WHAT IS FRANKINCENSE?
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Most of us have heard of frankincense, even if it is only within the context of the Christmas Nativity. You will probably remember that frankincense was one of the trinity of gifts given to Mary and Joseph by the wise men (Magi) in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
However, what is it and where does frankincense come from?
Frankincense begins its journey by being tapped from the very scraggly but hardy Boswellia tree. This is achieved by slashing the bark and allowing the exuded resins to bleed out and harden. These hardened resins are known as tears. There are numerous species and varieties of frankincense trees, each producing a slightly different type of resin. Differences in the soil and local climate will 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 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 hardier survivors are considered superior for their more fragrant aroma.
The trees will begin to produce their resin when they are about 8 to 10 years old. Tapping the tree for resin 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. Dhofari frankincense (from Boswellia sacra) is said to be the best in the world, although fine resin is also produced more extensively in Yemen and along the northern coast of Somalia, from which the Roman Catholic Church draws its supplies.
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%.
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