A recent publication reveals the natural sustainability of two types of Frankincense growing in Northern Kenya. This information is especially relevant in the light of the steady decline of other Frankincense species.

Rapid loss of our Frankincense trees.

We are losing our Frankincense trees faster than they can regenerate themselves. This means that some species of Frankincense will be extinct in a few decades. However, not all species of Frankincense are threatened and in fact some of them are thriving and could provide excellent alternatives that can reduce pressure on the mainstream trees until we remedy their decline.

A benign relationship between trees and beetles benefits women of the northern tribes.

Frankincense Neglecta-Kenya-Photo courtesy of Sue Davis
Samburu Mamas collecting Frankincense Neglecta-Kenya-Photo courtesy of Sue Davis

Authors of the paper, Hilary Sommerlatte and Erik-Ben Van Wyk have both spent decades studying the trees of Africa. In this latest publication they reveal the fascinating relationship between beetles, two indigenous species of Frankincense trees and their aromatic resins. Resins that provide much needed income for women of the northern Kenyan tribes. You can find their paper here

Coexistence and interdependence

Sustainability could be described as a system that can be perpetuated indefinitely. The beetles deposit their larva in the tree’s bark, the trees produce resin that nourishes and protects the larva. The resin is collected by the women to supplement their income and care for their families. Round and round the circle goes with harm to none of the participants.

When I saw this Long Horn beetle on a Frankincense Neglecta tree I had to take a picture. This was before I even knew of the relationship between them. Apologies for the low resolution.

The stress on mainstream Frankincense trees

Nowadays we increasingly hear about the steady loss of our world’s Frankincense tree population. Our growing demand for Frankincense essential oil is one of the factors increasing the pressure on the Frankincense population. (Remember, 95% of the Frankincense resin is discarded in the production of Frankincense essential oil.) The extra strain of increased tapping or over harvesting the trees for resin, compounded with damage from climate change, agricultural encroachment, grazing animals, natural pests, charcoal production, fire and disease is quickly bringing some Frankincense species to the brink of extinction. But not these two species. A recent survey shows both populations are thriving.

Boswellia neglecta tree. Endoto foothills Northern Kenya
Boswellia neglecta tree. Endoto foothills Northern Kenya. A sustainable source of Frankincense resin.

Is there interest in an alternative?

Both Frankincense Neglecta and Kenyan Frankincense trees produce 2 types of aromatic resins without human intervention.  A clear resin that exudes spontaneously with no damage to the tree, and a black resin generated through the involvement of the beetles. This is excellent news in light of the world’s Frankincense crisis and provides an elegantly sustainable product without disturbing the balance of nature or harming the trees. If we consider the economic stability this brings these remote communities then we have an ideal relationship between man and nature. One that can be perpetuated ad infinitum with no negative effects. The biggest challenge at the moment is establishing an interest and a market in the West for these fragrant resins.

Kenyan Frankincense tree, Commiphora confusa yields an aromatic resin spontaneously without the need for tapping

How are we handling the crisis in the Frankincense family?

An increasing number of people and organizations are rallying to study and address the decline of our Frankincense trees. And while the CITES organization, ( Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), is working towards blanket restrictions on the trade of Frankincense resin, many remote communities depend on the income from Frankincense collection.

Mixed Commiphora Acacia Bushland in Northern Kenya. Home to numerous species of fragrant resin-bearing trees

How will communities be impacted by restrictions in trade?

The communities that harvest our aromatic and medicinal plants in the wild are ideally positioned to steward the land and the trees. Their involvement and welfare are critical to any attempt at better resource management on our part. Their wellbeing should be at the top of our priority list. For many, the Frankincense harvest provides the lion’s share of their yearly income.

Samburu women sorting Frankincense Neglecta
Samburu women sorting Frankincense Neglecta. Photo M. Kalliokoski

The Frankincense collectors in Northern Kenya

In Northern Kenya, Frankincense is harvested mainly by the women of the tribes. Though they are in charge of feeding and caring for the family, they have no income of their own. Collecting resins offers the women some financial independence, affording them the resources to purchase food and medicine for their families. Is there an alternative to cutting off these remote communities from a critical source of livelihood? Shouldn’t we work with them instead of against their best interests to manage our shared resources?

Frankincense Neglecta. Samburu women depend on the income from collecting Frankincense for food and medicine for their families.
Frankincense Neglecta. Samburu women come to market to sell the Frankincense they have collected. They rely on the income to purchase food and medicine for their families. Photo M. Kalliokoski

A sustainable alternative to Mainstream Frankincense?

I believe that adding these resins and their essential oils to our palette can take a bit of pressure off the mainstream Frankincense resins. Coupled with a more thoughtful approach to our use of Frankincense essential oils we, as consumers, may be able to make a difference to the trees and also support these isolated communities. But what else can we do?

Frankincense neglecta-Kenya-Boswellia neglecta
Frankincense neglecta-Kenya-Boswellia neglecta. Not the prettiest resin on the block but beautifully fragrant and sustainable.

What can you and I do to help our Frankincense trees?

I am often asked what can we, as consumers do to stop the decline of our Frankincense trees? Here are some options.

  • We can use the whole Frankincense resin instead of Frankincense essential oil whenever possible. The essential oil is already present in perfect proportion in the fresh resin and products created with it deliver the same benefits from an Aromatherapy perspective. (Aromatherapy simply means healing through aroma).
  • Instead of creating massage oils from essential oils we can make super-therapeutic medicated oils, salves and cremes by infusing the whole resin in a carrier oil to deliver the healing Boswellic acids. Not only are they excellent for the skin, but they are also anti inflammatory and help address inflammation of muscles and joints, arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. You can find instructions for making an oleo extract of Frankincense here
  • Instead of using Frankincense essential oil in a diffuser, use a small piece of the whole resin of Frankincense in a tealight resin burner or an electric incense burner. It will last just as long and deliver a richer aroma than the essential oil alone. Remember, it takes over a Pound of Frankincense resin to make 1 ounce of essential oil. Let’s use it wisely.
  • We can consider incorporating these Frankincense essential oils into our routines and formulas. Frankincense Neglecta, Kenyan Frankincense and Frankincense Rivae are wonderful alternatives.
  • We can use the resin extract, which is the spent resin left over after distilling the essential oil, in our cosmetic and therapeutic products. It contains a treasure trove of therapeutic compounds that are discarded after distilling the essential oils. In fact, most of the healing compounds in Frankincense including all the Boswellic acids are found in the resin/resin extract and not in the essential oil! Let’s not waste this precious resource. You can learn about the therapeutic properties of Frankincense resin and the Boswellic acids here.
  • We can support the non profit organizations that are dedicated to education and developing sustainable practices around our aromatic and medicinal plants such as the Airmid Institute, the American Botanical Council’s Sustainable herbs program, United Plant Savers and others. Let me know in the comments what your favourite non profit, pro-sustainability organization is and I will add it here.

Are these resins a viable alternative to mainstream Frankincense?

Can you benefit from adding these sustainable resins and their essential oils to your practices and formulas? Would you like to try them and find out if they will work for you? If so, leave me a note with your next order at www.apothecarysgarden.shop. Just mention you would like an essential oil or resin sample of either Kenyan Frankincense or Frankincense Neglecta and I will add one to your order. There is no minimum order required. I would love to hear back from you after you have tried them. Dan

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