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Commiphora confusa. The Myrrh that is a Frankincense.

I know I said I didn’t often post shop listings here on the blog. Though still true, I may have to take that back soon…After over 2 months in Africa and the Mediterranean, I am still trying to catch up on correspondence and workshops, making new products, and getting some gorgeous African aromatics listed in the shop. I just haven’t found the time to sit down and write a blog post. This may seem a bit like cheating, but sometimes you just have to use what you have at hand and I hope it provides enough new and interesting information to be worthy of reading.

 

Visually and aromatically similar to Boswellia or Frankincense neglecta and often mixed in with it, Commiphora confusa stands out as a unique aromatic material deserving a market of its own. (IMHO).

 

 

Commiphora confusa-AKA Kenyan Frankincense is one of the most baffling resins I have encountered to date. Naming it confusa/confusing is putting it mildly.
Dubbed thus due to the radically different forms its flowers exhibit, the list of confusing and perplexing facets of this fragrant oleoresin goes far beyond variations in its sex organs.

COMMIPHORA CONFUSA

Also known as Kenyan Frankincense, even though it’s a member of the Myrrh family, it is in no way a Boswellia or Frankincense. It looks similar to the Boswellia Neglecta resin, also endemic to Northern Kenya and is usually mixed in with Neglecta by collectors and middlemen.

The fragrance profile of this frankincense look-alike is (confusingly) similar in some ways to that of Frankincense Neglecta and though often distilled together as a Neglecta, C. Confusa has distinct aromatic qualities not found in B. Neglecta.

While Boswellia Neglecta is confusing enough in that it presents 2 distinct types of resin, a granular black callus resin and a clear Thurimel or honey type resin, C. Confusa yields 3 different types of exudates, 2 are similar to B. Neglecta and one a translucent reddish hue that is odorless and made up of water soluble gum. On the bright side, C. Confusa does exhibit some traits that are exclusively those of a Commiphora.

Like many other Myrrh species it grows in the dry valleys, plains and open bush land while Frankincense trees mostly grow on and around rocky outcroppings at higher elevations. Though its fragrance bears similarities to B. Neglecta and indeed it shares some of the same aromatic molecules that give B. Neglecta its distinct aroma, Commiphora Confusa also contains many chemical compounds that are exclusively found in the Commiphora or Myrrh family.

When compared side by side, it is obvious that this Kenyan ‘Frankincense’ possesses a unique fragrance of its own whether fresh, as an essential oil or burned on the coals. To my nose, C. Confusa has a distinct sweet herbaceous scent that is absent in B. Neglecta and, while Neglecta has signature notes reminiscent of our Northern Fir trees, they are not as pronounced in C. Confusa.

C. Confusa shares a similar dark grainy exterior to B. Neglecta and on closer inspection this Commiphora reveals the familiar auburn hue shared by many of the Myrrh species and consistently reveals a reddish center unlike the tar-black interior found in B. Neglecta. Another distinction between these two similar resins is that lumps of B. Neglecta resins will adhere to one another forming large balls where C. confuse lacks this external stickiness and is found for the most part in small loose pieces reminiscent of cheese curds.

Like Boswellia Neglecta, C. Confusa trees cannot be tapped to produce resin. This is an assurance that the resin is sustainably harvested.  It will appear only from natural injuries to trunk and limb from romping elephants, goats or Baboons that enjoy nibbling on its bark. Pastoralist tribes like the Samburu collect this resin as they roam with their herds through the bush land. They do not practice any of the usual Frankincense tapping and harvesting methods on these trees.

As with the B. neglecta resin they collect, the Samburu women distinguish between both a light and a dark C. confusa. Yes…I had to see this for myself and it is true!! Initial injury generates a clear “thurimel” a honey type oleoresin devoid of water-soluble gum which hardens translucent and light golden. Subsequent to injury, the tree creates “Traumatic Resin Ducts” as does our Northern Spruce. These ducts then generate a special therapeutic resinous cocktail called “Callus Resin” that acts as a bandage and promotes the growth of protective tissue that heals the wounds, creates scar tissue and isolates healthy flesh from diseased. In Scandinavia, the Spruce callus resin is used in traditional salves for slow healing wounds, diabetic ulcers and post-surgical wounds.

Though similar in many ways to a Frankincense, C. confusa, like all the Myrrh family, is ruled Astrologically by the Moon. (In case you wondered).

This oleoresin does indeed have an Amber aroma reminiscent of the Frankincense family, but brings with it complex, soft, and sweetly herbaceous, (Myrrh), notes that make it an exceptional incense material on its own or compounded with other aromatics. I look forward to distilling it and getting a clearer sense of its unique aromatic profile.

Though not as well researched as other Commiphora oleoresins, C. confusa does contain some of the same therapeutic compounds found in other Myrrh types which make it a candidate for medicated oils, tinctures, cremes, and salves.

If you would like to experience this lovely resin first-hand you can find it here in my Etsy shop.https://www.etsy.com/ca/listing/536857735/commiphora-confusa-kenyan-frankincense

I’ll close with a warm thank you to Hillary Sommerlatte in Kenya who introduced me to C. confusa and generously shared her home, time and botanical expertise with me.

Dan

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Samburu County Frankincense and the mystery of the bicoloured Boswellia

A short update before I return to the Kenyan bush and comunication silence.
Though I’ll focus on the more current events in Kenya with the Samburu women since they are fresh, I will return in the next few weeks to expand on the equally important landmarks of my stay in Ethiopia which are, in brief-

An ethical Civet farm

My meeting with Civet farmers and exporters in Ethiopia was ground-breaking. We had a very productive conversation and co-created a basic plan of action to establish the world’s first model Civet farm that can provide an “Ethical” source for Ethiopian Civet paste and products to the West.
Though only the first of many conversations to come, both sides have their roles to play in the next year to make this happen for the benefit of the farmers, Civets, and the economy of this developing country.

We, in the West, now have the opportunity to be actively engaged in solving the problems and not just turn our backs on them with an ineffectual and counter productive boycott as we have for the past 40-50 years. If you are concerned about ethics in perfumery this may be an opportunity to get involved.

A fair trade in sustainable Frankincense

The second major landmark of my stay in Addis Ababa was meeting with my Somali  Frankincense co-op manager who shares my own vision of fair trade and sustainability.  Working directly with the western market, bypassing middlemen and benefitting the harvester communities with tools, training, education and medical facilities, he has signed yearly renewable contracts with the elders of 5 communities to work in mutual transparently for the benefit of the community and has committed to sell their resins to us. (Another opportunity to get involved in a worthwhile project). He has initiated a replanting program in the wild to maintain ecological sustainability and is working on a  long-term replanting and sapling maintenance program with the harvesters. This co-op will provide Boswellia Carterii, the higher grades of B. Frereana, (which we rarly see in the West), Myrrh and Opoponax.
At the moment we are discussing possible markets in the West and logistics of shipping. Professor Dagne may make his expertise and facilities in Ethiopia available for distillation of essential oils from their resins. I will keep you posted. If anyone has an interest in large amounts of these resins please contact me. For regular retail quantities, keep an eye on my shop.

A sustainable fair trade platform for the Samburu women

As some of you know, the purpose of my visit to Kenya is to help the resin harvesting  women of the Samburu tribe gain greater beneifit for themselves, their families and communities via a fair trade platform and co-op.

Originally planned as a 3 day visit to Samburu County, my host Andre of Indiginous Collective has graciously facilitated my request to stay an extra week in the field to make the most of our work with the Samburu.

We returned yesterday evening from 4 days in the bush so I could catch up on correspondence and other obligations. We drive back up Tuesday or Wednesday to speak with more women about the co-op and purchase their resins.

Death Stalker Scorpion under UV light
Nightly campsite visitors-Death Stalker Scorpion under UV light.

A short description of the last 4 days would be abbreviated as- gorgeous cool mornings and evenings, sun stroke days, pristine semi-arid plains, sand, magnificent mountains, adorable wart hogs,  ostriches, elephants, a thousand exotic birds, hordes of baboons, a ridiculously vast night sky blazing with stars, death stalker scorpions who phosphoresce under a UV light, lions, leopards, dry river beds with Ebony driftwood and not the tiniest shred of plastic refuse, water shyly hiding under the ground and in the desert air, herds of sheep, goats and camels, beaded women, pretty Moran warriors,  biting mosquitoes, big hairy spiders, and hundreds of square kilometers of mixed Myrrh and Frankincense trees growing naturally as if planted intentionally. As far as the eye can see!!

Commiphora, Boswellia and Acacia
Commiphora, Boswellia and Acacia as far as the eye can see. 

The Samburu have not had the exposure or experience with the “Muzungu”, or white person, as their cousins the Maasai. Pastoralists living in isolation and such hot arid conditions, their lives focus around their flocks which are entrusted to the Moran caste. When  the Morans reach about 30 years of age they can marry and a new generation of young men carries on with care and protection of the livestock. Elder men are the decision makers and are looked up to. Women do all the domestic work and care for the families. Work that takes up most of their day.

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Deep in thought, Ystalia harvests resins and is letting other women harvester know about the co-op and new market. She led us to her Boswellia Neglecta trees and other medicinals she collects in the area. Hubby in the background. Lovely people both. Photo Minna Kalliokoski

Our work with the women entails going through tiny remote villages which are basically clusters of oval, round topped homes made of branch, vine, thatch and leather. These “Manyatas” are residence to one or two extended families via dirt roads. Some may see a car once a month and most travel is by foot in the hot sun. Water is fetched from often remote areas though people like Andre are dedicated to creating easy access to clean water for the Samburu and their herds.

Likely the most important and unexpected result of this “tour”, was the wealth of information that was shared with us by the Samburu on the medicinal and cultural functions of many of the local trees, plants and animals. The Samburu have a well-developed medicinal, spiritual/mystical and astrological tradition. They have a strong connection to the planet Venus and their creation myth tells of their origin on Venus before migrating to earth. This is reflected in the Ankh/Venus type adornment worn on the forehead of many Samburu  women.

 

 

  The mystery of the bi-coloured Boswellia resin, Commiphora “Aqua Velva” and a Frankincense tree that squirts essential oil.

 

“Confounded and perplexed I was”, to hear that over the past decades botanists had aggregated 6 different types of Kenyan Boswellia under the name Boswellia Neglecta S. Moore. Currently it is considered by many to be the only Frankincense in the area. This in itself was enough to make me question the larger picture and accuracy of accepted distribution of Frankincense types in Kenya. So far, I belive we have come across 5 unique species of Boswellia in only 4 days.

If this discrepancy was not enough, imagine my raised eyebrow when I was repeatedly told the Samburu women collected 2 types of “incense”,  a black and a white from the same tree! Yes, 2 resin types from one tree. I had to get to the bottom of this.

Frankincense-Boswellia Neglecta
Frankincense-Boswellia Neglecta as know today.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting B. Neglecta personally, it is known and accepted as a blackish, grainy, fragrant oleoresin that appears in a lumpy form similar to our northern spruce and pine saps, and not in the clear/opaque aggregate of tear shapes associated with other Frankincense types.

So how can both clear light tears, and most definitely solid black tar like resin be collected from one tree I ask?
We spent 4 days in the semi-arid broiling sun of Samburu county, speaking with harvester women from numerous villages and were taken to the hills where one woman gathers her Frankincense resin.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered for myself, with my own eyes, hands, nose, and mouth, that indeed, this particular Boswellia yields not one resin, but 2 distinct and disparate types of resin with completely different characteristics and fragrances!
When injured, the tree’s first response is as expected. It produces globules of a clear slightly golden oleoresin, sticky and particularly fragrant which harden into translucent tears.

 

Boswellia Neglecta-fresh sap
Boswellia Neglecta-fresh sap. 

 

However, what happens next is completely unexpected in a Boswellia tree.
The tree creates traumatic resin ducts, (TRDs), and changes the chemical composition of the oleo resin to a “Callus” resin product much like our conifers. A grainy therapeutic living bandage that not only protects the exposed surface of a wound, but facilitates the growth of special tissue and bark from the edges of the wound towards the middle. If a branch is stripped, it forms a barrier between the stripped portion and the healthy part of the branch protecting it from the spread of decay.

In our Spruce and Pine families this unique resin product is often of a brown colour. In the case of B. Neglecta this callus resin is black as pitch and of a rich deep woody frankincense fragrance. The callus resin of  the Spruce tree is a potent medicinal used to heal old wounds, ulcers on the extremities and slow-healing surgical wounds in Scandinavian traditions. One can only wonder what medicinal properties lay undiscovered in the callus resin of B. Neglecta.

This post is likely long enough for most people’s attention span, so I will till next time to tell you about the fragrant and brilliantly blue/aquamarine coloured Commiphora/Myrrh tree which I have dubbed “Commiphora Aqua Velva”. Its bracing fragrance does indeed remind one of the aftershave, but of course, it is much nicer :-).

At that time I will share another cool find. A unique and as yet unidentified Frankincense tree that squirts pure essential oil when pricked and is used by the Samburu as a fragrance and sexual attractant.

Many thanks to the talented Minna Kalliokoski for her photography and all her help on this trip.

Till then

Dan

 

 

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How to prepare an antifungal nail Lacquer with Somali Myrrh

Source: How to prepare an antifungal nail Lacquer with Somali Myrrh

With friends going through Chemotherapy , the topic of nail fungi has come up in my life more often this past year. Having a non-chemical treatment option for one of the common Chemo side effects is useful and seems timely.

Posted on my alter blog Fairtrade Frankincense, hoping it will offer a slight sense of control and empowerment to those who’s lives are impacted by cancer and the limited mainstream treatments available.

Gut flora is often one of the first defenses toppled by Chemo and a good place to start rebuilding a healthy immune system to keep fungi and other invaders at bay while painting one’s toenails.

Dan

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Frankincense, Opoponax & Myrrh, Gifts from the land of Punt

Frankincense and Myrrh. This is a fine relief of members of Hatshepsut's trading expedition to the mysterious 'Land of Punt' from this pharaoh's elegant mortuary temple at Deir El-Bahri. In this scene, Egyptian soldiers bear tree branches and axes.
This is a relief of members of Hatshepsut’s trading expedition to the mysterious ‘Land of Punt’ from this pharaoh’s elegant mortuary temple at Deir El-Bahri. In this scene, Egyptian soldiers bear tree branches and axes.

Today I received my much-anticipated package from Addis Ababa Ethiopia. What a treat for the senses!!! This first shipment of two, contains unique essential oils distilled from fresh harvested local oleo-resins. Boswellia and Commiphora. Rare Ethiopian Frankincense and Myrrh essential oils, Palmarosa, Lemongrass, and fresh pressed Black Cumin, and Neem oils to stock the store and use for perfume and herbal products. The second, forthcoming shipment will deliver the equivalent Ethiopian oleo-resins from which these oils were distilled, more of the unique bounty of the fertile and fragrant land of Ethiopia, the ancient land known as Punt.

These precious oils were created by a wonderful operation based in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. Ariti Herbal is a small-scale manufacturer of herbal products, pressed and essential oils made from local medicinal plants. Run by a husband-wife team, Professor Ermias Dagne, is a well-known and respected teacher and researcher of African medicinal and aromatic plants, creator of the Natural Products Database for Africa (NAPDA) available on CDRO and on the internet at the following site ALNAP. Professor Dagne is a warm, intelligent and enthusiastic individual, passionately committed to his students and his country. He has a vision of building a strong local economy through education and the development of unique products from the bountiful Ethiopian resources. His passion and vision are contagious, making it easy to feel inspired to support them anyway one can.

Frankincense, Opoponax and Myrrh. Treasures from the land of Punt. Coveted and traded for thousands of years Frankincense, Opoponax and Myrrh. Priceless treasures from the land of Punt. Coveted and traded for thousands of years

Treasures from Ethiopia, the land of Punt, sought after and coveted for thousands of years. Essential oils of Opoponax, Frankincense Rivae, Frankincense Neglecta. Palmarosa, and Lemongrass.

A visual comparison of 5 types of Frankincense-Boswellia- Papyrifera, Neglecta, Frereana, Rivae, Carterii/Sacra Apothecarysgarden.com
A visual comparison of 5 types of Frankincense-Boswellia

Opoponax and Myrrh. It makes sense that I would speak of them both first. The same family, Commiphora. Also called Sweet Myrrh, Commiphora Guidotti, Opoponax is probably one of my favourite essential oils. Both the Myrrh and the essential oil of Opoponax are the best I have smelled. The Opoponax could be described as fresh, uplifting, crisp, balsamic, airy and sweet, a classic in mens products where it lends a light citrus crispness to aftershaves, balms and colognes. The Myrrh, cool and soft with a bitter aromatic edge. Both ground a perfume while adding an exotic touch of mystery.

Myrrh tree, Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Ermias Dagne
Myrrh tree, Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Ermias Dagne

Finally, a true essential oil of Myrrh. So much more complex and refined in its fragrance “profile” than the usual solvent extraction.

Myrrh tree, Myrrh Oleo-Resin, Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Ermias Dagne
Myrrh tree, Myrrh Oleo-Resin, Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Ermias Dagne

Myrrh is a difficult and finicky oleo-resin to distill. Essential oil of Myrrh wants to stick to things, the sides of the still, the sides of the receiver the condenser It can never decide if it is lighter than water or heavier , so it poses challenges for the distiller. For large-scale industrial distillers there is often too much work and fuel involved to produce a true essential oil of Myrrh at a competitive price. Lucky for me there is someone who is willing to do the work, and people like me who appreciate it.

The fragrance is rich, deep, lightly bitter like its oleo-resin, but much more refined, with a well rounded, cool, (It suggests to me, sitting in the shade of the Myrrh tree on a hot Ethiopian afternoon), woody, with a spicy sweetness that is delicious. Its complexities suggest it is halfway to being a perfume. It lingers and persists for a long long time, the sign of a good Base Note..

 Commiphora Myrrha-Myrrh tree
Commiphora Myrrha-Myrrh tree. Maybe better to wait till it is in leaf before enjoying its aromatic shade and protection from the Ethiopian sun!

This Myrrh essential oil is reddish amber in colour and mobile, moving like a thin liquid not like Molasses, or tar, which is how the usual solvent extracts of Myrrh look and behave. It blends with pure alcohol like milk in water, literally on contact, what a joy! I used to get very frustrated trying to blend Myrrh in perfumes or cremes with little success, until I learned, that what I had, was actually a solvent extraction, a resinoid, and not an essential oil at all. This knowledge didn’t make my life any easier, but it at least allowed me to resign myself to its limitations instead of fighting them, while I searched for a true essential oil.

I only have a small amount of this oil to share through the shop, so if you consider purchasing some, check it out in the shop or contact me in the comments section here. I would be delighted if more people appreciated this gem, and the finesse it takes to create it. A gift from the Land of Punt.

Dan