 components

Frankincense Papyrifera gum dissolved in water on the right, resin in alcohol on the left ,and distilled essential oils center. Not in their naturally occurring proportions

Recent research has identified Boswellic acids in the resin of 3 types of Frankincense. The number may increase as more research is done on other species. ( See pages 125-127) http://scidok.sulb.uni-saarland.de/volltexte/2012/4999/pdf/Dissertation_Fertig_211112.pdf

They are-

  • Boswellia Papyrifera from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Sudan.
  • Boswellia Seratta from India.
  • Boswellia Sacra/Carterii, (one and the same tree), from Somalia, Kenya, Oman and Yemen.
A visual comparison of 5 types of Frankincense-Boswellia- Papyrifera, Neglecta, Frereana, Rivae, Carterii/Sacra Apothecarysgarden.com

A visual comparison of 5 types of Frankincense-Boswellia

 A simple and safe method to isolate the resin and Boswellic acids in Frankincense

While different solvents can be used to isolate the resin and Boswellic acid portion of Frankincense, The simplest and safest method is to do so is with water.

 30/November/2015-Since writing this post, I have developed an easier/better method for separating the resin portion and the Boswellic acids from the whole oleo gum resin. If you are revisiting this page, I hope you find the following process simpler and more satisfying.

  • Take 100-500 grams of fresh Frankincense.
  •  In a stainless steel, Teflon coated or glass pot, bring at least 10 liters of water to a boil. More than this is just fine.
  • Place a stainless steel sieve or colander with a fine mesh about 1/2 submerged in the water. Ideally, use a sieve that will rest on the edge of the pot securely, otherwise you will have to hold it at the right height through the process and you will need an extra hand.
  • When it is at a full boil, gently add 100 to 500 grams of one of the 3 aforementioned types of Frankincense into the suspended sieve, careful to not splash boiling water on yourself. It is fine if the resin sits partially above the water, it will soon settle.
  •  With a wooden spoon or some other utensil, gently run the submerged resin granules back and forth through the boiling water allowing the water to wash over them all and dissolve them.
  • The water soluble gum will dissolve and disperse in the water while the pure oleoresin, the resin with the essential oils, will exit and float around the outside of the sieve. The bark and other foreign matter will collect in the sieve and not pass to the water.
  • Once most of the resin is floating on the surface of the water, it will also push its way back into the sieve. To address this, lift the sieve higher and allow the rest of the resin to exit the sieve. At this point you may need help running the utensil back and forth gently forcing the resin through into the water.
  •  When the sieve is empty of gum and water, set it aside.
  • Skim/scoop out all the resin that is floating in the pot into a separate preferably stainless steel bowl. I use a small colander/sieve that captures more resin than water for this purpose. It’s ok if you transfer water into the bowl with the resin since you can easily pour it off after the resin sets.
  •  Set the pot of hot water aside to cool. As most of these oleoresins do, they will mostly settle to the bottom of the pot as the temperature drops.
  •  When the pot has cooled, pour the contents through yet another fine mesh sieve and add the bits of resin you collect in the sieve to your main bowl of collected resin. Pry off as much of the hard resin droplets from your pot.
  • Your resin extract still needs to go through the bath once more to remove traces of water soluble gum. When present, they will interfere with the process of making oil based products such as cremes and salves.
  • So, repeat the above process of boiling your resin with fresh clean water in the pot.
  • Break up the resin into smaller pieces that will melt evenly, and add it to the boiling water.
  • Stir it around and you will likely see the water getting a bit cloudy. This is the residual water-soluble gum we want to get rid of.
  •  It should only take a few minutes of gentle stirring to wash the rest of the gum out of the resin, so after 3-5 minutes of your completely melted resin floating around, you can skim it off as above, and place it in a clean bowl to cool and set.
  •  Again, let the pot cool and collect any resin you missed.
  • Though you could use the resin extract as it is, I put it through one final process to dry it of any residual trapped water. It usually collects water in little pockets and bubbles as it floats around the boiling water.
  •  To do this, I crush the resin coarsely, exposing as much of it to the air as I can. I stop when the largest chunks are about the size of a pea.
  • Place it on a clean Teflon or silicone cookie sheet.
  •  Preheat the oven to about 120 degrees Centigrade and place the pan in the oven.
  •  The resin will melt and flow releasing all the water in the form of vapour to the air. I tilt it this way and that to expose any pockets of water while it is hot and mobile.
  •  It only takes about 2-5 minutes of the resin uniformly melted to dry it and it can be removed from the oven and left to cool.
  •   When solid and cool, lift from the cookie sheet, break it in pieces if you like and store in ziplock bags or  a glass jar. Keep it cool or it may flow a bit and adhere to a glass container.
  • I have also used a heat gun, the kind used for stripping paint to melt the resin and remove any trapped water from it. This is an option if you feel like experimenting. If it sizzles a bit it is OK.

You now have a product with a substantial, therapeutically active proportion of Boswellic acids in a concentration much, much higher than you could ever get from a comparable quantity or weight of essential oil without the risk that concentrated essential oils can represent. At the same time you likely have a healthy percent of Frankincense essential oils in their naturally occurring concentration and matrix.

It is a substance that dissolves readily in warm vegetable oils, waxes and alcohol, and lends itself with ease to cremes, oils, salves and more. You know exactly what went into your product from start to finish. You know it wasn’t adulterated along the way, that no solvents, desiccants or fillers were added, and you know you have a 100% natural product.

Though I state it is an easy process, it is rather messy. Here is a visual walkthrough of the above process including some tips on  cleanup.


 And remember, always take clear notes.                                                                                                                                            Your future self will thank you.


How to burn Frankincense as an incense

There are many questions about Frankincense that show up regularly through the search engines.  They make excellent material for posts, and since we are getting close to the “Holiday” season, with Frankincense and Myrrh such traditional symbols in holiday lore and practice, it`s a perfect time to address them. One important question often asked is,

How do I burn Frankincense, Myrrh and other oleoresins as incense?

Myrrh tree oleo-resin Ethiopia. Ermias Dagne

Myrrh tree  in the wild of Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of my friend Ermias Dagne

Raw oleoresins, the sapfrom trees and plants, are enjoyed for their aromatic and medicinal qualities in many ways. As  incense, they are burned, alone or in combination with other fragrant natural materials such as powdered barks, flowers and essential oils. In ancient times, hot embers from the fire were used to burn incense resins. Today most cultures around the world use manufactured charcoal pucks, made from compressed powdered, partly burnt wood, (willow wood is considered one of the best for this purpose). Often these are impregnated with Saltpeter so they burn evenly. In countries where burning oleoresins is a daily tradition, one will find simple and ornate electric burners in most homes. However, charcoal pucks are by far the most commonly used way to enjoy resin incense, and a great place to start your exploration of natural resin incense.

A selection of various natural fragrant materials for incense making, and a few traditional incense products.

A  small selection of  natural fragrant materials commonly used for medicine, perfume and incense, and a few traditional incense products. Note the charcoal puck in the raised brass censer.

Churches and temples of most religions, practice some form of ceremonial burning of incense, whether as an offering to the god or gods, to purify the area, or to create a receptive atmosphere for supplicants. Studies have shown that oleoresins such as Frankincense Papyrifera contain psychoactive ingredients that affect our brain chemistry through their smoke.

Incense is burned in many countries on a daily basis before meditating, after cooking, to purify and cleanse the home physically and energetically,  for magic, ritual, and for healing. It has been shown that our bodies can absorb the medicinal, healing properties of oleoresins such as Frankincense through the smoke released while burning.  For instance, Incensole and Incensole acetate are two such chemical compounds found in Frankincense Papyrifera that can induce feelings of heightened spirituality and well-being , reduce feelings of depression and anxiety, and in studies have been shown to reduce inflammations in the brain,    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19814859?dopt=Abstract. Each country, culture, and often different provinces or villages have their unique recipes for the traditional incense type associated with their culture.

Raw resin incense is burned by placing small, pea sized pieces, or a small scoop of powdered resins, see post ( How to grind Frankincense and Myrrh), on a smoldering charcoal puck. The heated oleoresin melts and burns, releasing its essential oils first, (the oleo part), then the resins which require a higher temperature follow suit, producing aromatic smoke with a fragrance unique to each specific oleoresin.
Today, in most North American cities, we can find these foil wrapped charcoal pucks in corner stores, head shops, Asian and Mediterranean food stores. Often wherever Hookahs and Nargillas are sold. A pack of charcoal pucks ranges in price from $1.00 to $5.00 depending on where they are sold.

A wide variety of odoriferous natural materials such as tree and plant saps, (Oleoresins), powdered fragrant woods and barks, flowers and essential oils are common ingredients in traditional and modern incense products.  Many types of incense are available commercially, pre-mixed and preformed as cones, discs, sticks, ropes, papers and powders.  Often their base material is finely ground Sandalwood powder, some types use natural gums as an adhesive to hold their shape, and some contain saltpeter to keep them burning consistently. NagChampa is an example of a compound incense recipe, familiar to many of us in our western culture.

Unfortunately, to increase profit margins, artificial fragrances are often used as  inexpensive replacements for essential oils, and artificial colours are sometimes used to make the products more visually appealing. I suspect the cheaper, “dollar store” varieties of cone and stick incense fall into this category. Knowing this, makes the option of using whole oleoresins and natural fragrant materials even more appealing. One can simply burn small amounts of a single oleoresin, such as Frankincense, Myrrh or Mastic, or one can create a unique incense product by powdering and blending ingredients. It is an easy, and very gratifying process that requires no great skill, financial outlay or expensive tools.

A simple way to experiment with incense making, and enhance your enjoyment of resin incense, is by adding a drop or two of your favourite essential oils to the resin, while or before burning.

 Using a censer to burn oleoresins as incense

After you have some charcoal, you will need something to burn your incense in.  A censer.
Censers can be purchased made from different materials and in many styles. They can be found in brass, silver, steel or ceramic, from the simplest of designs to the most elaborate and bejewelled,  open to the air, or with ventilated lids. Practically any non flammable container, dish or bowl found in the average home can be used as a censer. A fully functional censer can be as simple as a glass or ceramic plate or bowl layered with kitty litter, fine gravel or sand. This non flammable, insulating layer keeps the hot coal from coming close to, or in contact with the censer. Otherwise it could heat up and burn fingers, whatever it is sitting on, and if the censer is glass or ceramic, it could crack or break from the direct heat of the hot coal.

Many hosehold items can be used as censers. This is a collection of possible candidates for censership,(haha), found at a glance in my study.

Many household items can be used as censers This is a collection of possible candidates for censership, found at a glance in my study.

From the top Candleholder, Silver chalice, various metal bowls, closed and ventilated brass boxes, a ceramic container which can be used with the lid removed, (putting the lid on is a way to extinguish the charcoal.). On the bottom level-A brass stand with a `watch glass`made from `Pyrex`, (Note, it must be made from borosilicate ie., stamped with the trade name Pyrex or Kimax etc.glass which will not crack or shatter with a drastic change in temperature!), a porcelain mortar and a seashell which is a traditional native censer for aboriginal smudge mixes.

 How to burn Frankincense resin on a charcoal puck

Light an edge of the puck with a lighter. (Hold it on the opposite side!). When it starts to sparkle a bit, or make a slight crackling, hissing sound, then the Saltpeter has been activated and the coal is igniting.
Place your coal on the sand or litter and give it at least one minute to sit. Pass your hand over it, if you feel it is emitting heat then all is good.
I usually wait till I can see a bit of white ash showing which tells me it is well-lit, and the melting resins will not smother it and put it out.
Take a small piece of frankincense or other resin, ( the size of small pea or a lentil), and place it in the middle of the coal. It will shortly release its fragrance and smoke, and there you have it. Pure, natural incense. Never leave lit charcoal unattended, or close to flammable materials.

Making incense from local oleoresins and other natural aromatic materials

If you live in North America, it is likely there are natural fragrant materials perfectly suited for use as incense found in nature all around you. Pine, Spruce and Fir trees all have wonderfully fragrant oleoresins, or saps. Cedar leaves, White sage, and tobacco are ingredients in Native American Smudge, or incense mixes. Always be respectful of plants if you do harvest some for your own use. If you like, have a look at some of my posts tagged “Wildcrafting” for some thoughts around how to nurture a mutually respectful relationship with Nature and the plant kingdom. This is ,very important!!  I can’t stress this point enough here.
Collect some Pine, Fir or Spruce sap, without damaging the tree, preferably after you have given the tree something, a symbolic gesture is fine, whether a few supportive words, an acknowledgement of your gratitude for their gifts, leave something personal or something that has meaning to you.  Sometimes our Pine trees exude their sap due to an injury caused by an insect called a borer. If you come across a single one eighth of an inch hole under the sap you have scraped off, a stiff piece of metal wire poked deep into the hole will put an end to the creature who has damaged your tree, and will make sure it does no further harm. This is a clear  and practical act of caring and giving , an act of stewardship. For this reason I always carry a wire with me. I also try to do all my sap harvesting in the cold weather while trees and bugs are dormant.

These local oleoresins are lovely burned as incense. For easy cleanup of hands tools and containers from the sticky sap, use a little olive oil or vegetable oil followed by warm water and soap. The oil and saps will leave your hands feeling soft and supple. There are many valuable healing Phytochemicals in these oleoresins whose main function is to protect and heal the “skin” of the tree.

It  is difficult to find really fresh imported oleoresins such as the different types of Frankincense and Myrrh on the market.  Most of the material I have used over the past 40 years has been decades old, passed many hands, warehouses and middlemen. This is simply what has been available to us all here til now, and more the norm than the exception unfortunately.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I received an unusually fresh shipment of Frankincense and Myrrh oleoresins from Ethiopia.
The oleoresins you will find in this website’s store, (Apothecary Shop), are these same pure, fresh, oleoresins  from three types of Ethiopian Frankincense, ( Boswellia Papyrifera, B. Rivae and B. Neglecta), and Myrrh trees and can be enjoyed straight on the coal, tinctured, extracted, used in personal care products or mixed with other ingredients in your own personal incense blend. Though they do keep their aromatic and medicinal qualities intact for decades, there is nothing quite as gratifying as working with fresh, fragrant aromatic material.

If you decide to pursue the art of incense making, and create your own incense blends and products,

remember, to always take notes!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Your future  self will thank you!!

Have a fragrant holiday season.