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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.

 

Dan

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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.

Joanne??

Joanne

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.

joannshopcrop2
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.

 

Dan

lord-siva-on-his-tao
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 janeadamsart.wordpress.com and be sure to check out Aquariel from which this image is borrowed.
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Kenya to Canada-Landing at a run

Since returning from Africa 2 weeks ago, it feels like I landed running, and I don’t yet see a respite in the near future. My keynote speech at the Viridis Genii Symposium is coming up fast which means I had better get travel arrangements to Oregon made ASAP, and with any luck get a day in Hawaii with master distiller Jack Chaitman of Scents of knowing, whom has long held my admiration and respect. He is figuratively and literally a wizard with plant intelligence and essential oils.

Spring is just starting to show here in Southwestern Ontario and the tree buds are swelling on the Niagara escarpment, finally clothing their winter nakedness with a bit of brown.  I hear the Wild ginger and Witch Hazel calling me. I have to get out of the studio  and visit with my plant friends.

For those who generously supported my travels though prepurchasing the Ethiopian Essential oils and professor Dagne’s lovely “Duet” co-distillation of Boswellia Papyrifera and B. Neglecta, the package is finally here from Ethiopia after many delays. I will be bottling them and hope to ship them out beginning of the week. I will also get these gems posted in the shop in the next few days, so keep checking back. I should also mention I am trying out $6.00 flat rate shipping in the shop. If I don’t lose my favourite shirt with it, I will keep it permanently.

My Ethiopian shipment came in with gorgeous fresh Frankincense and Myrrh resins. The Boswellia Papyrifera is in the largst most succulent chunks I have ever seen. Both the Myrrh and Opoponax resins are fresh, fragrant, vibrant and excellent representations of the species. The Boswellia Rivae is as deliciously sweet as ever, and part of me hopes it doesn’t sell so I can smell it and play with it as long as possible.

 

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Beautiful and aromatic, unusually large chunks of Ethiopian Frankincense Papyrifera in the shop now.

 

 

I want to thank everyone who has placed orders for resins, essential oils and my Astrodynamic products the past few weeks. Your patronage is a true compliment and your support is heart warming.

That being said, as a one man show, I may have to hire extra help with this influx of  orders, so please bear with me while I adjust to the new pace of sales in the shop… ……

In the meantime, to entertain, (distract), you, I am posting some photos from my visit in Kenya and the Samburu tribe courtesy of the talented photographer and wonderful travel companion, Minna Kalliokoski. Many have asked for them, so it will also be one thing I can tick off a job list that strangely seems to be growing daily and not getting any shorter.

Finally, I want to thank everyone for their generous donations to my work with indigenous harvesters and efforts to establish fair and sustainable trade of resins and other fragrant/medicnal materials. I could not have met and worked with Civet farmers, Somali resin co-op managers or the resin harvesting women of the Samburu tribe without your financial support. This influx  was unexpected and heartwarming. Much more than money, I was bolstered by the appreciation and warm moral support for these ventures. It makes me feel like change is possible in our world. That we can all work together to make this a better place for everyone, plants, animals and people. It felt like  a net of love that somehow appeared under a crazy idea and a leap of faith. My deepest and most sincere gratitude to you all!

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