A question I get a lot in the shop is ,”I’m new at this and I don’t know which Frankincense type to start with. Can you help me?” Well, since you asked, in my opinion, the best way to get acquainted with the Boswellia, AKA Frankincense family is to start with the classics. By classics I mean those types of Frankincense that were often the very first many of us experienced in a mosque, temple, synagogue, church, trip or Hippy commune. Even if we didn’t know we once smelled Frankincense, we will find immediate familiarity and connection with something we smelled even for the briefest moment in our past. Chances are many will recognize the aroma of one of these fragrant resins. But, even if we have no prior experience, these classics are a perfect starting point for our aromatic, Boswellic journey.
The classic Frankincense types.
The classic Frankincense types are found in the shape of tears, Either whole, partial or aggregated. In the dry season the tree’s bark is removed in small 3″ to 6″ sections and the milky exudate flows and solidifies in semi-translucent drops and tears. It is collected when it has hardened, after about 2 weeks. There are 4 primary types of Frankincense that are the most common and familiar. These types differ enough from each other for a beginner to discern between them.
Frankincense Serrata grows in India and it’s aroma is most familiar to those who grew up on the Indian continent, and Asia. It is the Frankincense type used in Hindu ceremonies and in Ayurvedic medicine. It has a distinct sweet, spicy aroma with notes of anise and mint. Learn more about Frankincense Serrata here
Growing in the Tigray area of northern Ethiopia, Eritrea and west into Sudan, Boswellia papyrifera is used by many churches across the world and often called Church Frankincense. Frankincense Papyrifera has a strong middle note a soft yet persistent heart note and a distinguished aroma with hints of orange peel. Shown in the photo below is- Frankincense Papyrifera Sudan Supergrade.
Frankincense Carterii and Frankincense Sacra
Though botanists agree these two are one and the same species, the nose tells us they are quite different and distinct types of Frankincense resin.
Frankincense carterii is likely the most circulated type of Frankincense and the population of Boswellia carterii trees in Somalia and Somaliland is the largest frankincense “forest” in the world. It provides most of our Frankincense and the main yearly income for many Somali families and communities. When we smell an essential oil of Frankincense it is most often that of Frankincense carterii. Frankincense Carterii has a deep soft amber note with highlights of honey, vanilla, and black pepper. It has softer citrus notes than the Sacra and Boswellia Dalzielii have. Frankincense Carterii can be found here
Frankincense Sacra and Royal Hojari
Best known in Arabian cultures Frankincense Sacra grows throughout the Southern part of the Arabian peninsula from Aden through Oman. It is divided into two types, regular Frankincense Sacra resin and the Hojari type. The Hojari Frankincense Sacra resin comes from the mountainous region of Dhofar in Southern Oman and is extensively sorted according to the colour, size and shape of the tears. It has a sweeter and bolder fragrance than the regular sacra with distinct amber and strong citrus notes. The term “Royal” is added to the larger better-formed tears. The main Hojari types are silver, red and green Hojari which is usually called “Royal Green Hojari”. The Royal Green Hojari is considered the premier Omani Frankincense and often reserved in Arabian culture for medicinal applications such as the traditional tea, (which you can make with these instructions.) You can find Royal Green Hojari resin in the shop here
The above 4 types of Frankincense resin are a great starting point for beginners. They differ quite a bit in their aroma and they are the main Frankincense resins traded on the international market. Once any of these have been experienced, you will have an excellent base for appreciating and evaluating the rest of the Frankincense resin family.
Black sacra and Black carterii
Both Frankincense sacra and carterii are available in what is called their black form. The term is a bit misleading since they are not really black but a very dark honey colour. Black Sacra and black Carterii are forms of Frankincense that often appear in sticky masses peppered with tears and bark. They are favoured by distillers due to their high essential oil content. Their sticky form is generally attributed to the abundance of rainfall and moist ocean breezes they are exposed to due to their geographical locations. Both have a sweeter, softer, (honey-like), aroma with less citrus notes than their counterparts. You can find Black Frankincense Sacra here.
Frankincense Dalzielii-Nigeria and West Africa
Frankincense Dalzielii is a beautiful Frankincense resin that is not as common as the others. From a visual perspective it looks like Frankincense Sacra Royal Hojari, with large well-formed tears and often found with an abundance of green tears. The main difference between Sacra/Hojari and Dalzielii is in their fragrance. Besides citrus notes, Boswellia dalzielii also has distinct notes of mint and camphor. The latest research has shown that Boswellia dalzielii contains the highest % of therapeutic Boswellic acids and AKBA compared to all the other types. You can learn more about the medicinal properties of the Boswellic acids in my post-Frankincense as Medicine. Truth, Myth and Misinformation Frankincense Dalzielii can be found in the shop here
Frankincense Frereana-Maydi. The king of Frankincense
Often called Maydi, Boswellia Frereana is the pride of Somali culture. It has a very different chemical composition from the other types of Frankincense, contains no boswellic acids, but is just as powerful a healing and anti-inflammatory resin as the others. It is the preferred Frankincense type of the Coptic church and is used extensively in Arabia as a high end natural chewing gum, for incense and cosmetics. It is sometimes referred to as Yemenite chewing gum. It often appears as flatish chunks of tears of a golden colour with a light white surface bloom. There is a theory that the unique golden coloured Frankincense Frereana was the “Gold” referred to in the old testament story of the birth of Jesus. Learn more about Frankincense Frereana in this post. Frankincense Frereana can be purchased in the shop here
Frankincense Rivae, Neglecta and Kenyan Frankincense. The black Frankincense resins. Dakar
These Frankincense types differ considerably in appearance from all the others. They are black coloured exudates, often with a granular texture that appear as lumps with no distinct tears. Believe it or not, these three trees produce 2-3 different types/colours of resin. One is clear and used locally as chewing gum. All 3 of these trees provide income for local semi-nomadic tribes and clans and often supplement the income of the tribe’s women. Keep in mind that these three trees offer us their resins with out the need for tapping which makes them eminently sustainable. This truly is a great benefit since we are losing many of our Frankincense species due to increased demand for their essential oils. If we can use these types of Frankincense more often, it will benefit the collector communities and take some of the pressure off the over-harvested and stressed tree populations.
Also known as Ogaden Frankincense, Boswellia Rivae is one of my favorites. It grows mostly in the Somali Region of Ethiopia and has a lovely characteristic sweet and spicy aroma. The tree yields 2-3 different types/colours of resin but the black is most often found in commerce. You can learn about my visit with the Frankincense collectors in the Somali Region of Ethiopia Here and purchase Frankincense Rivae in the shop here
Frankincense Neglecta is often soft, pliable and almost tar-like when fresh and forms large lumps in collectors bags in the desert heat. It has less sweetness than Frankincense Rivae and notes of Fir. Frankincense neglecta grows mainly in Kenya and Western Ethiopia. I prepare an oil extract from Frankincense Neglecta resin for addressing anxiety and tightness of the chest. You can learn more about Frankincense neglecta and the Samburu women that collect it in my post here. You can find fresh Frankincense Neglecta in the shop here
As implied by the species name, this is actually a member of the Myrrh family. However, it’s aromatic profile and chemical composition are much closer to Frankincense than Myrrh. For this reason it is named Kenyan Frankincense. In the past C. Confusa was mixed in with Frankincense Neglecta resin by collectors. However, now that it has been identified as a unique aromatic resin one can find it and it’s essential oil in the international market, As indicated by its name, Kenyan Frankincense grows mainly in Northern Kenya. Purchasing C. confusa resin and essential oil helps broaden the income of the women of semi-nomadic pastoralist tribes that purchase food and medicine for their families with the the money from resin collection. It often takes them a full day to collect 1 kilogram of tree resin! For more information on Commiphora confusa, the Myrrrh that is a Frankincense please see my post Here. You can find the essential oil of C. confusa in the shop here.
There are a number of Frankincense resin types that are rarely found on the market. Most are sourced from the island of Socotra. They are Boswellia Ameero, B. Socratana and B. Elongata. We will leave these for the experts and collectors of the rare and unusual.
The Thurimels or Honey Frankincense types
As I mentioned earlier, some of the Frankincense trees produce more than one type of resin. The Black Frankincense types, Boswellia neglecta, Rivae and commiphora confusa, also produce a clear aromatic resin. I have dubbed this aromatic exudate a “Thurimel”, which means Honey Frankincense. Though rarely traded internationally, the Honey frankincense types are valued locally as chewing gum and incense. They all differ in aroma from their black counterparts and are pure resins lacking water-soluble gum. They melt completely when heated and produce a sweet aroma when burned as incense. Every once in a while I will have them for sale in the shop.
Boswellia Occulta. The hidden Frankincense
Only recently identified and named, Boswellia Occulta grows among the Frankincense Carterii trees in Somalia and Somaliland. It was/is mixed in with Boswellia carterii to add a bit of extra income for collectors. It has an odd aroma compared to other Frankincense types and a bitterness that may be attributed to boswellic acids. It’s chemical composition is different from Frankincense carterii and it contains a high % of a compound rarely found in nature-Methoxydecane. Boswellia occulta has only recently been introduced to the Western market as a distinct resin and you can find it here in the shop.
The folly of Frankincense essential oil
Most people don’t know that the essential oil of Frankincense contains only a minute portion of the therapeutic compounds found in Frankincense resin. The majority of the healing compounds are discarded after distillation of the resin as waste!! Out of 1 kilogram, (2 Pounds), of Frankincense resin we can expect to receive about 5% by weight, about 1.5 Ounces of Frankincense essential oil. The rest is lost. Is this really a judicious use of our natural resources?
Wasteful and shortsighted
Our enormous, (and growing), demand for essential oils is stressing the trees beyond their ability to regenerate and contributing to the decline and immanent extinction of Frankincense species. Frankincense resin offers us so much more than just an essential oil. All the resin acids including the Boswellic acids, the active therapeutic compounds that are anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer, are discarded since the big money nowadays is in essential oils. It is no wonder that our Frankincense trees are quickly reaching the brink of extinction!!
Why pay more to get less?
I encourage you all to use the whole resin instead of Frankincense essential oil whenever possible. Frankincense resin is infinitely more beneficial than the essential oil and can replace the essential oil and improve most products that we make. Up your game. Don’t be lame. When I make products using the whole resin there is no need to add essential oils. The whole resin comes with its own perfect proportion of fragrance and essential oil. Massage oils, medicated oils, salves, cremes, Skincare products, therapeutic products for respiratory, muscle and joint care and more all benefit from the Boswellic acids. Why pay more to add only the aroma of Frankincense to your product when you could harness the powerfully therapeutic, joint-loving and skin-loving Boswellic acids?
Utilizing all the therapeutic compounds
Here are instructions for making your own full spectrum, Boswellic acid rich, oil extract of Frankincense. This is the simplest way to harness the power of Frankincense in your products. You can find ready-made oil extracts, (Oleo Extracts), of the different Frankincense types in the shop as well as the resin extracts which are the valuable materials left over after I distill the shop’s Frankincense essential oils. They cost less than the fresh Frankincense resin and are easy to work with. Using whole Frankincense resin or the spent resin honours the trees, the land and the collectors who often scale cliff faces with no safety equipment in the hot desert sun to bring these gifts to us. Let’s not waste it!