Back Alley Boswellia or Frankincense Fantasy

A foray into native Ethiopian fragrant materials

I am past the worst of the jet lag. I think..

I was going to continue sharing my journey in chronological order, Dead Sea, Jerusalem then Ethiopia, but,,,, I had such a great time in Addis Ababa and came back with such amazing treasures and opportunities that I simply couldn’t keep it all under my hat. I am bursting to talk about my finds and the great luck that came my way. Three new and rare types of Frankincense. All native to Ethiopia and each distinctly unique. A supply of their distilled oils and the most heavenly essential oils of Opoponax and Palmarosa on their way here soon.

Boswellia Rivae Frankincense
Boswellia Rivae Frankincense Ethiopia 2013

The trip from Israel to Ethiopia was booked on the fly two days after we arrived in Israel, four days to get organized for it..

For the past couple of years I had researched and hoped one day to visit Ethiopia, make contact with farmers/collectors and suppliers of Civet paste, Myrrh and Frankincense, but until I bought the ticket, it was only a theory. A wisp of a dream that rose and wafted around in my mind with visions of visiting Frankincense trees in Yemen, Dragon’s Blood trees on Socrato island, and vendors sorting grades of fresh harvested Boswellia Carterii/Sacra Frankincense in Oman.

In 2012, while researching Frankincense chemistry and looking for reliable ways of distinguishing between the different types, I discovered the website of another “Apothecary” and teaching garden in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. Not only was there a teaching garden associated with the website, the person who ran the site seemed an accredited expert in Frankincense and African medicinal plants, made and sold herbal products from local plants as I, and was a distiller and supplier of essential oils from those local plants and oleo-resins. Wow!

After arriving in Israel and with only a few days notice, I let him know I would be in Addis Ababa, could we meet? The timing was tight, he had a local trip booked for that week, and was chairing an annual congress of the Chemical Society of Ethiopia. Very tight timing.

University of Addis Ababa
University of Addis Ababa. Grad students,(my babysitters), performing an extraction of Moringa seeds.

In short, I was his guest at the University of Addis Ababa for 2 days, His grad students expanded their social skills and their command of English by babysitting me, (poor guys, I kept disappearing ). I listened to some very interesting presentations on the development and uses of local plant and mineral resources from the perspectives of organic and inorganic chemistry. Most notably I spent time enjoying his laboratory where his students were doing an extraction of Moringa seed, preparing it for chemical analysis, and visiting the specimen gardens on the university grounds. Both these made me feel right at home. Running between laboratory and garden, that’s me!

Specimen Garden at the University of Addis Ababa
Specimen Garden at the University of Addis Ababa
Boswellia Papyrifera, Frankincense Tigray type
Boswellia Papyrifera, Frankincense Tigray type
Ethiopia 2013

Our time was limited, but we made the most of it, talking when we could and getting as many of our goals accomplished as our time would allow, while planning a few future projects together. His invitations to dinner at his home where I met his talented wife, Chemist and business partner, were both gracious and productive. It seems quite true that Ethiopians are a very warm, hospitable and generous people based on my week long experiences.

We visited a grassroots resin “supplier” in the the “Mercado”, ( Africa’s largest outdoor market), after dusk. When it was quiet enough so one could actually drive and walk the rocky unpaved roads between the bustling people of the market without being knocked down or running over someone selling on the road, and dark enough so no one would notice the tourist in the car and decide to multiply the price of resins astronomically. This is unfortunately the norm. It is beyond haggling or dickering as in the Mediterranean, where you have a reasonable chance to haggle and actually get a good price even if you are a tourist. There are simply two different price structures, tourist and negotiable.

Buying Frankincense at the Mercado in Addis Ababa.
Buying Frankincense at the Mercado in Addis Ababa. Felt like a back alley drug deal.

It felt more like a drug deal in a dark alley. Samples covertly sent back and forth to be approved by me in the dark car and five kilo bags put in the trunk. But boy it was worth it! Fresh fragrant Frankincense resins, each more distinguished than the next.

  • Boswellia Papyrifera Frankincense is, I believe, the Tigray type. From the North of the country. Used by all Ethiopians in their daily coffee ceremonies throughout the country and purchased in bulk by the church. The essential oil is woody & balsamic with a sweet, haunting feeling, reminiscent of ancient souks and sacred stone churches, with a citrus note that would bridge to other citrus notes perfectly.
  • Boswellia Rivae Frankincense is from the Ogaden region in the south east and by far the most complex in its scent. It reaches in and moves you from bottom to top.This oil and that of the Neglecta would make precious additions to any perfumers collection. Not true,, they all would!
  • Boswellia Neglecta Frankincense, (I neglected to ask which region it was from), has a beautiful, creamy rich middle note with a warm balsamic nutty base , yumm. I believe it got its name from not getting classified till much later than the others. Neglected. I will have to research that further. Again, what a unique incense Neglecta makes, and the essential oil is so different than the Boswellia Serrata and Sacra we are all so used to.

All in all, three really unique, unusual and lovely types of Frankincense. Mainly used locally for medicine and ceremony, but as yet not fully recognized or utilized for their broader applications in perfume, cosmetics and mainstream herbal medicine. (I see a face lift for my Frankincense Anti aging creme!)

My gracious Host Professor Ermias Dagne & myself. Addis Ababa 2013
My gracious Host Professor Ermias Dagne & myself. Addis Ababa 2013

So,,, I now have a few Kilos of each resin to experiment with, maybe a little to sell, and a few liters of essential oils being distilled and packaged for shipment soon.

I feel very lucky. Blessed. We established some future goals of working together over the next few months to experiment in both our labs, to explore ways we could add value to Ethiopian resources and products, ways we could work together for our mutual benefit while helping a developing country develop. I felt inspired and exited by the creative possibilities bubbling in my brain. We discovered between us we could meet goals we both have had for a while that pertain to improving the viability of refining Civet products. in Ethiopia.

A civet in Gabon

I have been trying to establish a reliable Civet connection in Ethiopia for years. It seems I may have a chance to not only visit a traditional Civet farmer in person, but could be part of the process of analysis, extraction, refinement and marketing of the finished product, (Civetone), which till now was controlled by large foreign companies, while the Ethiopian economy received the minimum benefit in the chain of commerce, supplying only the raw product at the lowest relative price. At the very bottom of the ladder. Feels like a win, win, win situation. My favourite.

12 Comments

  1. yes the the spur of the moment decisions are about the universe seeing an opportunity for us at hand and with it, plants its thoughts in our mind. Can’t help this this was so a cosmic set up in how this will work itself out in the grand scheme of thinKs.
    When we stop to think about it, every plant including trees on earth are an instant response to its environment, humanity has learned dismiss as we have hemmed and fenced ourselves in with more and more laws, none of which fix since it try contain some, which has already been set free
    Dan, I am curious, does each of the different Frankincenses come from different kinds of plants, or different areas in Ethiopia?
    I now perceive each of the galaxyes ignites the light that sings the sound vibration in matter . . . . not of which we speak , refracted by every bit it grounds in.
    once had a farmer share ” the ginseng gets its strength from the rock bed neath it roots. . . if that so, it would apply to all, even if not as obvious. . took 3 steps further and always soaking in the words of the linguist to the stars . . who shared’ language adapts to the lay of the land . .
    is earth’s rockbed in fact the source of all our linguistic , cultural and musical customs differencess?
    this all old hat to you or adds yet another view on the eve broader picture of the nature of creation?
    if the universe wishes to round out our education with. . it will find a way to do so. .

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    1. Ah. Nice surprising shift meeting you here.
      Yes I think all plants are exactly where they should be. Different coloured flowers channel in different energies, called, invited to give what is needed on the other end. As you said, they are the go between. Absorbing refining and nourishing the lovely and evolving consciousness we tread on. Who in return nourishes us. Well perhaps we do the refining. Plants a little simpler in what they nourish her with.
      The three frankincenses indeed grow in different areas. Same family. Brothers or sisters with unique variations between them. Unique tastes, fragrances, chemical constituents and suitable for different applications.

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      1. nice finding you here as well. your mention of the colours reminds me of how every thought has its colour and rainbow around us on sorting themselves out at the passing of a storm .

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  2. By the way – I heard the other day that when Solomon’s ships sailed down the red sea, some of his seamen went inland. This may account for their appearance, and old, old Jewish community in Ethiopia

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    1. Yes, the Yemenite Jews claim they were sent by King Solomon to establish and maintain the trade route and supply from the south. They went before the fall of the first temple and did not return to Israel till relatively recently when the name of the Jewish year actually spelled “Return” . Then they packed their bags and walked back as far as I know. The Falashas, the Ethiopian Jews, may have a similar history, not sure, There is an old Jewish graveyard in Eritrea too.

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  3. really liked this essay……..so nice to be able to travel and have a class at the same time……..sounds like a really nice trip…

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    1. Hi there! Yes it was a lovely trip. spur of the moment ticket purchase from Israel to Ethiopia, but the spontaneity was part of the charm. Met some amazing people, made some very promising business connections, and visited family and friends in Israel. It was good.
      How do you find the Calendula creme? Have you had an opportunity to use it yet?

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      1. Hey Dan
        No, I never did receive that calendula creme……do you suppose Chris has used it all up…..hah! I guess I better call(or text) him…..and find out just where that creme is at……thanks for reminding me.

        Mary Lynn

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