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An East African Aromatic Adventure

With only a day left in Africa, I feel I need to offer a brief overview of my latest aromatic trip just to keep everyone abreast. Once back in Canada I will write in detail about this last trip to Madagascar and Kenya. So much has happened during these past three weeks and so many things have come together, it has been difficult finding time to write.

Madagascar Vanilla, a rare Elemi, and an improv distillation

Madagascar was beautiful. I am coming home Monday with Vanilla absolute, Vanilla beans, Rare Madagascar Elemi resin, (Canarium madagascariensis), and likely 1 of only two liters of Madagascar Elemi essential oil in  the world.

In Madagascar I travelled with someone just as dedicated to fair trade and sustainable aromatics as myself. Two weeks travelling, smelling, distilling and talking, was a perfect introduction between my new partner in crime, Marco Billi and myself. Some things just can’t be conveyed via email.

We pooled distillation equipment from Canada and italy and put our distillation and improvisation skills to the test. We already have a handful of new  international projects in the works. Lacking a common language was not as great a barrier to communication as I thought it would be. A shared passion for nature lent us common ground. Bourbon Vanilla beans,  Vanilla Absolute, Madagascar Elemi resin and essential oil are some of the Madagascar treasures I’m bringing back home.

Madagascar-Ylang Ylang, Vanilla and Elemi

Kenya. the Samburu, Frankincense, and the “Squirting Perfume Tree”

Though my visit to Kenya was shortened by a cancelled flight in Madagascar and a scramble to buy a new ticket to Kenya, my stay with Andre and Maria of Indigenous Collective has been extremely productive with new developments in our work with the Samburu tribe and the fair trade platform we are setting up for them.

We have now identified some unusual Boswellia and Commiphora trees and discovered valuable fragrance and medicinal compounds in the “Squirting Perfume Tree”, (Commiphora Rostrata). Andre has developed an easy, sustainable method of extracting the volatile oils from under its bark, and with time, we hope to market it and generate an income stream for the remote Samburu tribe.

 Indigenous Collective’s back yard

Somalia-Fair trade, sustainable co-op harvested resins arrive in Hamilton. Patience pays off

On the subject of fragrant resins, my long-awaited shipment of fresh co-op harvested Somali resins finally arrived.. After 7 months of setbacks and roadblocks they are in the shop. As with many new ventures and projects, the beginning is always the hardest and presents the most challenges.

Since our first conversations 2 years ago and birth of the first harvester co-op, we have amalgamated  with another young Somali co-op wIth similar ideals and goals of implementing fair trade and sustainable practices. The Barako co-op signs yearly contracts with 11 village elders, guaranteeing full transparency, a percent of profits going back to the harvester’s communities and infrastructure in exchange for exclusive rights and a commitment to sell their resins.

Barako has also started a nursery, propagating the heavily tapped Boswellias with branch cuttings which will be planted in the wild with their kin and stewarded by the harvesters. This not only ensures a thriving species which is struggling and suffering decline in other harvesting countries, but also ensures a stable income for the harvesters.

Selling directly to the West via the co-op is a challenge from a logistic point of view, but it bypasses the chain of middlemen who buy the resins at the lowest possible price, leaving the harvesters struggling to make ends meet and often leaving them indebted to the middlemen and brokers by pre-selling the next season’s harvest at rock bottom prices out of desperation.

I have to give special credit to my helper Joanne who is not only running the business single-handedly while I’m in Africa, but took upon herself to get the Somali resins quickly released by Canada Customs, avoiding ongoing storage fees, and in the shop, packaged and ready to ship. If I haven’t said it recently, I am indeed a fortunate man. Thank you Joanne!

Somali resins, before and after their long journey

As it stands in the shop now, and while they last, we finally have –

All traded fairly and with an eye to sustainability.

That’s it for now. I will write in more detail when I’m back in Canada.



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Lollygagging with Lemurs

Well, I have my tickets to Madagascar. Now I deal with the anxiety of Oh My God what have I done, what am I forgetting to pack, and make sure you buy new underwear in case the plane goes down in a ball of flame.

A huge, warm thank you to everyone who contributed to this project through their donations and purchases in the Apothecary’s Garden Shop. Buying this ticket is not something I could have accomplished without the support of a community that shares in a vision of fair trade and sustainable practices around the world. I don’t know what awaits on the other end of this flight, but there seems to be no lack in the world for little opportunities to make things better and help correct a system that has revealed many flaws.

As many of you know, I believe that directly involving more indigenous harvesters, farmers and communities in our global trade will not only raise the quality of our medicinal and aromatic products in the west, greatly improve the quality of life in remote marginalized areas, but can help preserve and nurture our green spaces across the globe. Indigenous people are perfectly positioned to steward their regions and resources. All we need to do is support them.

We need to rebalance the riches in the world so everyone benefits when we make a purchase, not just our huge corporations and middlemen and start taking care of the planet’s ecosystems before we run out of these precious commodities. Can you believe that we have destroyed between 60% and 80% of Madagascar’s forests and wildlife habitats already?! 

Besides exploring the rich array of aromatics in Madagascar, meeting farmers, harvesters and exporters, my host and I hope to build a small distillation unit with the goal of training local artisans to produce high quality essential oils and direct more of our Western dollars to their communities.

Since our days of colonisation, our practice is to buy natural resources from third world and developing countries at the cheapest possible price, process and add value to them ourselves, and distribute the wealth and profit among our corporations and middlemen. This approach keeps struggling economies poor and developing countries under-developed. It is a model of business based on western profit alone and we can change it.

The harvesters co-op in Somalia

Photos-Frankincense Frereana, or Maydi growing out of the almost vertical rock walls in Somalia. Sorting and packing Boswellia Carterii, Frereana and Commiphora/Myrrh resins. (Photos courtesy Barako Frankincense co-op.)

On a different note, my Somali co-op managers have notified me their shipment of a wide selection of local resins has finally boarded the plane on its way to Toronto.  Keep your eye on the shop. Though I would love to stay here and wait for it, I’ll have to make other arrangements in case it arrives in Canada before I do. If possible I will have Joanne pick it up.



Yes, this is also a good time to officially announce I have a helper. Joanne has been packing and shipping orders, communicating with customers for over 4 months now. She is doing an amazing job and becoming indispensable, (which is a little scary).

I saw her curly salt and pepper hair bobbing down the street from my window one day, and there was something powerfully familiar about her though I had never met her. I went to the back porch to see if she would turn the corner and within 5 minutes she was up the staircase interviewing me for the census. Basically she has worked for me ever since. I remembered her from the future of course.

So, while I am away in exotic countries lollygagging with Lemurs and snorting snuff with the Samburu Mamas, it will be Joanne who takes such good care of your orders. When orders are perfectly packaged and arrive with lightening speed, it will be Joanne you can thank. She goes by the name Jo, or Jojo, or Jojojo when I catch her polishing off the last of my coffee thinking its hers.

Employee of the year, helper and apprentice Jo. Be nice to her while I’m away. 🙂

The Samburu women’s Frankincense co-op

While booking my ticket to Madagascar, I was able to finance a flight from Madagascar to Kenya so I can also  work on the Samburu women’s resin co-op project. This left about enough in the bank for a smallish sandwich. But it felt good.  Looked crazy, but felt right.

In Kenya I will post the long-awaited Black and Light Boswellia neglecta to Hamilton. I apologize to everyone for the long wait, but we are still working out logistics and looking for systems that work best for the folks in Kenya. As they say,  “All the beginnings are difficult”.

While there, we will distill a test run of Frankincense neglecta and discuss value-added products the women can make with their resins to boost their income. It’s not a lot of time, but I plan to return for a longer visit in January.

Sorting Frankincense Kenya 2016
The whole family pitches in to sort the Frankincense-Kenya 2016-Photo M. Kalliokowski

That’s about it for now. I will keep everyone updated here when internet is available

I’m off to do some undergarment shopping then.



I will introduce this image formally in the future. For now let’s say it is drawn by Jane Adams, a talented, artist, poet, magician, mystic and friend. You can see her work at and be sure to check out Aquariel from which this image is borrowed.
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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.

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




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An African Fair Trade Frankincense and Myrrh tour 2016

"Samburu women singing" by Wouter van Vliet - Flickr: P1010736. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons -

I have just been invited to Northern Kenya to work with the women of the semi-nomadic Pastoralist Samburu tribe with their wildcrafting business and help set up a fair trade platform that will make their lives a little easier, especially through the unpredictable droughts. As it is in many Patriarchal societies,  life as a woman is no easy thing. Doing this work has been a dream of mine.


Myrrh tree oleo-resin Ethiopia. Ermias Dagne
Fresh Myrrh-Commiphora Myrrha-Africa-Photo Prof. E. Dagne

As they move with their animals through the semi-arid regions, these women collect Frankincense Neglecta, (black and white varieties) , Myrrh and Opoponax, (Commiphora Myrrha and C. Holtziana), resins and Gum Arabic. They have set up a co-op, collection depot, and I’m going to see if Apothecary’s Garden and Fairtrade Frankincense can help get their resins out to us directly at a fair price to them, and do so while sustaining the plants, their traditions and lifestyle.

Would you like to be part of this project?

"Samburu women singing" by Wouter van Vliet - Flickr: P1010736. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons -
“Samburu women singing” by Wouter van Vliet

This invitation came from an intriguing source-Andre and Maria of Indigenous An organization which listens to the land and the tribes, creating bridges, developing and testing new technologies around water, energy and nutrition to serve the Samburu, not change them.

In the words of Andre-



We need to change how we source our wild medicinals and fragrance materials. Many of them cannot be grown commercially in orderly rows and tended fields. And even if they could, in many cases vast tracts of  forest and vegetation are destroyed to feed our growing appetite in the west. We are disrupting and losing delicate ecosystems around the world as our capitalist machine churns out billions of tons of products for our food, fragrance and medicinal needs.

Many of these natural resources, such as our precious fragrant and medicinal Frankincense and Myrrh species, Galbanum, Sandarac, Gum Arabic and many more will only grow in the harshest of conditions and in the most inaccessible areas.

Harvested most often by semi-nomadic tribes who see little of the premium we pay for these exotic treasures. Many of these clans and peoples live traditional pastoral lifestyles which haven’t changed or adapted to modern western society. Most receive a pittance, in cash or barter for small amounts of the basic necessities of life. Often a long chain of middlemen profit from the harvest till it reaches the corporations who process, package and distribute the finished products to us at prices astronomically higher than the return the harvesters see.

Sure, there are lots of things wrong with our world. It will never be perfect, but nothing will change until we choose to change it. 

These indigenous roaming people across our little globe are the stewards of some of our most precious medicinal and fragrant plants. Often these trees have socio-cultural significance to these cultures and their value is appreciated far beyond the income they can generate. They are our stewards and the caretakers of our land, our medicinal and fragrant resources around the world. Our shared Apothecary Garden

They are the only ones who can monitor, care for, propagate and maintain these treasures, make sure future generations can also enjoy them. WE need to take care of these people, our planet, its stewards and wildcrafters. Regardless of perceived distance. We need to make sure our plant’s caretakers are being compensated properly, that their needs are met, their lifestyles and traditions are supported.

I believe this is much more than an opportunity to source ethical resins and help out a remote minority. It is part of a global movement of ethics, sustainability and change.

I have had a look at a list of plants that are in the area used by the Samburu. There are many other plant species that will interest the perfumers, incense makers, herbalists and horticulturists out there. Plant material that could be ethically and sustainably collected and shared with the world. Shared in a way that would also sustain the stewards.

I have a feeling about this project.

 I have invited a photographer to document this process with the Samburu.  Besides her professional work, she is willing to pitch in any way she can. With time, I can cover the cost of her flight and services through sales in my Etsy shop, and through direct sales as I come across fresh oleoresins, but it will take a while. If anyone reading this feels compelled to contribute financially to this project, any assistance would be deeply appreciated.  I am resigned that I can’t do this alone.

Here is a link to a short but concise overview of the terrain, climate, culture and resins of Northern Kenya and the Samburu tribe.

I am starting this trip today!  Israel, Jordan, Ethiopia then Kenya. Kenya will be the jewel. Each place offers rare and unique fragrant/medicinal materials. Some I will ship back to Canada to stock my Etsy shop. But I am going to try to fund this trip as much as I can by selling resins directly from the countries of origin. If possible in 1/2-1 Kilo packages. If you would like to stay abreast of opportunities as they arise, send me your email address to and I will keep you updated.

In Ethiopia I am also meeting with Civet farmers, travelling to Jima which is a big center for the collection and export of Civet paste to the perfume world. I will be speaking with them about modernizing their farms and bringing them up to the ethical animal welfare standards we require. Wish me luck….. For more on this issue please see my posts-Ethical Civet, a glimpse from the mountaintop and Etical Civet, a view from the foothills.

Here is a partial list of the oleoresins I hope to ship to customers along the way. Let me know here in the comments section of any questions or requests, or email me at and I can send you updates on events, resins and other treasures as they happen along the way.

Frankincense species

Boswellia Thurifera

B. Rivae

B. Papyrifera

B. Neglecta-(White and black varieties)

B. Frereana

B. Carterii

Myrrh Species

Commiphora Myrrha-Arabian

C. Myrrha-African

C. Holtziana-(Hagar-Opoponax) Kenya

C. Guidotti-(Opoponax)-Ethiopia

C. Giladensis-(Balm of Gilead/Mecca)

Red Sea Operculum-Onycha

Also some unique ethnic bakhours and incense mixes as I come across them such as Bakhour al Aroosa, the rare and breathtakingly beautiful Somali wedding incense and Uunsi, the traditional Somali “Amber”, Ethiopian Bakbooka incense blends etc.

Essential oils of some of the above oleoresins, locally distilled in mid-size quantities via DHL. (Local post will often not ship volatiles)

If you feel inspired to contribute financially to support and facilitate this project with the Samburu women, please send payment to my PayPal account at You do not need a PayPal account to do this.  My gratitude is yours in advance.

My own network is not the most extensive, SO PLEASE SHARE THIS WIDELY!!

With the highest hopes



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How to separate the resin with its Boswellic acids from Frankincense-An improved method

 With time, as I find better ways of doing things, I update older posts and recipes. This is an edit to a post I published 4 months ago on my other blog, Fair Trade Frankincense. I’m going to mix things up a bit and post it here on Apothecary’s Garden since I seem to have accumulated a different following on each blog. To read the full post, which tells you exactly which types of Frankincense contain the anticancer and anti-inflammatory Boswellic acids, you can click the link  below and check out the full post.

Tapping in to Frankincense and its Boswellic acids-An easy extraction method

Boswellia Papyrifera-Pure Resin extract. For medicine or Perfume.
Boswellia Papyrifera-Pure Resin extract. For medicine, incense or Perfume.

I first came across the pure resin of Frankincense after distilling Boswellia Papyrifera. Gorgeous pools of caramel coloured resin rested on the bottom of the cold still and looked good enough to eat.

I discovered that this pure resin from which all the water-soluble gum had been removed, dissolved easily in warm oils without the grittiness that raw Frankincense delivered with its gum portion. Since many of the therapeutic compounds that Frankincense offers us are found in the resin and are not present in the essential oil, I started incorporating this resin extract in a number of my products and thought it would be a valuable material to share with other Apothecaries, Herbalists and Cosmetics formulators.

If you have ever tried to make an oil based product such as a salve or creme from whole Frankincense, you already know that the water soluble gum in it makes it gritty and must be carefully filtered out to create a creamy smooth product.

In the past, I mentioned it could be taken internally which is true. But, I believe that if you want to benefit from the Boswellic acids present in the resin, the best method is to powder the whole fresh resin and take it either in capsules or by the teaspoon with water as I do when the need arises.

In my humble opinion it is usually best to stick with a whole, natural, unprocessed and unadulterated product when possible. We don’t really know why or how things work, and I  suspect there are good reasons different compounds appear naturally in a plant. So if there is no need to refine it, my choice will always be to use the whole plant material.

If you would like to take concentrated Boswellic acids internally,there are commercial and factory produced products on the market that are standardized to 60%-65% Boswellic acids. A percent that is likely close to what is already present in the fresh oleoresin.

Though this pure resin is a byproduct of distilling Frankincense, not everyone distills or knows a distiller from whom to it. For this reason I present a method for separating the resin from the gum at home without the need for distilling apparatus. Though some of the essential oils are lost through the heating process, it is easy enough to add essential oils to your product during the cool-down stage of your finished product if you so choose.

The fact that all the Boswellic acids, including the much studied AKBA,  ( acetyl-11-keto-β- boswellic acid ), reside in the resin is fortunate for us. This means that we can easily utilize certain types of Frankincense for their Boswellic acid content and its anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties in healing oils, salves and cremes.

  This  extraction can be performed in any kitchen and enables not only experienced Herbalists and Apothecaries to make therapeutic products with Boswellic acids, but anyone who wishes to take a more independent approach to their own health and wellbeing. I have clients and customers who make their own oils and salves from raw Frankincense for Rheumatoid Arthritis and other chronic inflammatory issues with good results.

Before going on to describe the extraction method, I have to add that we in the West are buying a growing volume of Frankincense essential oil each year, sometimes at astronomical prices, thinking that we are benefitting from these healing compounds when in fact, the resin that contains all the Boswellic acids, is usually discarded by the distillers as waste, or sold off as inferior incense locally. This is the product we should be buying for its healing compounds, not the essential oils. We should most definitely NOT be ingesting these pure concentrated essential oils thinking we are consuming Boswellic acids.

 We have to start thinking more clearly. These trees will not last forever. Most all Frankincense and Myrrh trees that supply our resins live in the wild, along with their harvesters, under harsh conditions. As they are harvested with increasing frequency to meet our demands, the trees become stressed, produce less resin, yield seed that has a lower germination rate and thus cannot reproduce and regenerate their numbers in the manner they normally do.

  In short, our increased demand is leading us to a decreased supply. This doesn’t mean we should take a passive approach and stop buying Frankincense. That would be a blow to communities who already struggle, and it would simply create a back door and a black market. We need to take an active role instead. Before it is too late.

 Neither the trees nor the harvesters are benefitting from our increased demand for essential oil of Frankincense.  Harvesters, clans, communities in developing countries, see only a few cents of that $50.00 or $100.00 bottle of Frankincense essential oil.  Currently not a penny of our’s goes back to propagating or sustaining the trees, and the harvesters often see just enough to get by.

Frankincense tree
Frankincense tree

In February 2016, after a couple of years communicating with harvesters and elders, flirting with financial, academic and government stakeholders, I will be in the Horn of Africa again.  I believe there is still time to set up a different model of trade for these precious, fragrant and medicinal resources before they are lost. We need programs that sustain both the trees and the harvesters, who are their only stewards

 I have a growing vision of a model based on fair trade practices. It is direct, ethical and sustainable, benefits local ecologies, economies and social frameworks. It supports the harvesters and their communities in stewardship of the land and propagation of the trees in the wild to ensure future harvests will meet our growing needs.

  This world in all its gorgeous diversity is our Apothecary’s Garden. It’s up to us to take care of it.

So, here is a new and improved method for making an extract of Frankincense, high in Boswellic acids and easy to use in cremes, oils and salves.  It is a simple and safe method using water as a solvent to isolate the resin and Boswellic acids in Frankincense. Though I do name it an “Easy” method, Easy is a relative term. It is also a very messy process. For some tips on cleanup see the link at the bottom of this post-“A visual walkthrough”

  • Take 100-500 grams of fresh Frankincense.
  •  In a stainless steel, Teflon coated or glass pot, bring at least 10 liters of water to a boil. More than this is just fine.
  • Place a stainless steel sieve or colander with a fine mesh about 1/2 submerged in the water. Ideally, use a sieve that will rest on the edge of the pot securely, otherwise you will have to hold it at the right height through the process and you will need an extra hand.
  • When it is at a full boil, gently add 100 to 500 grams of one of the 3 aforementioned types of Frankincense into the suspended sieve, careful to not splash boiling water on yourself. It is fine if the resin sits partially above the water, it will soon settle.
  •  With a wooden spoon or some other utensil, gently run the submerged resin granules back and forth through the boiling water allowing the water to wash over them all and dissolve them.
  • The water-soluble gum will dissolve and disperse in the water while the pure oleoresin, the resin with the essential oils, will exit and float around the outside of the sieve. The bark and other foreign matter will collect in the sieve and not pass to the water.
  • Once most of the resin is floating on the surface of the water, it will also push its way back into the sieve. To address this, lift the sieve higher and allow the rest of the resin to exit the sieve. At this point you may need help running the utensil back and forth gently forcing the resin through into the water.
  •  When the sieve is empty of gum and oleoresin, set it aside.
  • Skim/scoop out all the resin that is floating in the pot into a separate preferably stainless steel bowl. I use a small colander/sieve that captures more resin than water for this purpose. It’s ok if you transfer water into the bowl with the resin since you can easily pour it off after the resin sets.
  •  Set the pot of hot water aside to cool. As most of these oleoresins do, they will generally settle to the bottom of the pot as the temperature drops.
  •  When the pot has cooled, pour the contents through yet another fine mesh sieve and add the bits of resin you collect in the sieve to your main bowl of collected resin.
  •   You can collect and save this liquid if you like.  Though mostly made up of water-soluble gum, it is very potent and fragrant. It can be added to bath water for a fragrant, healing bath and kept in the fridge for a week or two. My roommate has experimented with drinking it. He has combined it with different fruit juices and is developing a personal blend. I believe that as long as he does so in moderation it will do no harm. The aqueous solution or tea of Frankincense has been used for hundreds if not thousands of years in traditional medicine for coughs and colds, to stimulate brain function and memory and as an aphrodisiac and tonic. This leftover Frankincense water is quite similar to what you would get from such a tea. Taking it internally is, without a doubt, of less harm and more benefit than ingesting the undiluted essential oil of Frankincense. There are likely more Boswellic acids floating around in this “tea” than in a comparable amount of essential oil of Frankincense. It is bitter so cutting it 1/2 and 1/2 with something sweet helps. As always, pay attention to what your body says. Listen to it and you will know if it is good for you or not.
  • Your resin extract still needs to go through the bath once more to remove traces of water-soluble gum.
  • So, repeat the above process of boiling your filtered resin with fresh clean water in the pot.
  • Stir it around and you will likely see the water getting a bit cloudy. This is the residual water-soluble gum we want to get rid of.
  •  It should only take a few minutes of gentle stirring to wash the rest of the gum out of the resin, so after 3-5 minutes of the melted resin floating around, you can skim it off as before, and place it in a clean bowl to cool and set.
  •  Again, let the pot cool and collect any resin you missed.
  • Though you could use the resin extract as it is, I put it through one final process to dry it of any residual trapped water. It usually collects water in little pockets and bubbles as it floats around the boiling water.
  •  To do this, I crush the resin coarsely, exposing as much of it to the air as I can. I stop when the largest chunks are about the size of a pea.
  • Place it on a clean sheet or pan. A Teflon or silicone cookie sheet or something comparable.
  •  Preheat the oven to about 100 degrees Centigrade and place the pan in the oven.
  •  The resin will melt and flow releasing all the water in the form of liquid and vapor to the air. I tilt it this way and that to expose and pockets of water while it is hot and mobile. Often you can pour off the water as it is released from the resin.
  •  It takes from 5 to 15 minutes of the resin uniformly melted to dry it and it can be removed from the oven and left to cool.
  •   When solid and cool, lift from the cookie sheet, break it in pieces if you like and store in ziplock bags or  a glass jar. Keep it cool or it may flow a bit and adhere to a glass container.
  • I have also used a heat gun, the kind used for stripping paint to melt the resin and remove any trapped water from it. This is an option if you feel like experimenting. If it sizzles a bit it is OK.

You now have a product with a substantial, therapeutically active proportion of Boswellic acids in a concentration much, much higher than you could ever get from a comparable quantity of essential oil without the risk that concentrated essential oils can represent. At the same time you likely have a healthy percent of Frankincense essential oils in their naturally occurring concentration and matrix.

Boswellia Sacra/Carterii resin extract beneath B. Papyrifera resin extracts.
A visual reference for your extract. This is how it should look when you are done. Boswellia Sacra/Carterii resin extract beneath B. Papyrifera resin extracts. The same, but different. Each exhibiting expected variations in colour and fragrance.

It is a substance that dissolves readily in warm vegetable oils, waxes and alcohol, and lends itself with ease to the creation of cremes, oils, salves and more. You know exactly what went into your product from start to finish. You know it wasn’t adulterated along the way, that no solvents, or fillers were added, and that you have a 100% natural product.

I have put together a visual walkthrough of the above process and you can find it here extracting-the-resin-and-boswellic-acids-from-frankincense-a-visual-walkthrough/


 And remember…

 always take clear notes.

 Your future self will thank you.


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Wild Harvest-Creating a future through Stewardship

Young Frankincense harvester bringing his daily harvest down from dangerous rocky terrain where the Frankincense Frereana trees grow.
Fresh Labdanum oleoresin. Wild harvested with traditional tools in the hills of Crete
Fresh Labdanum oleoresin. Wild harvested by villagers with traditional tools in the hills of Crete.

Recently, while writing about the traditional Labdanum harvest in Crete for my Etsy shop, I was reminded why I love doing what I’m doing. I see us, a new wave of herbalists, natural perfumers, earth and people healers, plant whisperers, craftspeople and shamans, with a role in this world and an opportunity that was not offered us till recently. We now have the tools to change the world much more easily and quickly. If we understand what is required from us.

1700-1702 woodcut- A Ladanisterion. The tool still used today by villagers in rural Crete to hand-harvest wild Labdanum, Cistus Creticus, for perfume, incense and medicine.
1700-1702 woodcut A Ladanisterion. The tool still used today by villagers in rural Crete to hand-harvest wild Labdanum, Cistus Creticus, for perfume, incense and medicine.

We have become accustomed to a Colonial/Capitalist approach to natural resources. Our western corporations take the precious stuff from poorer countries at the lowest possible price, taking advantage of cheap local labour and poverty, then sell it to us at the highest possible price. This is one reason developing countries are still only developing and corporations are doing so well. They see very little of the money we consumers pay for their resources. I think it’s time for a change.

Dealing in the trade of fragrant materials and working directly with harvesters, I am exposed to this process from the harvester’s perspective. Gaining an understanding of the harvester’s lives, cultures and struggles is eye-opening and often disturbing

Frankincense is one example. Not only are wild growing trees sometimes raided by thieves, but when the harvest does get collected and taken to the local market, traders aim to pay the lowest possible price for the harvest and I have heard many horror stories about this. Trading a bag of rice or flour for a bag of the highest quality resin that can fetch up to $300.00 a kilo on the retail market, is not an unusual story. A hungry harvester who needs to provide for their family the year ahead is vulnerable to these offers.

I hear of traders telling the harvesters they will only pay them when they sell their resins. Of harvesters  indebted to traders since the prices they receive are not sufficient to sustain them for the year and they end up borrowing against future harvests. That scenario never bodes well for the harvester and is, sadly, quite common.  Harvesters are often pitted against each other by the buyers and told others are selling at a much lower price leading desperate gatherers to settle for low prices to ensure a sale.

Young Frankincense harvester bringing his daily harvest down from dangerous rocky terrain where the Frankincense Frereana trees grow.
Young Frankincense harvester bringing his daily haul down from dangerous mountainsides where the Frankincense trees grow. The whole clan pitches in with the harvest, their main income for the year. Injuries occur often from wild animals and falls, and medical services are not available to harvesters in many remote areas of the world.

Sadly, many of these “Traders” are westerners, representatives or middlemen for  familiar international companies, bullies sent out to ensure the corporations make the biggest possible profit by paying the lowest possible price for goods. Till now, profit for the corporations, at any cost,  has been the only motivator and goal in this trade. We have accomplished a lot with our capitalist model of commerce, but lately it has become obvious, some things need to change. I believe we now have the tools and group power to collectively build a new model for ourselves.

We are the rich kids on the block and it is our responsibility to share what we have and not close our eyes to the distress or struggles of our neighbors. Especially not when we are buying their goods. We certainly shouldn’t take advantage of their poverty and lack as we do. And we do.  Let’s be clear and honest about this. The high prices we pay for our wild harvested medicinal herbs and fragrant materials go mainly to the big corporations and others who make a profit along the way. Very little ever reaches the people who harvest it except the bare minimum to ensure they keep supplying us.

Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP s...
Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP standards (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will address this fully in a soon to be published post, but, the certification of “Organic” for our wild-crafted herbs and fragrance materials, is too often misused for profit.

I assure you without hesitation that the cheaper version of that Frankincense essential oil, beside the one that is certified organic, is , without the slightest doubt, equally organic and could very well be of higher quality.

The qualification of “Organic” in our wild harvested crops is inappropriate and misused. It was designed for domestic and cultivated crops and has no business being applied to wild harvested plants. It is also important to point out that not a penny of the premium we pay for this spurious certification is seen by the harvesters.

What we do need is a legitimate certification of Sustainable/Ethical harvest and  “Fair Trade” practices. If we aren’t dealing directly with the harvesters ourselves, then we need a body we can trust to look out for them and see to their well-being, financially, socially, culturally and otherwise. Ideally we need a certification by an organization that will protect and support the harvesters while ensuring sustainable harvesting practices and propagation in the wild. Our market demand is growing, natural resources are stressed and in many cases declining. We need to address this now, not when it’s too late.

These harvesters and collecters are the only stewards we have for these precious and quickly disappearing resources.   We must see to their needs to ensure they have the means to sustain themselves and the wild crops we depend on. This is our obligation. We need to take care of those who are taking care of our precious resources and their little corner of the planet for us.

We complain about the big corporations we have created and the damage they are doing to our society, economy and the planet.  However it is we who sustain them with our purchases. If we stop feeding them and supporting them they will cease to exist.  We are solely responsible for giving corporations their power because we give them our money.

If, instead, we direct our support towards the small-scale local operators, at home and abroad, and take care of the “little people”, we could, in fact, replace our corporate Capitalist model with something that is more suited to ensuring peace, prosperity and liberty for all while sustaining an ongoing supply of the medicinal and fragrant plant materials we love and depend on.

Do our harvesters have enough food?  Adequate shelter? Clean water? Enough income to get by comfortably? Do they have basic healthcare and education? Are they receiving fair prices for their products? If not, then we are not paying them enough for their goods and services.  Or more to the point, our money is not reaching them and something needs to change.

In the case of our wild aromatics and medicinals, the harvesters are the best positioned and best qualified to steward these precious resources. In fact, they are the only ones that can do this critical job. Many of our medicinal and aromatic plants also have important roles in the cultures and societies that harvest them for us.

Cliff hugging, rock loving fragrant and healing Frankincense tree
Cliff-hugging, rock-loving fragrant and healing Frankincense tree living where it loves to grow.

Frankincense trees are often left untapped for decades just so they can be given as gifts or dowry to newlyweds. These trees are of great value to the harvesters from a social and cultural perspective. They are much more than just a source of income. This is likely the case with other wild harvested plants we in the west purchase.

Many of these wild crops will not grow, thrive or lend themselves to domestic cultivation in orderly rows and tended fields and must be tended to where they grow best, in the wild. We need to maintain the balance of nature in the wild so our harvesting does not leave holes in the local ecology where other species might take over.

Many plants we use are stressed and not reproducing as well as they should due to over-harvesting, yet our demand still grows. Now is the time to propagate and replenish them in the wild, before it is too late. Part of the money we pay for our wild aromatics and medicinals needs to be invested in programs that ensure these native crops are maintained and do not decline from our intervention. The harvesters are the ideal implementors of programs of propagation, seeding and stewardship in the wild.

To change the current scenario, we need to deal as directly as we can with the harvesters, cut out the ruthless traders, the profit-focused large corporations, the myriad middlemen and the impersonal companies that receive the lion’s share of the high prices we pay. We need a new model that will serve us all well, harvesters, purveyors and consumers alike, where profit is only one of many conditions that need to be met. We need a model that brings prosperity and benefit to all, including the plants and their environments, the harvesters and their communities.

I invite you to think differently about our exotic wild medicinals and fragrant plant materials and start thinking about our brothers and sisters who harvest and steward them for us, and how to best appreciate and support their efforts so our children and theirs can experience these same wonderful scents and medicinals before they disappear from the planet through our shortsightedness.