Frankincense

FRANKINCENSE

Frankincense is tapped from the very scraggly but hardy Boswellia tree by scraping the bark and allowing the exuded resins to bleed out and harden. These hardened resins are called tears. There are numerous species and varieties of frankincense trees, each producing a slightly different type of resin. Differences in soil and climate create even more diversity of the resin, even within the same species.

Frankincense trees are also considered unusual for their ability to grow in environments so unforgiving that they sometimes seem to grow directly out of solid rock. The means of initial attachment to the stone is not known but is accomplished by a bulbous disk-like swelling of the trunk.

This disk-like growth at the base of the tree prevents it from being torn away from the rock during the violent storms that frequent the region they grow in. This feature is slight or absent in trees grown in rocky soil or gravel. The tears from these hardy survivors are considered superior due to their more fragrant aroma.

The trees start producing resin when they are about 8 to 10 years old. Tapping is done 2 to 3 times a year with the final taps producing the best tears due to their higher aromatic terpene, sesquiterpene and diterpene content. Generally speaking, the more opaque resins are the best quality. Omani frankincense (from Boswellia sacra/carteri) is said to be the best in the world, although fine resin is also produced in Yemen, and along the north coast of Somalia.

Medical research

Standardized preparations of Indian frankincense from Boswellia serrata are being investigated in scientific studies as a treatment for chronic inflammatory diseases such as Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis and osteoarthritis. Initial clinical study results indicate efficacy of incense preparations for Crohn's disease.

For therapy trials in ulcerative colitis, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis there are only isolated reports and pilot studies from which there is not yet sufficient evidence of safety and efficacy. Similarly, the long-term effects and side effects of taking frankincense has not yet been scientifically investigated. Boswellic acid in vitro antiproliferative effects on various tumor cell lines (such as melanoma, glioblastomas, liver cancer) are based on induction of apoptosis.

A positive effect has been found in the use of incense on the accompanying specimens of brain tumors, although in smaller clinical trials. Some scientists[who?] say the results are due to methodological flaws. The main active compound of Indian incense is viewed as being boswellic acid.

As of May 2008 FASEB Journal announced that Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have determined that frankincense smoke is a psychoactive drug that relieves depression and anxiety in mice.

The researchers found that the chemical compound incensole acetate is responsible for the effects.
In a different study, an enriched extract of "Indian Frankincense" (usually Boswellia serrata) was used in a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study of patients with osteoarthritis.

Patients receiving the extract showed significant improvement in their arthritis in as little as seven days. The compound caused no major adverse effects and, according to the study authors, is safe for human consumption and long-term use.

Traditional medicine

Frankincense is edible and often used in various traditional medicines in Asia for digestion and healthy skin. Edible frankincense must be pure for internal consumption, meaning it should be translucent, with no black or brown impurities. It is often light yellow with a (very) slight greenish tint. It is often chewed like gum, but it is stickier because it is a resin.

In Ayurvedic medicine Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrata) has been used for hundreds of years for treating arthritis.

Burning frankincense repels mosquitos and thus helps protect people and animals from mosquito-born illnesses, such as malaria, West Nile Virus and Dengue Fever.
The essential oil of frankincense is produced by steam distillation of the tree resin. The oil's chemical components are 75% monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, monoterpenoles, sesquiterpenoles and ketones. It has a good balsamic and sweet fragrance, while the Indian frankincense oil has a very fresh smell.

History

Frankincense has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa for more than 5000 years. Frankincense was found in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamen, who died in 1323 BC, i.e. about 3332 years ago.

Frankincense was reintroduced to Europe by Frankish Crusaders. Although it is better known as "frankincense" to westerners, the resin is also known as olibanum, which is derived from the Arabic al-lubān (roughly translated: "that which results from milking"), a reference to the milky sap tapped from the Boswellia tree. Some have also postulated that the name comes from the Arabic term for "Oil of Lebanon" since Lebanon was the place where the resin was sold and traded with Europeans. Compare with Exodus 30:34, where it is clearly named levonah, meaning either "white" or "Lebanese" in Hebrew.

The lost city of Ubar, sometimes identified with Irem in what is now the town of Shisr in Oman, is believed to have been a centre of the frankincense trade along the recently rediscovered "Incense Road". Ubar was rediscovered in the early 1990s and is now under archaeological excavation.

The Greek historian Herodotus was familiar with Frankincense and knew it was harvested from trees in southern Arabia. He reports, however, that the gum was dangerous to harvest because of poisonous snakes that lived in the trees. He goes on to describe the method used by the Arabians to get around this problem, that being the burning of the gum of the styrax tree whose smoke would drive the snakes away. The resin is also mentioned by Theophrastus and by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia.

Frankincense was lavishly used in religious rites. In the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament, it was an ingredient for incense (Ex 30:34) ; according to the Gospel of Matthew 2:11, gold, frankincense and myrrh were among the gifts to Jesus by the Biblical Magi "from out of the East."

 

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