Boswellia carteri tree that produces frankincense, growing inside Biosphere 2

Frankincense, also known as olibanum (/oʊˈlɪbənəm/),[1] is an aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes, obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia in the family Burseraceae. The word is from Old French franc encens ('high-quality incense').[2] There are several species of Boswellia that produce true frankincense:[3] Boswellia sacra (syn. B. bhaw-dajiana, syn. B. carteri), B. frereana, B. serrata (B. thurifera, Indian frankincense), and B. papyrifera. Resin from each is available in various grades, which depends on the time of harvesting. The resin is hand-sorted for quality.


The English word frankincense derives from the Old French expression franc encens, meaning 'true incense', maybe with the sense of 'high quality incense'.[4][2] The adjective franc in Old French meant 'noble, true', in this case perhaps 'pure'; although franc is ultimately derived from the tribal name of the Franks, it is not a direct reference to them in the word francincense.[5]

The word for frankincense in the Koine Greek of the New Testament, λίβανος, líbanos (or λιβανωτός, libanōtós), is cognate with the name of Lebanon (Greek: Λίβανος); the same can be said with regard to Arabic, Phoenician, Hebrew,[6] and Vulgar Latin: lĭbănus.[7] This is postulated to be because they both derive from the word for 'white' and that the spice route went via Mount Lebanon (Koinē Greek: Λίβανος, romanized: Libanos).[6] Medieval Latin: olibanum derived from λίβανος or libanus. The leading "o" may have come from Latin: oleum, lit.'oil', or from the Greek article o- or Arabic article al-.[8] Other names include Arabic: اللبان, romanizedal-lubān, Persian: کندر, romanizedkondor, Syriac: בוּסמִין, romanizedbusmin, Hebrew: לבונה, romanizedləvonā, Bengali: লোবান, ধুনো, romanizedlōban, dhunō, Somali: foox, Classical Latin: tūs.[9]


Flowers and branches of the Boswellia sacra tree

The trees start producing resin at about eight to 10 years old.[10] Tapping is done two to three times per year with the final taps producing the best tears because of their higher aromatic terpene, sesquiterpene and diterpene content. Generally speaking, the more opaque resins are the best quality. Cheap resin is produced in the Horn of Africa, which is the Roman Catholic Church's major source.[11]

The main species in trade are:

Other notable species:

Recent studies indicate that frankincense tree populations are declining, partly from overexploitation.[18][19] Heavily tapped trees produce seeds that germinate at only 16% while seeds of trees that had not been tapped germinate at more than 80%. In addition, burning, grazing, and attacks by the longhorn beetle have reduced the tree population.[20] Conversion (clearing) of frankincense woodlands to agriculture is also a major threat.[21]

Chemical composition

Structure of β-boswellic acid, one of the main active components of frankincense

These are some of the chemical compounds present in frankincense:

Among various plants in the genus Boswellia, only Boswellia sacra, Boswellia serrata and Boswellia papyrifera have been confirmed to contain significant amounts of boswellic acids.[12]: 10 [12][26]


Indirect burning of frankincense on hot coal
Frankincense olibanum resin

Frankincense has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula for more than 5,000 years.[26]: 5  Frankincense was also traded from the Horn of Africa during the Silk Road era.[27] Greek historian Herodotus wrote in The History that frankincense was harvested from trees in southern Arabia. He reported that the gum was dangerous to harvest because of winged snakes[28] that guard the trees and that the smoke from burning storax would drive the snakes away.[29][30] Pliny the Elder also mentioned frankincense in his Naturalis Historia.[31][32]

Frankincense was reintroduced to Western Europe by Frankish Crusaders,[citation needed] and other Western Europeans on their journeys to the Eastern Roman Empire where it was commonly used in church services. Although named frankincense, the name refers to the quality of incense brought to Western Europe, not to the Franks themselves.[2]

Southern Arabia was an exporter of frankincense in antiquity, with some of it being traded as far as China. The 13th-century Chinese writer and customs inspector Zhao Rugua wrote that Ruxiang or xunluxiang (Chinese: 乳香 rǔ xiāng/ 薰陸香 xūn lù xiāng) comes from the three Dashi states (Chinese: 大食 dàshí - Caliphate (Arab Muslims)) of Maloba (Murbat), Shihe (Shihr), and Nufa (Dhofar), from the depths of the remotest mountains;[33] the trunk of the tree is notched with a hatchet, upon which the resin flows out, and, when hardened, turns into incense, which is gathered and made into lumps; it is transported on elephants to the Dashi ports, then on ship to Sanfoqi; which is why it was known as a product of Sanfoqi.[34]

In Christian tradition, frankincense is one of the gifts given by the Biblical Magi to Jesus at his nativity as described in the Gospel of Matthew.[35]



Thousands of tons of frankincense are traded every year to be used in religious ceremonies as incense in thuribles and by makers of perfumes, natural medicines, and essential oils. It can be inhaled or applied to the skin for its supposed health benefits. In the Horn of Africa, frankincense is harvested in the Bari and Sanaag regions: mountains lying at the northwest of Erigavo; El Afweyn District; Cal Madow mountain range, a westerly escarpment that runs parallel to the coast; Cal Miskeed, including Hantaara and Habeeno plateau and a middle segment of the frankincense-growing escarpment; Karkaar mountains or eastern escarpment, which lies at the eastern fringe of the frankinscence escarpment.[36][19] In Dhofar, Oman, frankincense species grow north of Salalah and were traded in the ancient coastal city of Sumhuram, now Khor Rori.[37]

Ecological status

In 1998, the International Union for Conservation of Nature warned that one of the primary frankincense species, Boswellia sacra, is "near threatened". Frankincense trees are not covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, but experts argue that Boswellia species meet the criteria for protection. In a 2006 study, an ecologist at Wageningen University & Research claimed that, by the late-1990s, Boswellia papyrifera trees in Eritrea were becoming hard to find. In 2019, a new paper predicted a 50% reduction in Boswellia papyrifera within the next two decades. This species, found mainly in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan, accounts for about two-thirds of global frankincense production. The paper warns that all Boswellia species are threatened by habitat loss and overexploitation. Most Boswellia grow in harsh, arid regions beset by poverty and conflict. Harvesting and selling the tree's resin is one of the only sources of income for the inhabitants, resulting in overtapping.[3]

Health benefits

The use of Boswellia resin for spiritual and medicinal purposes dates back to ancient civilizations. Numerous compounds of different chemical categories are identified in the resin; the pharmacological actions of Boswellia resin are attributed to the complementary effects exerted by these compounds. Some clinical studies have weakly demonstrated the effectiveness of frankincense resin in some disease conditions like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases, osteoarthritis and relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, however more studies are necessary.[38][39] The essential oil obtained from the oleogum resin of Boswellia serrata showed antimicrobial activities.[40][41] A 2022 study[42] stated that "frankincense oil has a weak inhibitory effect against MRSA and MDR-P. aeruginosa"; and in vivo studies on animals revealed that frankincense oleogum resin exhibits neuroprotective activity.[43][44]


Frankincense is often prepared inside a censer, such as the meerschaum dabqaad traditionally used in Horn of Africa.

The Egyptians cleansed body cavities in the mummification process with frankincense and natron. In Persian medicine, it is used for diabetes, gastritis and stomach ulcer.[45] The oil is used in Abrahamic religions to cleanse a house or building of bad or evil energy—including used in exorcisms and to bless one's being (like the bakhoor commonly found in Persian Gulf cultures by spreading the fumes towards the body).

The incense offering occupied a prominent position in the sacrificial legislation of the ancient Hebrews.[46] The Book of Exodus (30:34–38) prescribes frankincense, blended with equal amounts of three aromatic spices, to be ground and burnt in the sacred altar before the Ark of the Covenant in the wilderness Tabernacle, where it was meant to be a holy offering—not to be enjoyed for its fragrance. Scholars have identified frankincense as what the Book of Jeremiah (6:20) relates was imported from Sheba during the 6th century BC Babylonian captivity.[47] Frankincense is mentioned in the New Testament as one of the three gifts (with gold and myrrh) that the magi "from the East" presented to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:11).

In traditional Chinese medicine, frankincense (Chinese: 乳香 rǔ xiāng) along with myrrh (沒藥 mò yào) are considered to have anti-bacterial properties and blood-moving uses.[citation needed] It can be used topically or orally, also used in surgical and internal medicine of traditional Chinese medicine. It is used to relieve pain, remove blood stasis, promote blood circulation and treat deafness, stroke, locked jaw, and abnormalities in women's menstruation.

Essential oil

Frankincense (Boswellia carteri) essential oil

The essential oil of frankincense is produced by steam distillation of the tree resin. The oil's chemical components are 75% monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, and ketones. Contrary to some commercial claims, steam distilled frankincense oils do not contain the insufficiently volatile boswellic acids (triterpenoids), although they may be present in solvent extractions. The chemistry of the essential oil is mainly monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes, such as alpha-pinene, Limonene, alpha-Thujene, and beta-Pinene with small amounts of diterpenoid components being the upper limit in terms of molecular weight.[48][49][50][51]

Essential oils can be diluted and applied to skin or the fragrance can be inhaled.[52]

See also


  1. ^ "Medical Definition of OLIBANUM". Retrieved 2023-12-03.
  2. ^ a b c "Frankincense". The Oxford English Dictionary. Vol. IV: F–G (reprint 1978 ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1933. p. 512. Retrieved 2021-07-04.
  3. ^ a b Fobar R (13 December 2019). "Frankincense trees—of biblical lore—are being tapped out for essential oils". National Geographic. Archived from the original on December 13, 2019. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  4. ^ "Frankincense (n.)". Etymonline. Retrieved 26 November 2023.
  5. ^ "Frank". Etymonline. Retrieved 26 November 2023.
  6. ^ a b Brown JP (1995). Israel and Hellas. Walter de Gruyter. p. 210. ISBN 978-3-11-014233-4.
  7. ^ Lewis CT, Short C, eds. (1879). "II". lĭbănus. A Latin Dictionary. Retrieved 2021-07-15 – via Perseus digital library, Tufts University.
  8. ^ "Olibanum". The Oxford English Dictionary. Vol. VII: N–Poy (reprint 1978 ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1913. p. 103. Retrieved 2021-07-04.
  9. ^ Lewis CT, Short C, eds. (1879). "tūs". A Latin Dictionary. Retrieved 2021-07-15 – via Perseus digital library, Tufts University.
  10. ^ "Omani World Heritage Sites". Archived from the original on 2008-10-12. Retrieved 2009-01-14.
  11. ^ Howell J (2010-02-09). "Frankincense: Could it be a cure for cancer?". BBC World News. Retrieved 2021-07-04.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h Michael P (2012-11-09). Chemotaxonomic investigations on resins of the frankincense species Boswellia papyrifera, Boswellia serrata and Boswellia sacra, respectively, Boswellia carterii : a qualitative and quantitative approach by chromatographic and spectroscopic methodology (Thesis). Saarland University. doi:10.22028/D291-22839.
  13. ^ a b c Thulin M, Warfa AM (1987). "The Frankincense Trees (Boswellia spp., Burseraceae) of Northern Somalia and Southern Arabia". Kew Bulletin. 42 (3): 488, 492. Bibcode:1987KewBu..42..487T. doi:10.2307/4110063. JSTOR 4110063 – via JSTOR.
  14. ^ Birdwood G (1870). "On the Genus Boswellia, with Descriptions and Figures of three new Species". Transactions of the Linnean Society of London. 27 (2): 111–148, plates Tab.29–32. doi:10.1111/j.1096-3642.1870.tb00205.x. hdl:2027/chi.79869488. Retrieved 2021-07-16 – via Hathitrust.
  15. ^ "Boswellia carteri Birdw." Plants of the World Online. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Retrieved 2021-07-16. This is a synonym of Boswellia sacra Flück; Not accepted by Govearts,R.(1996).
  16. ^ "Boswellia occulta Thulin". Plants of the World Online. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Retrieved 2021-07-16.
  17. ^ Johnson S, DeCarlo A, Satyal P, Dosoky NS, Sorensen A, Setzer WN (April 2019). "Organic Certification is Not Enough: The Case of the Methoxydecane Frankincense". Plants. 8 (4). MDPI: 88–. doi:10.3390/plants8040088. PMC 6524464. PMID 30987305.
  18. ^ Klein J (5 July 2019). "Could This Be the End of Frankincense?". New York Times. Retrieved 5 July 2019.
  19. ^ a b Patinkin J (25 December 2016). "World's last wild frankincense forests are under threat". Yahoo Finance. Associated Press. Retrieved 25 December 2016.
  20. ^ Melina R (December 21, 2011). "Christmas Staple Frankincense 'Doomed,' Ecologists Warn". LiveScience.
  21. ^ Dejenea T, Lemenih M, Bongers F (February 2013). "Manage or convert Boswellia woodlands? Can frankincense production payoff?". Journal of Arid Environments. 89: 77–83. Bibcode:2013JArEn..89...77D. doi:10.1016/j.jaridenv.2012.09.010.
  22. ^ a b c "Olibanum.—Frankincense". Henriette's Herbal Homepage. Retrieved 2009-01-14.
  23. ^ a b "Farmacy Query". Archived from the original on 2004-11-10. Retrieved 2009-01-14.
  24. ^ "Incensole acetate". NIST.
  25. ^ Cerutti-Delasalle C, Mehiri M, Cagliero C, Rubiolo P, Bicchi C, Meierhenrich UJ, Baldovini N (October 2016). "The (+)-cis- and (+)-trans-Olibanic Acids: Key Odorants of Frankincense". Angewandte Chemie International Edition in English. 55 (44): 13719–13723. doi:10.1002/anie.201605242. hdl:2318/1609095. PMID 27699963.
  26. ^ a b Simla B (2005-03-18). Phytochemical Investigations on Boswellia Species (Thesis). Universität Hamburg. urn:nbn:de:gbv:18-25030.
  27. ^ Ulric Killion, A Modern Chinese Journey to the West: Economic Globalis]ation And Dualism, (Nova Science Publishers: 2006), p.66
  28. ^ ὄφιες ὑπόπτεροι
  29. ^ Herodotus (1904) [5c BCE]. "Book III" . The History of Herodotus . Translated by Macaulay GC. p. 107 – via Wikisource.
  30. ^ Herodotus (1920) [5c BCE]. "Θάλεια" . In Godley AD (ed.). Ιστορίαι (Ηροδότου)  (in Greek). Cambridge. pp. 107–110  – via Wikisource.((citation)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  31. ^ Pliny the Elder. "Chapters 30–32". THE TREES THAT BEAR FRANKINCENSE. The Natural History. Vol. XII. Translated by Bostock J. Retrieved 2021-07-15 – via Perseus digital library, Tufts University.
  32. ^ Gaius Plinius Secundus. "Liber XII" . Naturalis Historia  (in Latin). pp. 51–65  – via Wikisource.
  33. ^ Kauz R (2010). Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 130. ISBN 978-3-447-06103-2. Retrieved December 26, 2011. The frankincense was first collected in the Hadhramaut ports of Mirbat, Shihr, and Zufar whence Arab merchant vessels shipped it to Srivijaya, before it was then reexported to China. The term "xunluxiang" derives from the Arab word "kundur". . . According to Li Xun, frankincense originally came from Persia. Laufer refers to the Xiangpu 香譜 by Hong Chu . . . Zhao Rugua notes: Ruxiang or xunluxiang comes from the three Dashi countries of Murbat (Maloba), Shihr (Shihe), and Dhofar (Nufa), from the depths of the remotest mountains. The tree which yields this drug may generally be compared to the pine tree. Its trunk is notched with a hatchet, upon which the
  34. ^ Kauz R (2010). Ralph Kauz (ed.). Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 131. ISBN 978-3-447-06103-2. Retrieved December 26, 2011. resin flows out, and, when hardened, turns into incense, which is gathered and made into lumps. It is transported on elephants to the Dashi (on the coast), who then load it upon their ships to exchange it for other commodities in Sanfoqi. This is the reason why it is commonly collected at and known as a product of Sanfoqi.
  35. ^ "Biblical Magi". National Gallery of Art. Retrieved 20 February 2024. The Gospel of Matthew (2:1–12) speaks of Magi, or wise men, who followed a star from the East to Bethlehem in search of a newborn king. There they found Mary and the baby Jesus and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
  36. ^ War-Torn Societies Project International, Somali Programme (2001). Rebuilding Somalia: Issues and possibilities for Puntland. London: HAAN. p. 124. ISBN 978-1874209041.
  37. ^ Coppi A, Cecchi L, Selvi F, Raffaelli M (2010-03-18). "The Frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra, Burseraceae) from Oman: ITS and ISSR analyses of genetic diversity and implications for conservation". Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. 57 (7): 1041–1052. doi:10.1007/s10722-010-9546-8. ISSN 0925-9864. S2CID 11915388.
  38. ^ Ernst E (December 2008). "Frankincense: systematic review". BMJ. 337 (dec17 2): a2813. doi:10.1136/bmj.a2813. PMC 2605614. PMID 19091760.
  39. ^ Stürner KH, Stellmann JP, Dörr J, Paul F, Friede T, Schammler S, et al. (April 2018). "A standardised frankincense extract reduces disease activity in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (the SABA phase IIa trial)". Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. 89 (4): 330–338. doi:10.1136/jnnp-2017-317101. PMID 29248894. S2CID 3647860.
  40. ^ Ayub MA, Hanif MA, Sarfraz RA, Shahid M (2018-01-01). "Biological activity of Boswellia serrata Roxb. oleo gum resin essential oil: effects of extraction by supercritical carbon dioxide and traditional methods". International Journal of Food Properties. 21 (1): 808–820. doi:10.1080/10942912.2018.1439957. ISSN 1094-2912. S2CID 102917835.
  41. ^ Sadhasivam S, Palanivel S, Ghosh S (December 2016). "Synergistic antimicrobial activity of Boswellia serrata Roxb. ex Colebr. (Burseraceae) essential oil with various azoles against pathogens associated with skin, scalp and nail infections". Letters in Applied Microbiology. 63 (6): 495–501. doi:10.1111/lam.12683. PMID 27730658. S2CID 3375723.
  42. ^ Almutairi, Megren Bin Faisal; Alrouji, Mohammed; Almuhanna, Yasir; Asad, Mohammed; Joseph, Babu (10 November 2022). "In-Vitro and In-Vivo Antibacterial Effects of Frankincense Oil and Its Interaction with Some Antibiotics against Multidrug-Resistant Pathogens". Antibiotics. 11 (11): 1591. doi:10.3390/antibiotics11111591. PMC 9686721. PMID 36358246.
  43. ^ Ameen AM, Elkazaz AY, Mohammad HM, Barakat BM (July 2017). "Anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective activity of boswellic acids in rotenone parkinsonian rats". Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology. 95 (7): 819–829. doi:10.1139/cjpp-2016-0158. PMID 28249117.
  44. ^ Rajabian A, Sadeghnia H, Fanoudi S, Hosseini A (March 2020). "Genus Boswellia as a new candidate for neurodegenerative disorders". Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences. 23 (3): 277–286. doi:10.22038/ijbms.2020.35288.8419. PMC 7229515. PMID 32440312.
  45. ^ Mehrzadi S, Tavakolifar B, Huseini HF, Mosavat SH, Heydari M (2018). "The Effects of Boswellia serrata Gum Resin on the Blood Glucose and Lipid Profile of Diabetic Patients: A Double-Blind Randomized Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial". Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine. 23: 2515690X18772728. doi:10.1177/2515690X18772728. PMC 5960856. PMID 29774768.
  46. ^ The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. VI, Funk and Wagnalls Company: New York 1904, p. 568
  47. ^ Bower A (1734–1747). An Universal History, from the Earliest Account of Time to the Present; Compiled from Original Authors and Illustrated with Maps, Cuts, Notes, Chronological and other Tables (part i). Vol. 16. London. p. 257.
  48. ^ Verghese J, Joy MT, Retamar JA, Malinskas GG, Catalan CA, Gros EG (1987). "A Fresh Look at the Constituents of Indian Olibanum Oil". Flavour Fragr. J. 2 (3): 99–102. doi:10.1002/ffj.2730020304.
  49. ^ Hayashi S, Amemori H, Kameoka H, Hanafusa M, Furukawa K (1998). "Comparison of Volatile Compounds from Olibanum from Various Countries". J. Essent. Oil Res. 10: 25–30. doi:10.1080/10412905.1998.9700833.
  50. ^ Basar S, Koch A, König WA (September 2001). "A verticillane-type diterpene from Boswellia carterii essential oil". Flavour and Fragrance Journal. 16 (5): 315–8. doi:10.1002/ffj.992.
  51. ^ Frank A, Unger M (April 2006). "Analysis of frankincense from various Boswellia species with inhibitory activity on human drug metabolising cytochrome P450 enzymes using liquid chromatography mass spectrometry after automated on-line extraction". Journal of Chromatography A. 1112 (1–2): 255–62. doi:10.1016/j.chroma.2005.11.116. PMID 16364338.
  52. ^ "Health Benefits of Frankincense Essential Oil". WebMD. Retrieved 2022-11-15.

Further reading

  • Woolley CL, Suhail MM, Smith BL, Boren KE, Taylor LC, Schreuder MF, et al. (October 2012). "Chemical differentiation of Boswellia sacra and Boswellia carterii essential oils by gas chromatography and chiral gas chromatography-mass spectrometry". Journal of Chromatography A. 1261: 158–63. doi:10.1016/j.chroma.2012.06.073. PMID 22835693.
  • Müller WW (1978). "Weihrauch: Ein arabisches Produkt und seine Bedeutung in der Antike". Pauly-Wissowas Realencyclopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft (15). Munich: Alfred Druckenmüller Verlag: 700–777.
  • Groom N (1981). Frankincense & Myrrh: A Study of the Arabian Incense Trade. International Book Centre, Incorporated. ISBN 0-86685-593-9.
  • Maloney GA (1997). Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh: An Introduction to Eastern Christian Spirituality. Crossroads Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8245-1616-8.

Media related to Frankincense at Wikimedia Commons