Frankincense

Distilling Frankincense essential oil

Continuing to work on a Frankincense anti aging/wrinkle crème and a Frankincense rejuvenating mask from the (post distillation) gum and resin residue of different types of Frankincense. Here I am distilling the essential oils from Frankincense, Boswellia species.

Successful formulation of a Frankincense Anti-Aging creme, utilizing the healing properties of the Frankincense gum and resin.

Successful formulation of a Frankincense Anti-Aging creme, utilizing the healing properties of the Frankincense gum and resin. Much more than just an essential oil.

By “post distillation” I mean that after distilling off the essential oils, what I am left with are the water-soluble gum and alcohol-soluble resin.
Since essential oils can irritate the skin, especially of the face, post distillation allows me to add a controlled amount of essential oils of my choice, isolate the water-soluble gums from the alcohol-soluble resins and remove all extraneous materials from them.

The method for distillation is steam/hydro distillation using a simple home-made pot still.

Home made pot still charged with fresh Frankincense, Boswellia Papyrifera from Ethiopia.

Home made pot still charged with fresh Frankincense from Ethiopia.

  The oleo-gum-resin for this distillation is Frankincense from Ethiopia. Because this is an experiment I only used 2 kg. of resin. Much less than this still can process.
The ratio of essential oils in each type of Frankincense varies greatly. One can collect  anywhere from 10 ml. up to 60 ml. or more from 2 kg. of raw oleo-gum-resin.

The sieve keeps the resin from sitting on the bottom of the pot where it could burn. If the resin did get burned, even slightly, the fragrance of all the components would be affected, making resin, gum, oil and residue in the still, unusable for any purpose whatsoever and no way to reclaim them or separate the burnt odor from them. In fact, on top of the loss of the material, the whole still, including over 8 feet of air-cooled copper condenser would have to be scrubbed and practically sterilized to make sure there was not the slightest remnant of burnt residue or odor in the whole distillation train. I shudder at the thought!!! I had already done this twice prior to distilling the Frankincense just the day before. First removing traces of the last essential I had distilled, then had to do it all over again because I could smell hints of cleaning products in the condenser when I turned up the heat and started the distillation process.

       The lesson here, I believe, is that there are benefits to using standard glass water cooled condensers. I love the fact that this one utilizes air and consumes no resources to function. But it has its drawbacks.

This is a photo of the resin after distilling. Note the change in colour and texture. A pool of gum has settled at the bottom of the sieve, trying to drip into the pot through resin clogged sieve holes. Also note the milky white colour of the water after it has dissolved some of the the water soluble gums.

Home made pot Still. Frankincense resin suspended in sieve to avoid burning.

Home made pot Still. Frankincense resin suspended in sieve to avoid burning.

Frankincense water soluble gum mixed with distillation water in the still

Frankincense water soluble gum mixed with distillation water in the still has coloured the water a milky white.

Now that the essential oil is distilled from the oleo-gum-resin, most of the resin is in the basket. Except for some that dripped through the sieve and formed the tastiest looking layer of caramel coloured resin on the bottom of the pot.The water in the pot is white from dissolved gum. What remains is to separate the rest of the gum from the resin, (using water as the solvent), then remove all extraneous materials, pieces of bark, stone, sand etc., and purify the components.

Frankincense, Boswellia Papyrifera resin from bottom of still

Frankincense, Boswellia resin from bottom of still. Looks good enough to eat!!

 

When gum and resin are separated and purified they will be recombined in an emulsion with the addition of  emollient and skin nourishing oils, antioxidants, and a small amount of broad spectrum preservative.

Even though the prototypes and first formulas seem to have kept well for months without obvious spoilage or mold.  And even though i have a deep respect for the preserving qualities of tree oleo resins. I can’t take the chance of bacteria or other organisms growing after making an oil/water emulsion.

Frankincense, Boswellia Rivae, post distillation of essential oils. Only gum and resins remain to be separated and cleaned. Then recombined and reformulated for skin care and healing products.

A different type of Frankincense, post distillation of essential oils. Only gum and resins remain to be separated and cleaned. Then recombined and reformulated for skin care and healing products.

Home made pot Still. Used to distill essential oils, wines and much more. Note it is made of everything including parts of the kitchen sink.

Home made pot Still. Used to distill essential oils, wines and much more. Note it is made of everything including parts of the kitchen sink, with a salvaged copper/Aluminum heat exchange as an air cooled condenser..

Distilled Frankincense essential oil. Boswellia Rivea. 2013, Home made still.

Distilled Frankincense essential oil. Boswellia Rivea. 2013.

Grinding Frankincense, Myrrh and other oleoresins

How to Grind Frankincense & Myrrh

First of all a happy and productive Spring to all!

I think I lost a week somewhere, but I am back now, and that’s really all that matters.

A few people have inquired lately on the best way to grind Frankincense and other resins.

This is a great question with a great answer!

As anyone who has tried to grind a resin in preparation for a making a tincture, incense blend, Bakhoor, or for filling capsules knows, grinding them by hand in a mortar & Pestle, is a traditional, though time-consuming process. Messy too, as it usually involves pieces of resin flying out like shrapnel from a grenade for quite a distance. Pieces, that if left unattended on a carpet will get ground in and attach themselves permanently and will be a pain to remove any way you look at it.

Grinding with Mortar & Pestle

Grinding with Mortar & Pestle

When one gets smart, and decides to use an electric coffee or herb grinder, a different issue and technical difficulty arises. A bit of the resin will break down in the grinder, just a bit, before the resin starts heating up from friction, gets soft and gummy, sticks to the blades, creates a mess of un ground semi-soft gum around the inside of the grinder chamber, and before you realize what’s happened, the blades are spinning freely as if there is nothing in the grinder.. And that’s about as far as you are going to get with it! You can try scraping the mess out and grinding it again before it cools and solidifies again.But you will just get more of the same. Mind you, there are herb grinders on the market now that run at a slower speed to keep heat to a minimum and keep the volatile oils/Medicinal constituents in herbs. However, they still do not grind resins without melting them.

How to Grind Frankincense & Oleo-Resins

How to Grind Frankincense & Oleo-Resins

So what is the solution?….

Ahh I’m glad you asked. The solution is, Freezing the resin before grinding it. Depending on the quantity you are freezing, how evenly exposed it is to the cold temperatures, and how cold your freezer is, it could take anywhere from a half hour to a whole day to get it all cold enough to grind. With this method you can grind a whole load of Frankincense to a fine light powder in an electric grinder . Preferably in short spurts that raise the heat of the resin slowly. If you want to take it a step further, detach the chamber, blades, cap, and all, and put them in the freezer as well. This will give you plenty of grinding time at optimal temperatures, which is especially handy when a larger quantity of resin needs grinding. So you could freeze let’s say 1/2 Kg. resin, with chamber and cap, and grind a few consecutive batches without overheating or sticking.

It works perfectly!

Frankincense. Boswellia Papyrifera, Ethiopia

Frankincense. Boswellia Papyrifera, Ethiopia

Keep in mind that all Frankincense types, ( and Myrrh), are composed of Gum, Resin and volatile oils in different ratios. One thing this means , is that due to the water-soluble gum content, your fluffy beautifully powdered Frankincense is hydrophilic, and loves water. So if not kept in a very dry environment, or if left open to any level of humidity in the air, it will quickly, and secretly coalesce into a solid mass that still looks like fluffy powder, but will need some chipping, hammering, swearing and possibly re-grinding before it regains that perfect texture you worked so hard to achieve. So either use your freshly ground oleo-gum-resin A.S.A.P., or make sure to keep it in a very dry, airtight container till you are ready to work with it further.

Frankincense Powder,Solidified

Frankincense Powder,Solidified

Frankincense. Boswellia Rivae Ethiopia

Frankincense. Boswellia Rivae Ethiopia

Another trick when working with Oleo-Resins, is that the clean up of sticky resin residue, (on hands, tools and surfaces), can usually be accomplished with oil, (I prefer olive oil), that dissolves the Oleo-resin part. That solution is then dissolved with dish soap & warm water and and finally rinsed with warm water and dried. This is a perfect solution ,(ha ha), for cleaning up most Oleo-Resins. (And leaves hands feeling beautifully moisturized!). Alcohol can also be used for cleanup, and does work well, but is a more expensive option, needs to be worked with quickly, before it evaporates. It is harsh on the hands and it’s a shame to use good, rectified, or perfumers alcohol for a simple clean up when oil could do the job just as well.

So, that’s it! Happy grinding

A bit of a glossary and some extra information

Most resins commonly used for incense, tinctures and medicine are composite materials made up of gum, which is water-soluble, resin which is soluble in alcohol, and volatile oils, also called “Essential Oils”.

This is why we call Frankincense, Myrrh and other resins “Oleo-Resins”, because they are more than just resins, they contain important volatile oils.(Oleo=Oil). When we distill Oleo-Resins with water or steam, to collect the volatile, or Essential oils, we are left with resins or Gum-Resins. There are a few “Resins” that have no, or no perceptible quantities of water-soluble gums, (such as Pine, Spruce and Fir species), these are considered Oleo-resins, but for the most part, all have some measurable percentage of water-soluble gum.

When we burn these oleo-gum-resin on a charcoal as incense, note that the first release of fragrance is clear, “bright” and closer in fragrance to the fresh material you are burning. These are the essential oils which evaporate at the lower temperatures. After this first note from the essential oils ,and probably overlapping it, the resins and their slightly less volatile compounds will melt into the charcoal & burn. Then, if there is a prominent percentage of gum in the material as in most representatives of Myrrh and Frankincense, the water-soluble gum will yield itself to the heat. It may bubble a bit, but will not dissolve into the charcoal, it will char and burn giving off a crude smell of burnt material and form a black lump on the coal, which will eventually turn into white or grey ash..

This burnt gum is regarded as the basis for the ancient Egyptian’s “Kohl” eye liner w hith the addition of Sulfide of Antimony or Lead and other ingredients.

  • Of the Frankincense family, only Boswellia Frereana, locally called “Maydi”, and found mainly in Somalia, has almost no gum content, it completely liquefies from the heat and melts into the charcoal without releasing this “burnt” smell and without leaving a residue on the charcoal.

    Frankincense. Boswellia Frereana. Yemen

    Frankincense. Boswellia Frereana. Yemen

There are many types of Frankincense trees, though only a few are available on the global market and of commercial value. Often they are mistaken one with the other, though each has its unique chemical composition, fragrance, and medicinal applications. There has been much confusion over the years around proper identification of the different Boswellia species, and their individual chemical compositions, especially since different growing conditions, climates, times and methods of harvest, and division into different “grades”, all create even more variation within the same species. Only recently have the different Frankincense species been accurately studied, researched, compared, defined and their chemical compositions examined with modern instruments. The main Types of Frankincense that are commercially available are:

Boswellia Sacra/Carterii

Frankincense tree

Frankincense tree (Photo credit: Brangdon J)

Boswellia Papyrifera

Boswellia Rivae

Boswellia Serrata

Boswellia Frereana

An excellent chart for determining the type of Frankincense you might have, through noting its solubility in different liquids can be viewed here, Courtesy of Aritiherbal.com

Have a Productive and inspired Spring

Dan

Back Alley Boswellia or Frankincense Fantasy

A foray into native Ethiopian fragrant materials

I am past the worst of the jet lag. I think..

I was going to continue sharing my journey in chronological order, Dead Sea, Jerusalem then Ethiopia, but,,,, I had such a great time in Addis Ababa and came back with such amazing treasures and opportunities that I simply couldn’t keep it all under my hat. I am bursting to talk about my finds and the great luck that came my way. Three new and rare types of Frankincense. All native to Ethiopia and each distinctly unique. A supply of their distilled oils and the most heavenly essential oils of Opoponax and Palmarosa on their way here soon.

Boswellia Rivae Frankincense

Boswellia Rivae Frankincense Ethiopia 2013

The trip from Israel to Ethiopia was booked on the fly two days after we arrived in Israel, four days to get organized for it..

For the past couple of years I had researched and hoped one day to visit Ethiopia, make contact with farmers/collectors and suppliers of Civet paste, Myrrh and Frankincense, but until I bought the ticket, it was only a theory. A wisp of a dream that rose and wafted around in my mind with visions of visiting Frankincense trees in Yemen, Dragon’s Blood trees on Socrato island, and vendors sorting grades of fresh harvested Boswellia Carterii/Sacra Frankincense in Oman.

In 2012, while researching Frankincense chemistry and looking for reliable ways of distinguishing between the different types, I discovered the website of another “Apothecary” and teaching garden in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. Not only was there a teaching garden associated with the website, the person who ran the site seemed an accredited expert in Frankincense and African medicinal plants, made and sold herbal products from local plants as I, and was a distiller and supplier of essential oils from those local plants and oleo-resins. Wow!

After arriving in Israel and with only a few days notice, I let him know I would be in Addis Ababa, could we meet? The timing was tight, he had a local trip booked for that week, and was chairing an annual congress of the Chemical Society of Ethiopia. Very tight timing.

University of Addis Ababa

University of Addis Ababa. Grad students,(my babysitters), performing an extraction of Moringa seeds.

In short, I was his guest at the University of Addis Ababa for 2 days, His grad students expanded their social skills and their command of English by babysitting me, (poor guys, I kept disappearing ). I listened to some very interesting presentations on the development and uses of local plant and mineral resources from the perspectives of organic and inorganic chemistry. Most notably I spent time enjoying his laboratory where his students were doing an extraction of Moringa seed, preparing it for chemical analysis, and visiting the specimen gardens on the university grounds. Both these made me feel right at home. Running between laboratory and garden, that’s me!

Specimen Garden at the University of Addis Ababa

Specimen Garden at the University of Addis Ababa

Boswellia Papyrifera, Frankincense Tigray type

Boswellia Papyrifera, Frankincense Tigray type
Ethiopia 2013

Our time was limited, but we made the most of it, talking when we could and getting as many of our goals accomplished as our time would allow, while planning a few future projects together. His invitations to dinner at his home where I met his talented wife, Chemist and business partner, were both gracious and productive. It seems quite true that Ethiopians are a very warm, hospitable and generous people based on my week long experiences.

We visited a grassroots resin “supplier” in the the “Mercado”, ( Africa’s largest outdoor market), after dusk. When it was quiet enough so one could actually drive and walk the rocky unpaved roads between the bustling people of the market without being knocked down or running over someone selling on the road, and dark enough so no one would notice the tourist in the car and decide to multiply the price of resins astronomically. This is unfortunately the norm. It is beyond haggling or dickering as in the Mediterranean, where you have a reasonable chance to haggle and actually get a good price even if you are a tourist. There are simply two different price structures, tourist and negotiable.

Buying Frankincense at the Mercado in Addis Ababa.

Buying Frankincense at the Mercado in Addis Ababa. Felt like a back alley drug deal.

It felt more like a drug deal in a dark alley. Samples covertly sent back and forth to be approved by me in the dark car and five kilo bags put in the trunk. But boy it was worth it! Fresh fragrant Frankincense resins, each more distinguished than the next.

  • Boswellia Papyrifera Frankincense is, I believe, the Tigray type. From the North of the country. Used by all Ethiopians in their daily coffee ceremonies throughout the country and purchased in bulk by the church. The essential oil is woody & balsamic with a sweet, haunting feeling, reminiscent of ancient souks and sacred stone churches, with a citrus note that would bridge to other citrus notes perfectly.
  • Boswellia Rivae Frankincense is from the Ogaden region in the south east and by far the most complex in its scent. It reaches in and moves you from bottom to top.This oil and that of the Neglecta would make precious additions to any perfumers collection. Not true,, they all would!
  • Boswellia Neglecta Frankincense, (I neglected to ask which region it was from), has a beautiful, creamy rich middle note with a warm balsamic nutty base , yumm. I believe it got its name from not getting classified till much later than the others. Neglected. I will have to research that further. Again, what a unique incense Neglecta makes, and the essential oil is so different than the Boswellia Serrata and Sacra we are all so used to.

All in all, three really unique, unusual and lovely types of Frankincense. Mainly used locally for medicine and ceremony, but as yet not fully recognized or utilized for their broader applications in perfume, cosmetics and mainstream herbal medicine. (I see a face lift for my Frankincense Anti aging creme!)

My gracious Host Professor Ermias Dagne & myself. Addis Ababa 2013

My gracious Host Professor Ermias Dagne & myself. Addis Ababa 2013

So,,, I now have a few Kilos of each resin to experiment with, maybe a little to sell, and a few liters of essential oils being distilled and packaged for shipment soon.

I feel very lucky. Blessed. We established some future goals of working together over the next few months to experiment in both our labs, to explore ways we could add value to Ethiopian resources and products, ways we could work together for our mutual benefit while helping a developing country develop. I felt inspired and exited by the creative possibilities bubbling in my brain. We discovered between us we could meet goals we both have had for a while that pertain to improving the viability of refining Civet products. in Ethiopia.

A civet in Gabon

I have been trying to establish a reliable Civet connection in Ethiopia for years. It seems I may have a chance to not only visit a traditional Civet farmer in person, but could be part of the process of analysis, extraction, refinement and marketing of the finished product, (Civetone), which till now was controlled by large foreign companies, while the Ethiopian economy received the minimum benefit in the chain of commerce, supplying only the raw product at the lowest relative price. At the very bottom of the ladder. Feels like a win, win, win situation. My favourite.

Frankincense Myrrh and Civet

After an extended absence here, I am back. With much to share. Israel and Ethiopia mainly. New and rare types of Frankincense resins, Myrrh, heavenly Opoponax and a Civet adventure in the Ethiopian hills that has yet to unfold. It will take some time to catch up, but here’s a start.

Orange orchard Rehovot Israel

Orange orchard Rehovot Israel. The high cost of water makes growing and selling citrus unprofitable, leaving hundreds of thousands of tons of fruit to fall unharvested each year, free for the picking.

Israel and Ethiopia both gave us perfect weather. Cool bright mornings, with the first rays of sunlight gently warming. Bright sunny days that would be sweltering if not so perfectly moderated by a cooling breeze. In Israel it came off the Mediterranean, morning and afternoon, In Ethiopia it was like an endless bubbling spring of refreshing air flowing up and over the many mountain ranges that cradle Addis Ababa.

In my home town of Rehovot, in Israel, I stocked up on the hard to get “Yemeni chewing gum”, A.K.A. Boswellia Frereana, or Somali “Maydi” Frankincense. Brought in fresh from Yemen by those of the last Jewish immigration wave from Yemen. From what I hear they carry dual citizenship and freely go back and forth between Israel and Yemen doing business and visiting friends there.

Frankincense I bought in Yemen on 15/Jul/2005.

Boswellia Frereana, Yemeni chewing gum. From Somalia Oman and Yemen

The same spice shop,”Gedasi’s, who has been there since I was a teen, also carries another variety of Frankincense at half the price. They say it also is from Yemen. It looks like Boswellia Sacra/Carterii, but does not compare to the sample I received in Ethiopia which came from Somalia. There are only so many kinds of Frankincense trees. I am still not certain from which this type comes.

We spent two days touring the desert and the Dead Sea. Wow! What dramatic, beautiful, stark vistas!

Masada

View from the ruins of Masada

Desert trees

Desert trees

This was the first time I had gone as a tourist in decades.

I saw it with different eyes and enjoyed it in new ways. We decided we didn’t want to stay in a stuffy mainstream hotel, so we found something that was more like a Bedouin encampment. A true oasis in the middle of the desert. After miles and miles of barren rocky hills and sweeps of sandy desert, a lush stand of 50 date palms stood out green and inviting from the dry desert. Very cool!, literally, and inviting.

Dead Sea Vista

Dead Sea Vista

They offered authentic Bedouin tents in different areas of the encampment, tents that would hold a hundred or so guests, with traditional woven camel-hair covers that were huge! As in the Bedouin tradition you could light fires under the tent for warmth at night, cooking food and of course for making that strong sweet tea they love. Lots of room for sleeping bags and blankets on the ground. Their main occupants and guests were busloads of high school kids out to climb Masada in the morning. I think we were an oddity there, and were given a modest single room that was likely used by counsellors and chaperons.
One with with a real roof and hot water.

Bedouin Style

Bedouin Style accommodations

The decor was local and unusual. Light shades made from big chunks of solid sea salt from the Dead Sea. Date Palm frond stalks for bars on the bunk beds, stools from date palm trunks etc..It was definitely different.

The food was served by local Bedouins in a vast communal dining room. Traditional Bedouin fare with a bit of an Israeli twist.

Breakfast was an Israeli style Kibbutz spread with everything from Shakshuka, (eggs simmered in a tomato sauce, to European pickled herring. French toast to Pita, humus and mediterranean salads. All through the drive desert plants were surprising in their diversity and sheer will to live. Winter rains were bringing the desert back to life. Most photos I took were of specimens I have yet to identify. So, more to come on that subject.

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Frankincense Grinding me to a fine powder in an old brass mortar

 200 year old Brass mortar and pestle. Courtesy Bat Sheva Sharaabi.

200 year old Brass mortar and pestle. Courtesy Bat Sheva Sharaabi.

I have been a bad blog daddy and written nothing here for far too long. Besides my usual travails and struggles through the dark of the sun and dark of the moons that go with it yearly, I have spent too much time  (now almost 2 weeks!!), working on the Frankincense “anti-aging” crème, and trying to write a page about my St. John’s Wort Oil with an introduction to “Astrodynamics”. An attempt that recently led me to realize I must devote a separate post or page to each. Back to the drawing board again! Many many re-writes, but on the bright side, much material from which to draw on for a final draft.

The new batch of Frankincense crème is coming along. Smooth, creamy, fragrant and moisturizing beautifully. However, with it have come new challenges and tests. My vision for years has been to create a sublimated product from the whole Frankincense resin. Not just a crème that includes store-bought Frankincense essential oil, anyone can do that. I chose to pursue this first by creating a water/oil emulsion, a lotion, so I could fully utilize the resin, essential oils and the water based gum present in the crude tree sap.. This opened a new set of challenges and can of worms.

There are unavoidable consequences and requirements when it comes to supporting the water portion of any emulsion. It must be preserved in some way to keep, and be useful for an extended period of time.  As soon as one introduces water into a formula, one has created a perfect petri dish in the equation. There are many life forms competing for dominion over our little Frankincense pool, determined to fulfill their life mandate of self perpetuation and proliferation, that drastic measures are called for. Some of these visitors are benign and simply mar the look of the lotion through time, but some are quite scary and physically dangerous to us higher life forms.

frankincense tree

frankincense tree (Photo credit: Alexbip)

My hope was to use the naturally present essential oils and resins to preserve this creme, along with some natural antioxidants and skin nourishing oils that would keep the other oils from rancidity. Many of the healing ingredients in this crème are at the same time, anti-fungal, or anti bacterial, anti microbial, anti-oxidant,or anti viral, but the quantities needed for them to be functional full spectrum preservatives in a water based formula, makes them unsafe on the skin.

Frankincense tree (Oman)

If I reduce the proportion of water to resins and oils, (using only a very small amount of water to dissolve and incorporate the gum part of the frankincense), I may find a solution, but time is needed to explore this option. No quick answers here. There are some cosmetic cremes on the market that boast having no artificial preservatives, but I don’t know how  accurate their claims are. What length of shelf life they offer. Or  how they manage this. This too requires more research. ……Time.

My apologies to all my Guinea pigs waiting for this lotion here at home and abroad. I will indeed keep and test this water based Frankincense “anti-aging” Creme formula, but it will be with a minute percent of “Liquid Germall Plus” added to it for everyone’s safety until I can perfect a formula which requires no added “artificial” preservatives such as my regular oil/resin formulas. It is easily researched on the web for your own edification, and for those to whom 0.1%-0.5% is an acceptable amount to apply to their skin, I will happily deliver a quantity for their feedback.

Meanwhile I have separated gum, or water-soluble parts of some Frankincense and some Myrrh, and will use this pure oil/resin as a base for a water-less “serum”. I will continue working on it, and a lotion version that holds “less water”. Of course, I will let everyone know how they are coming.

,Thank You All for bearing with me!!

Call it working outside my comfort zone, exploring new territory, or call it growing pains, stretching my envelope, learning, or all the above really.

But in the end, it seems it is I that is being ground to a fine powder by the Frankincense!!  How cool is that!!!