Plant Study – Frankincense

Photo Collage of a violet Victorian Christmas bauble. In front is a Christmas angel with a Santa hat, an ornate run with Frankincense stems and baubles, a Gold Crown and a pheasant.

“And, yes, I know the overpowering smell that I associate with frankincense is actually patchouli, but my brain has always lumped these two aromas into the same incense pot.”

How is that for an introduction to frankincense?

I bet you thought I would lead with the whole baby Jesus, three wise men, donkeys fa la la lah bit. But, as I have created a Chrismassy header image, I feel we can skip the obvious.

Instead, let’s take a quick look at what frankincense is and what you can do with it before getting into why it reminds me of the fusty hippie-indie rock shops I used to skulk around in as a teenager.

So what exactly is frankincense?

Well, it’s a white to yellowish aromatic resin extracted from the Boswellia tree that is used as incense, in perfumes, aromatherapy, skincare, and medicinally to help with various ailments, including arthritis.

Why? Because it has superpowers and smells nice.

Its woody, earthy aroma is not to my taste (I lean more towards sweet floral scents), but I can see why others love it. If you want to create a calm, clean-smelling space for yoga, meditation or your Oracle card practice, frankincense is definitely a good choice.

Boswellia, the plant

Named after the Scottish botanist John Boswell; there are four species of Boswellia used commercially – Boswellia. sacra, B. frereana, B. papyrifera and B. serrata. Each species has a slightly different aroma and usage.

The Boswellia is a small deciduous tree that is found in the deserts or dry shrublands of Somalia, Oman and Yemen; however, the Boswellia. serrata is native to India and parts of Pakistan.

The frankincense tree can grow from 2 to 8 meters tall with one or more stems (trunks) and branches that appear twisty and knobbly. Its bark is very papery and comes off easily to reveal a smooth aromatic surface. Its leaves are dark green and grow in odd numbers along stems that cluster on the tip of branches. It also has pretty little flowers that vary in colour from cream to pinky-white, depending on the species. Each flower head has five petals with ten stamens that remind me of a little crown, and each fruit produces 3-5 seeds.

The tree isn’t visually awe-inspiring, but I recommend Googling to get an idea of its shape and to check out its cute flowers.

Hand-drawn illustration of the Boswellia (Frankincense) plant. The drawing contains a flower, a bud, and two stems of leaves.

How is frankincense resin produced?

Not by smushing its flowers and leaves together into a gummy paste, that’s for sure.

No, frankincense resin is actually Boswellia tree sap; you know, the runny goop a tree secretes to form a scab over any injuries. By cutting into the tree, you can encourage the flow of its milky white protective fluid, which, when dry, turns into the small yellow-orange aromatic nuggets you can buy in shops or online.

Avert your eyes now

For trees to remain healthy, they should only be harvested at most ten times a year. Researchers, however, have found trees cut up to 120 times during 12 months, endangering their overall health and longevity.

Catering for increased consumer demand for essential oils and natural medicines isn’t the only factor impacting Boswellia trees. Bushfires and beetle attacks are constant threats. So the poor trees are being hammered from all directions.

On the surface, things look bleak for the commercial Boswellia tree, but is it?

In 1998 the IUNC Red List organisation classed the Boswellia. sacra (the baby Jesus one) as Near Threatened, but their status hasn’t been updated since then. I don’t for a minute believe that means no one is keeping an eye on things, but that maybe, hopefully, things have improved, and that is why local pharmacy stocks high-grade frankincense essential oil.

Photo collage of a White Dove, pestle & mortar, pipette and incense urn

What is Frankincense used for?

As mentioned, frankincense is used across many industries, but I want to focus on incense in this article. Not just because the burning of incense is a rite of passage for many bored lanky teenagers trying to find the meaning of life** but because the word incense is literally in its name.

Did you know that the Catholic Church uses approximately 50 tonnes of frankincense annually and prefers Boswellia. sacra (the three wise men variety) and B. papyrifera (India)?

No, me neither, but it makes sense.

Incense, especially frankincense, has been used in rituals and religious ceremonies for over 5000 years. Apparently, the Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Israelites, Greeks and Romans, amongst others, couldn’t get enough of it. Nero alone used up a year’s worth of frankincense when mourning one of his lady friends, not a mean feat even for that tyrant.

** I still love burning incense, but Oracle cards provide better answers.

Why was burning frankincense popular back in the day?

As is still the case in many cultures today, incense burning is believed to help carry the messages and prayers to ancestors and their Gods & Goddesses. But, back then, it was also used as an offering to gain favours from their favourite deity or to appease them if things weren’t going to plan.

There was also a more practical reason for burning incense; it smelled nice.

No one wants to inhale the cesspool fumes from next door when conducting ceremonies, meditating or praying. Nor do you want to pick up diseases.

The Ancient Egyptians, for example, used frankincense to fumigate their temples and spaces because they understood its antibacterial and disinfecting qualities. They appreciated many of the healing properties of frankincense, including its psychoactive component, which leads me nicely back to my weird introduction and my lifelong mix-up between two different plants.

Rumour has it that hippies first started wearing and burning patchouli incense to cover the smell of marijuana.

Put that in your censer and inhale it!

How true that is, who can say, but patchouli is pretty pungent and has the staying power of a teenage mosh pit, making it the perfect ally for covering up smells. Why else would all those fusty hippie-indie rock shops that teenage me used to buy second-hand clothes from burn patchouli?

Attic smell is hard to eliminate, no matter how many cans of Impulse you throw at it!

Photo Collage of the Human brain with flowers growing out of the brain. Image also contains a kangaroo and butterflies with the words A picture of Good Health written underneath

Alleviating anxiety and depression

So what exactly does psychoactive mean? Does it mean that if you smoke frankincense, you find yourself on a magic carpet with Barney & Friends?

Probably not, as psychoactive simply means something that affects your mind or behaviour.

Any substance that enters your body that changes your perception, cognitive powers, consciousness, mood and emotions is classed as psychoactive, including alcohol and prescribed antidepressants.

Burning frankincense has scientifically been proven to affect the brain positively. It alleviates anxiety and depression.

Guess which other plant can help with depression (in small doses), that’s right Marijuana but that isn’t really what the Cannabis Hemp plant is known for.

When asked, most people will tell you that weed gets you high. What they mean to say is that it is capable of changing your perception to the degree that you hallucinate. I won’t bother going into how this happens, but if you wanted to communicate with your favourite Goddess or ancestor, wouldn’t this help?

If the Ancient Egyptians knew about the mood-enhancing and antibacterial value of frankincense, there is no way they didn’t know about the mind-altering effects of cannabis. Or any of their neighbouring countries, for that matter.

You found what?!

In 2020 archaeologists analysed two substances found on the limestone altars in the Judahite shrine at Tel Arad, Israel and discovered that one was cannabis, the other frankincense.

So, not only were frankincense and cannabis plants used to protect against physical disease they helped mentally cleanse and prepare worshippers for spiritual work.

Turns out my patchouli-frankincense-addled brain was onto something all along and that there is so much more to frankincense than the Three wise men and baby Jesus.

If your brain also enjoys mixing up your facts, embrace it. You never know what weird and wonderful path it will lead you down. I am constantly surprised at how accurate my Oracle card leapfrogs are, EVEN the ones that are factually incorrect.

Want to know more about leapfrogging? Check out my article Easy 7 step Oracle Card Process