Boswellia sacra (frankincense)

Frankincense - sometimes called olibanum - is a gum-resin. Historically, it is one of the most valuable substances in the world and the source of a major trade empire.

The first records of frankincense date from around 1500 BC, when Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt sent an expedition south into Africa to bring back frankincense trees. The event is commemorated on the walls of the temple near Luxor where 2 of the trees were planted. However, frankincense was known to the people of Arabia and the Horn of Africa long before this.

For centuries the precise origin of frankincense and the plants that produce it were shrouded in myth and mystery. People harvesting the gum-resin discouraged outsiders, and wild tales of guardian monsters were common.

In 1905, the Officiating Reporter on Economic Products to the Government of India sent out an appeal for information and specimens, admitting that the authorities were "remarkably ignorant of the origin of frankincense" and knew "no more than a third of its story".

The first scientific collections of Boswellia sacra were made in 1846 but the best trees (in Oman) were not adequately described until the 1930s. Even in the 1980s researchers did not have enough specimens for study.

Species detail

  • Frankincense
    Uses

    Frankincense is known as the ‘odour of sanctity’ and is used in many religious rituals. Over the centuries it has been used in a variety of other ways too. Read on to discover more about this valuable gum-resin.

  • Boswellia sacra
    Taxonomy

    Frankincense is produced by several species of the genus Boswellia. Find out more about the appearance of the Boswellia sacra tree.

  • Frankincense
    Distribution

    Boswellia sacra prefers arid, cool areas and grows along the southern Arabian Peninsula and the north-east coast of Somalia.

  • Boswellia sacra
    Biology

    Boswellia sacra ‘bleeds’ resin when its outer bark is removed. As it hardens the resin can be collected and sold as frankincense. Find out more about the aromatic resin of the frankincense tree.

Images

Frankincense

Frankincense for sale in a souk in Dubai.

© Liz Lawley, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Boswellia sacra

Frankincense tree growing in a greenhouse.

© Becky, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Frankincense

Beads of frankincense from Dhofar. The larger pieces are formed by coalescing smaller beads.

Boswellia sacra

Botanical plate of Boswellia sacra.

Author

Bob Press 
Former Associate Keeper of Botany
Department of Botany

A word from the author

"While frankincense is familiar to most people, either through the biblical reference to the gifts brought by the Magi to Jesus or simply as an ingredient in incense and perfumes, the majority probably know little more about this fascinating and culturally important product than its name."

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References

Miller A G and Morris M (1998). Plants of Dhofar.

Highet J (2006). Frankincense. Oman’s gift to the world.

Groom N (1981). Frankincense and Myrrh.