Frankincense or olibanum (Arabic language: لبٌان, lubbān) is an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia, particularly Boswellia sacra (syn. B. carteri, B. thurifera) (Burseraceae). It is used in incense as well as in perfumes.
Frankincense is tapped from the very scraggly but hardy Boswellia tree through 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 in the resin, even within the same species.
These trees are also considered unusual for their ability to grow in environments so unforgiving that the trees sometimes seem to grow directly out of solid rock. The deep roots prevent the tree from being torn away from the stone during the violent storms that frequent this region; the tears from these hardy survivors are considered superior due to their more fragrant aroma. The aroma from these tears are more valuable for their presumed healing abilities and are also said to have superior qualities for religious ritual.
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. High quality resin can be visually discerned through its level of opacity. Omani frankincense is said to be the best in the world, although quality resin is also produced in Yemen, and along the north coast of Somalia.
Recent studies have indicated that frankincense tree populations are declining due to over-exploitation. Heavily tapped trees have been found to produce seeds that germinate at only 16% while seeds of trees that had not been tapped germinate at more than 80%.
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."
The Egyptians ground the charred resin into a powder called kohl. Kohl was used to make the distinctive black eyeliner seen on so many figures in Egyptian art. The aroma of frankincense is said to represent life and the Judaic, Christian and Islamic faiths have often used frankincense mixed with oils to anoint newborn infants and individuals considered to be moving into a new phase in their spiritual lives.
The growth of Christianity, with an initial deritualisation of religion later to be reverted, depressed the market for frankincense during the 4th century AD. Desertification made the caravan routes across the Rub al Khali or "Empty Quarter" of Arabia more difficult. Additionally, increased raiding by the nomadic Parthians in the Near East caused the frankincense trade to dry up after about AD 300.
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.
Frankincense comes in many grades, and its quality is based on color, purity, aroma, and age.
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.
An enriched extract of "Indian Frankincense" was used in a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study of patients with osteoarthritis. Patients receiving the extract showed significant improvement 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.