Maydi

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?

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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

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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