Frankincense and Myrrh are becoming better known and integrated with our Western lives as interest in the healing power of plants grows. Though we often learn of these resins through the popularity of their essential oils , their greatest therapeutic gifts lie in their resin and not their distilled essential oils.
Therapeutic compounds of special note in Frankincense are the Boswellic acids, a group of anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer resin acids found in many types of Frankincense that are lost through the process of distillation. While therapy through aroma, (Aromatherapy), is an accepted healing modality, resins offer therapeutic compounds and benefits that cannot be replaced by essential oils.
Medicine, Incense, Perfume & Cosmetics
Since the dawn of civilization we have made medicine, incense, perfume and body-care products with Frankincense, Myrrh and other aromatic resins. Though modern science and chemistry have transformed our lives with novel chemicals and “nature identical” molecules, we continue to rely on the integrity of Nature’s Pharmacopeia that has sustained us for thousands of years.
Why grind Frankincense?
Both Frankincense and Myrrh are composed of alcohol-soluble resin, and water soluble-gum in a homogeneous matrix. To access the resin portion for oil or alcohol extraction one must first break down the matrix and expose these compounds to the solvent. Contrary to popular belief, most types of Frankincense and Myrrh will not dissolve in a single solvent such as oil, alcohol or water. Grinding is critical to preparing a tincture, an oil extract and most other Frankincense or Myrrh products.
Mortar and pestle
We have been grinding plant material with mortar & Pestle for millennia. They offer one the opportunity to connect with the material and the process on a personal, experiential level which can only contribute to the quality of the products we create. Mortar and pestle are anchored in the deepest of archetypes, (Yin and Yang, male and female, and are associated with creation, fecundity, birth, transformation and transmutation etc.). Mortar and pestle should not be replaced by electric grinders without thoughtful consideration and abundant prior experience.
Grinding resins with a Mortar and pestle is, however, messy and usually involves pieces of resin flying out like shrapnel. Carpets are a favourite destination for errant resins. Using a deep mortar, (I prefer Brass for resins), and spreading one’s spare hand over the opening will cut down on escapees. Smooth-surfaced, hard mortars are best for resins. Avoid wood, porous stone and unglazed clay.
When grinding larger quantities of resins, or when time is limited, an electric grinder is useful. Regular electric coffee grinders or herb grinders work well. Burr mills, for grain or coffee, are NOT suitable. Large pieces of resin, 1/2 Inch and up. will need to be broken down before grinding. Inserting the resin chunks into a ziplock bag and pounding them judiciously with a hammer will reduce them to a size the grinder can handle.
It is always wise to unplug electric grinders before opening and removing powdered material. Never insert tools or fingers while an electric grinder is plugged in. The safety mechanism of coffee grinders can and will get gummed up with resin and malfunction. Avoid painful and bloody accidents. Be smart, take your time.
Fresh vs. dry oleo-gum-resins
Often, especially if the resins are fresh, they will get soft and gummy, stick to the blades and sides of the electric grinder chamber and when removed, form a rock hard lump. Even if the resins do not stick to the inside of the grinder, powdered fresh resins will usually solidify once removed from the mortar or grinder.
Tears of the trees
Frankincense and Myrrh come out of the tree in liquid form, often as a white emulsion of gum and resin with their respective solvents, water and essential or volatile oils, (up to 10% of each by the time we receive them). What this means, is when we first grind Frankincense and other oleo gum resins, we liberate the moisture and essential oils that have been locked in the material since the day they bled from a tree in the desert.
As soon as the powder is removed from the grinder, it needs to be spread out and dried. if a finer powder is needed, it must be ground and dried again. In the shop, I often grind and dry the resin 3 times to achieve a fine loose powder that will not clump. This is especially important when the goal is to fill capsules.
Freezing fresher resins before grinding will create a larger window of time in the grinder before they solidify. It will also give you a bit more time to spread them out before they harden. Roughly a half-hour per 100 grams of resin in the freezer works well.
Resin cleaning hacks
Clean-up of sticky resin residue, (on Mortars, Pestles, hands, tools and surfaces), is accomplished with vegetable oil. A steel Brillo pad expedites the process. The oil/resin blend is then dissolved with dish soap & warm water and finally rinsed with warm water and dried. This is a perfect solution for clean-up of most Resins. (And leaves hands feeling beautifully moisturized!). This method also works equally well when cleaning the pot after distilling resin essential oils.
My secret formula
An alcohol and dish soap mix works well for glassware that has a layer of hard or sticky resin on it. It is especially useful after preparing or pouring resin tinctures. Add small increments of warm water as it dissolves the resin. I use a ratio of 1 part Dawn dish soap to 1 part 95%, (180 proof), ethanol.
Cleaning your electric grinder
The easiest method to remove residual resin from an electric grinder is to fill it 1/3 to 1/2 full of raw rice and run the grinder till the rice is finely powdered. This will remove most of the resin residue clinging to the blades and sides of your grinder. A wipe with a damp cloth should finish the job.
Different “Resins” and their solubility
Resins and Oleoresins-Will dissolve in alcohol and often in warm oils
- Frankincense Frereana
- Frankincense Thurimels. The honey-coloured resins exuded by Boswellia Neglecta and Rivae
- Most types of Dragon’s Blood resin
- Most Copals
Oleo Gum Resins-Will not completely dissolve in any 1 solvent-Require grinding
- Most types of Frankincense
- Most resins of the Commiphora, (Myrrh), family
When we burn oleo-gum-resins such as Frankincense and Myrrh on a charcoal as incense, note that the first release of fragrance is clear, “bright” and closer in fragrance to the fresh material you are burning. These are the essential oils that evaporate at the lower temperatures. After this first note from the essential oils, and probably overlapping it, the resins and their less volatile compounds will melt into the charcoal & burn. Then, if there is a prominent percentage of gum in the material as in most representatives of Myrrh and Frankincense, the water-soluble gum will yield itself to the heat. It may bubble a bit, but will not dissolve into the charcoal, it will char and burn emitting a crude smell of burnt material and form a black lump on the coal.
This burnt gum is regarded as one of the ingredients in the ancient Egyptian’s “Kohl” eyeliner with the addition of Sulfide of Antimony or Lead and other ingredients.
Of the Frankincense family, Frankincense Frereana, Boswellia Frereana, locally called “Maydi” is a good example of a pure oleoresin. It is found only in Somalia and Somaliland and completely dissolves in alcohol and warm oils. It melts into the charcoal without releasing a “burnt” smell and without leaving a residue on the charcoal.
And remember, No matter what you create with these fragrant gifts, always take clear notes. Your future self will thank you. Dan
The above is an edit and reposting of an old and well-read article that turned into a complete rewrite. Testament to how much I have learned the past 6 years, and likely, to how much I have yet to learn. Dan
To experience some of these aromatic treasures and the products I have made with them, feel free to explore my little shop at www.apothecarysgarden.shop