Boswellic acid

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?


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.



Fragrant and fresh Boswellia-Frankincense Rivae Resin

Sweet Frankincense Rivae

BoswelliaFrankincense Rivae.

Freshly harvested Incense Resin from Ethiopia

As those who keep an eye on my Facebook page know, I received a surprisingly fresh shipment of resins and oils from Ethiopia.  Surprising, because I have never seen such freshly harvested resins of Frankincense. Even when I was in Ethiopia last winter, looking at hundreds of samples, nothing I saw compared to the freshness of this stock. This may be due in part, to timing. I believe traditional Frankincense harvesting time starts in the early summer, which means I may have received one of the first shipments from the outlying extremities of Ethiopia. A shipment of Frankincense Rivae that was direct from the collector co-op in the Ogaden region of South Eastern Ethiopia. Frankincense Papyrifera, Neglecta and Myrrh oleo resins that are all fresh fragrant and pristine specimens. A harvest that had just arrived in the big city, not gone through any secondary processes such as sorting, warehousing and distribution.

Frankincense Rivae. My latest shipment from Addis Ababa. I still can't believe how he managed to source such fresh stock!!

My latest shipment from Addis Ababa. I still can’t believe how he managed to source such fresh stock!!

 Whatever the underlying reasons are, or whether it was just luck and goodwill on my supplier’s end, I have a beautiful and very fresh collection of Ethiopian oleo resins and essential oils to share with you
   I have started calling Boswellia Rivae the “Sweet Frankincense”. This little known Frankincense really is a gem. As a resin for burning or making cremes and salves, as an exquisite essential oil for perfumery and aromatherapy, I am simply in love. In the vast world of  fragrant tree saps, the sweet and subtle complexities of fresh Frankincense Rivae are an unforgettable experience..

Until recently, in our North American market, there was little choice as far as the type of Frankincense resin or essential oil one could buy. Only in the last decade or so has it been possible to acquire the rarer types of Ethiopian Frankincense such as Frankincense Rivae, Papyrifera or Neglecta in North America.

Though Frankincense has been a valuable commodity and a very important part of our global cultures, religions and trade for thousands of years, we have only just begun to properly identify the chemical markers belonging to each Frankincense species and to study the medicinal effects of the chemicals we are discovering in them.

Frankincense leaf and flower. One of 7 commercial species including Boswellia Rivae

When one examines the research done on the phytochemicals and therapeutic activities of the 5 or 6 types of Frankincense that are commercially available, (Over 340 different phytochemicals discovered in the essential oils of Frankincense Spp.), one finds that beyond their defining and distinguishing chemical markers, ( How we can tell one from the other in the laboratory),  the different types of Frankincense share many of the same therapeutic  properties.

These common therapeutic effects include: Pain management, wound healing,  reduction of scarring and anti-inflammatory actions on the body’s various systems. Most, if not all types, help treat arthritis and rheumatism, help protect and heal the liver, reduce wrinkles, crow’s-feet and help tone aging skin. All species of Frankincense, through the smoke of the incense alone, are thought to elevate feelings of heightened spirituality and well-being, aid with meditation, study, concentration and calm, and help reduce feelings of anxiety. It is also safe to say that most available types of Frankincense resin contain, in varying degrees, the much studied and greatly valued Phytochemicals“Boswellic Acids”, which studies have shown aid the body in battling different types of cancer and cancerous tumours.

Boswellia Frankincense Rivae. common Frankincense molecules. model of 11-keto-β-Boswellic Acid

It is important to note, that Boswellic acid, to which many wonderful healing properties have been attributed, does not normally “come over” when distilling the essential oils from Frankincense oleo resin. This means it is not usually a part of the essential oil of Frankincense. It is present though, in its entirety, in the Frankincense resin, and can be isolated from the resin via solvent extraction.

Sometimes, when distilling the essential oils, a lengthier or “hotter distillation can force the Boswellic acid to vaporize and condense with the essential oils, though this is not normally the case. How much Boswellic acid can one force over in this way, and whether this reduces the overall quality of the essential oil, (or the Boswellic acid), is, as yet, an unanswered question.

Frankincense Anti-Aging, Antiwrinkle creme using whole oleo-resins

Frankincense Anti-Aging, Antiwrinkle creme using whole oleo-resins

There are many therapeutic compounds found in the resins from different sap producing plants. Compounds we overlook and discard in favour of the extractable volatile, or essential oils. Essential oils, are, of course,  wonderful, and profitable, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater and discount the value of the “Resin” part of our “Oleo Resins“. Whether we are talking about Pine, Spruce and Fir, or Myrrh, Mastic and Frankincense, after extracting the essential oils from them, we are left with hundreds of valuable “phyto-therapeutics”,  or healing plant compounds, that remain unused in the resins of these trees.

For this reason, I choose to make my salves, cremes and Balms with the oleo-resins, and do not simply add essential oils to a carrier oil or base. I believe there exists a natural synergy between the resins and the essential oils, (the oleo part of oleo-resin), in the whole product as exuded from the trees.

  Boswellia, or Frankincense Rivae, as all types of Frankincense, is under the rulership of the Sun, ruler of the heart from a spiritual point of view.  All the types of Frankincense are warming and protective in nature, calming and strengthening to the mind and the heart, excellent for meditation, focus, and study, for promoting a positive self-image and confidence, the type of self centeredness that takes care of others to benefit self.

Sumerian Winged Sun Disc. Symbol of regeneration and Healing

Sumerian Winged Sun Disc. Symbol of regeneration and Healing

    Frankincense Rivae, does all this with the extra special sweetness of a unique scent on top of it’s expected Frankincense notes. This is due in part, to a high content of Limonene, Alpha Pinene, Octanol and traces of other unique chemical constituents. The high Limonene content of Frankincense Rivae also makes it an excellent anti-fungal, proven effective when treating Candida Albicans in particular.

Boswellia Rivae Resin- SO fragrant, fresh and surprisingly still sticky. Even when in Ethiopia, I did not come across any Frankincense this fresh! Wow!!

Boswellia Rivae Resin- Fresh from the tree.

Boswellia Rivae Resin- Fresh from the tree.

Considered warming to cold joints and a sluggish metabolism, Frankincense has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic and Arabian  medicine for healing wounds, reducing scarring, addressing congestions and colds and treating arthritis and rheumatism and many other age related symptoms and discomforts. Frankincense is spoken of in the old testament as part of the sacred Temple incense of the Jews, and is a traditional ingredient in Arabian Bakhour incense mixes. Frankincense has been purchased  in vast quantities, yearly, for hundreds and in some cases, thousands of years, by Churches around the world. Frankincense is often  incorporated in skin care products for its anti-aging and skin toning properties.

Boswellia, Frankincense Rivae Resin- Fresh off the tree!

Boswellia, Frankincense Rivae Resin- Fresh off the tree!




  I call Frankincense Rivae, the “Sweet Frankincense”. It is the only type I have met that has such a delightful sweet soft note to it.  It is a particularly aromatic Frankincense. On top of the expected scent of Frankincense, B. Rivae possesses a candy like note, a lovely spicy balsamic scent reminiscent of Cinnamon, Palo Santo and Vanilla.  Boswellia, Frankincense Rivae, is truly an unmistakable and unforgettable Frankincense.



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Frankincense & Myrrh, a Theory on Holistic Tinctures

A Thought on the holistic tincturing of oleo-resins.

Each type of Oleo-Gum-Resin such as Myrrh, Opoponax, Mastic, the many types of Frankincense etc., contain different proportions of water-soluble gum and alcohol soluble oleo-resins, (resins and volatile oils).

I propose that when one of these Oleo-gum-resins is tinctured to extract its medicinal constituents and properties, that the 2 solvents used for tincturing, be in the same ratio to each other, as the ratio of gum to oleo-resins in the material being tinctured.

Frankincense, Boswellia Papyrifera 60 grams. An oleo-gum-resin

Frankincense, Boswellia Papyrifera 60 grams. An oleo-gum-resin. Has a different percentage of gum to resin than Boswellia Rivae.

In a traditional medicinal, water/alcohol tincture, the gums are dissolved by the water, the oleo resins by the ethanol,(alcohol). What is left over after this extraction is mainly bark and other insoluble extraneous organic material. (Spagyric tinctures often put this to good use). The point of tincturing is to extract as much of the soluble active medicinal components as possible. Ideally exhausting the material by transferring all its chemical constituents to the medicine, while preserving any preexisting synergistic effects between them.

Considering that all parts of these natural Oleo-Gum-Resin exudates, (saps), contain valuable chemical constituents and compounds, and if there is no reason to isolate or change the natural composition of the material, it would  be a more efficacious  medicine if preserved as close to its natural state as possible

Myrrh tree, Myrrh Oleo-Resin, Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Ermias Dagne

Myrrh tree, Myrrh Oleo-Resin, Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Ermias Dagne

I propose that the best way to create a water/alcohol tincture that is true to its source material, is by using the same ratio of water to ethanol as the plant material exhibits in its ratio of gum to oleo-resin. That this is the only way to accurately migrate  the whole material authentically, with its inherent medicinal potency, and any “synergy” that is naturally present in the original material.

Boswellia, Frankincense Papyrifera. Gum, Resin and volatile oils.

“Solve'” applied to Boswellia Papyrifera. The triad is separated into its 3 components. Gum(on right), Resin, (on left), in solution, and essential oil. (Not in  their naturally occurring proportions ).

Thus, if a sample of Myrrh oleo-gum-resin contains 60% gum and 40% oleo-resins, and a Tincture was made using 100% ethanol, it would only extract the resins and volatile oils. It would have a negligible amount of water-soluble gum. Certainly nothing close to the gum to oleo-resin proportions found in the original material. One would assume this extraction would not offer the same medicinal effects as the whole oleo-gum-resin. 1- Because the water-soluble gum contains   chemical constituents that have medicinal value on their own. And 2- because whatever effects the synergy of the whole material had in its natural form, would be lost.

Myrrh is a common resin in the Horn of Africa.

Myrrh is a common resin in the Horn of Africa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to this method, a solvent mix composed of 20% alcohol and 80% water would not extract a tincture that was representative of the original material either. Rather it would contain more gum than oleo-resins than the original Myrrh. The same could be said of any other combination of these two solvents other than a combination of water to alcohol that reflected as closely as possible the actual proportions of gum to oleo-resin found in the material tinctured.

Some types of Frankincense contain very little gum, such as Boswellia Frereana.  As low as 0. 5%-0.1%, see AritiHerbal table of Extractability of Boswellia Resin. Other types of Frankincense have greater proportions of gum to oleo-resin. According to this theory of holistic tincturing,  the unique qualities inherent in each oleo-gum-resin, can only be  reproduced in a tincture if the natural ratio of gum to oleo resin in the source material is reflected accurately in the ratio of water to alcohol in the tincturing solvent. One could assume it would keep the same natural synergy in the original material intact by keeping all the chemical constituents in the same relative proportion to each other in the finished product or tincture.

Boswellia, Frankincense Frereana. Called Yeminite chewing gum.

Containing almost no water-soluble gum, Frankincense Frereana does not dissolve when masticated, for this reason it is used as a chewing gum and can be purchased under the name “Yemenite chewing gum”. It is composed mainly of resin and essential oils.

I am not a trained scientist, nor do I have access to the instruments that would put this theory of holistic tincturing to the test.  I don’t know if this makes sense to anyone besides myself, or if there is any corroborating research out there to support this theory, but I would Love to hear any opinions, conflicting or supporting.


As an addendum ,( written a month or two after this post), I need to add that after thought, contemplation, examination and the occasional dream, I realize there may be one other way to extract all of the essential oils, resin and gum from these oleo-gum resins. The one way they could be extracted in their entirety and with their naturally occurring proportions intact, without a knowledge of their inherent gum-resin-oil ratios is, If  a “disproportionately large” amount of alcohol/water is used for the extraction. So instead of making a 1:5 or 1:6 tincture with 1 being the oleo-gum-resin, something like a 1:10 tincture could be prepared. using much more water than the quantity of gum required, and much more alcohol than the oleo-resin required. In this way all the components could be extracted. However…the obvious drawback, is that there would be a much higher quantity of liquid and a lower proportion of oleo-gum-resin. So it can be done, but with a price. In a way, cheating a bit. This 1:10 ratio tincture, though containing all the soluble and desired parts of the material, would be very weak, which is not ideal and I see no finesse, or advantage to it. It would be very very difficult, if even possible, to remove the excess solvents without losing some of the volatile oils.

Since I am on the topic I will take this opportunity to raise a point that I will address in greater detail  in a future post. Lately there has been a lot of talk about the healing properties of Boswellic acid found in Boswellia Sacra. Though much important research has been done on the different types of Frankincense, and Boswellic acid does show great promise as an anti-inflammatory and antitumor, among other important applications,  it is not a volatile  or essential oil . Which means little, if any Boswellic acid is found in the essential oil of Boswellia Sacra/Carterii.  Whatever Boswellic acid is present in the oleo-gum-resins of some of the members of the Boswellia family, resides  in the resin part, not in the “Oil”, and is not normally extracted with the essential oils. If a  company claims that its essential oil of Frankincense Sacra has a “high percentage  of Boswellic acid, then one should ask, how did it get there??

Food for thought.