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The Gift of Frankincense - Part 1

It’s Christmas - and so whether or not you practice any particular religious beliefs, the chances are the Christmas Story will play some part in your celebrations, if only when you catch the snatch of a carol or two in the shopping mall. It's the time of the year when we give presents to those we care about - just as in the Christmas Story the Three Wise men took gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. And in this first part of a special Lush Times focus on Frankincense, Miles King, tells the story of this ancient ingredient and explains why it is under threat from over-harvesting and climate change.

As the year ends and Christmas week begins, we decorate our houses with the green of plants like Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe (and Christmas Trees). This harks back to ancient times when people worshipped trees, but also more recently, brought in evergreen plants to brighten our homes on the dark days of Winter.

We are also warmed by old familiar stories that are told and re-told. Stories that bind families and communities together, like the tale of the Three Wise Men, who travelled great distances bringing precious gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

While plants like Holly and Mistletoe grow wild in Britain, others are far more exotic, brought from distant lands. Frankincense is one such plant, which has long been used in rituals, both for the living and the dead. But you may be surprised to discover that its story continues today – as it is used in a wide range of cosmetics, including Lush’s own products.

Frankincense is a resin which is collected by cutting into the bark of a tree – the Frankincense Tree. Or to be more accurate, it is collected from a number of different kinds of Frankincense Trees. These all grow in an area from the Horn of Africa, through the southern part of the Arabian peninsula, with one species indigenous to India and Pakistan.  Much Frankincense is collected in Somalia and in particular Somaliland, which has declared independence from Somalia.

Archaeologists have found Frankincense was used widely in Ancient Egypt in religious ceremonies, and across the ancient Middle East. Even closer to home, the Romans were using it as part of funeral ceremonies here in England nearly 2000 years ago.

Today Frankincense is used to create an essential oil used in cosmetics and for aromatherapy. The resin is also still burnt in religious ceremonies, and on social occasions. (Frankincense is also used to make a chewing gum “maidi” popular in Arab countries.)

 In Oman, Frankincense has a wide variety of uses, including being used as a deodorant, for toothpaste, and as a mosquito repellent.  Smoke from Frankincense resin is also considered to have a mildly narcotic effect, creating a sense of euphoria and stimulation.

Scientists are investigating the medicinal qualities of Frankincense, including against joint pain, and possible anti-cancer effects.  Professor Michael Stoddart at Australia’s Hobart University believes that incense mimics human sex hormones called pheromones – and that we once had a second “smell” organ that responded to pheromones.

There has been an international trade in Frankincense since prehistory, with ships and camels on the “Incense Road” linking up to the Silk Road which took trade to, and from China. Because the resin is harvested by cutting the bark of trees it has always been a sustainable crop, if the trees are not tapped too often. But the global trade in Frankincense is on the increase and this is now having a worrying impact on the health of the wild Frankincense forests spread across from the Horn of Africa to India.  

Places like Somaliland and Puntland are difficult to access and can be dangerous to visit, but the evidence from researchers like Dr Anjanette DeCarlo, Project Director of Conserve Cal Madow-Kaydso ah Cal Madow: Frankincense Systems Analysis, indicates that Frankincense trees are under threat from over-harvesting, heavy grazing (which prevents new trees from getting established) and climate change, particularly drought.

DeCarlo has visited Somaliland several times and is very concerned that over-harvesting will eventually lead to the loss of the Frankincense forests. This will be disastrous not only for the Trees and the wildlife that live in the forests, but also for local communities which depend on income from the Frankincense trade for their living.

My Lush colleague Katie Dancey-Downs interviewed Decarlo earlier this year – and you can read the interview here. DeCarlo thinks that there is a future for Frankincense harvesting in Somaliland, but that some fundamental changes are needed. Lush and other buyers are currently working with suppliers to encourage a more sustainable approach to harvesting Frankincense, but in a country, which does not ‘officially’ exist, it’s less straightforward than in other places.

Other options are also being explored. Frankincense trees thrive in the most inhospitable terrain – in Somaliland they grow out of the side of sheer cliffs, and some species of Frankincense are remarkably drought tolerant. A Dutch researcher, Pieter A. Zuidema, thinks that one species of Frankincense, Boswellia neglecta, could be planted not only as a crop to produce the fabled resin, but also to help reduce the threat of desertification across a wider area of East Africa. This particular kind of Frankincense tree is well adapted to live in desert climates, as it can absorb water from the regular fogs, which drift in from the Red Sea and Arabian Sea.

We may not be familiar with the sight of Frankincense trees in our everyday lives, but the ancient stories of Frankincense and its value in modern products, mean we need to care about its future and that means finding a way to harvest it sustainably.

We’ll be exploring other aspects of the Frankincense stories throughout Christmas week.    

 

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