Frankincense trees—of biblical lore—are being tapped out for essential oils

The fragrant resin gifted to the newborn Jesus may be at risk of disappearing.

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Frankincense trees, found throughout northern Africa and in India, Oman, and Yemen, are increasingly under pressure, largely because of overexploitation for their aromatic resin.

On a starlit night long ago, as the story goes, three wise men brought gifts to baby Jesus in a stable. One was gold, the others frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense, like myrrh, was highly prized—thought to be worth its weight in gold—but it wouldn’t have been hard to find: Trees that yield the fragrant resin were widespread in the lands of the Bible and beyond.

Two millennia later, Anjanette DeCarlo and a team of Somalians spent a sweltering day hiking to what they thought was a virgin stand of frankincense-producing trees in the mountains near Yubbe, a town in Somaliland. But, DeCarlo says, when they arrived, after traveling more than four hours by car and another four hours on foot, “we were absolutely in shock.”

DeCarlo, an ecologist and director of a project called Save Frankincense, based in Somaliland—a self-governing region northwest of Somalia that isn’t recognized by foreign governments—hadn’t expected to find tree after tree whose trunks, from top to bottom, were marred by cuts.

Frankincense, woodsy and sweetly aromatic, is one of the oldest commercial commodities, spanning more than 5,000 years. Today, thousands of tons of it are traded every year to be used by Catholic priests as incense in thuribles and by makers of perfumes, natural medicines, and essential oils that can be inhaled or applied to the skin for their purported health benefits.

Most frankincense comes from about five species of Boswellia trees, found in North Africa and India, but also in Oman, Yemen, and western...

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