February 2019 brought a visit with the Camel and Goat herders of the Somali region of Ethiopia. What was once called the “Ogaden”. They are the collectors of Frankincense and Myrrh. While grazing their animals among the abundant Boswellia and Commiphora trees of the Savannah, they gently and sustainably collect the aromatic resins from the trees and ground.
Life as a pastoralist in Eastern Africa has become increasingly difficult as droughts regularly plague the land leaving animals and herders with little water or food in the dry season. There are no guarantees anyone will have enough to barter or buy basic nourishment for their families from season to season.
Collecting and selling these resins could add financial security to their lives. However, more often than not, they lack a market for their resins. Someone to sell them to, which is where we come in.
Our goal is to work with the collector families directly. To train them in best practices for collecting, sorting, grading and storing their resins and to establish cooperatives that will help support their communities and ensure a market with fair and stable prices for their resins. As much as they can collect.
Local and regional governments are with us on this project and with fingers crossed, we will see a container of ethically, sustainably and fairly traded resins in North America before the end of the year.
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.
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.
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.
A comparison between B. neglecta and C. confusa. Even smaller pieces of C. confusa resin exhibit a red hued center that sets them apart from the pitch black of B. neglecta.
C. confusa in the foreground, B. neglecta in the rear. Though quite similar and often mixed together as B. neglecta, closer examination reveals subtle differences that set C. confusa apart.
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.
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.
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.
Kenya sunset. Truly a magnificent country.
Boswellia Neglecta-Sorting dark and light resins from it.
Her first beads. A story for the next post.
First incursion into the area of quality control with the new resin co-op.
Hunting the edible Frankincense fruit, or Boswellia Yum yum as we dubbed it. delicious succulent fruit. Used locally as a dietary supplement, cus its delicious, and apparently a preventative and cure for Malaria..Still not identified….
Samburu women. They are all gorgeous!
All the Samburu Moran warriors have dual and large “Saddles” or discs in their ears which they remove when they become elders. My single Elk antler tunnel was a never ending source of surprise, amusement, shock and often hilarity for the Samburu.,
Subdued by the Samburu women
Wild animals everywhere!
Samburu women sorting Frankincense Neglecta
Finding some shade after a 10 Km. hike through Commiphora and Boswellia bushland. We collected over 1/2 kilo in 4 hours. Silly me decided to take my hat off to cool down after the trek….Bad move, and paid for it afterwards.
Traditional Samburu headrest/stools
Frankincense fruit and leaf, Kenya 2016
The spraying perfume tree, a Bursera.
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!
Herbal Apothecary, Wildcrafter, Sculptor, Craftsman.
Owner of Apothecary's Garden and Fairtrade Frankincense LTD. Providing a selection of fresh & fair trade, ethical and sustainably harvested Frankincense and Myrrh species, local and exotic fragrance materials, unusual essential oils, Natural perfume ingredients and animal essences. Astrodynamic plant Preparations, Herbal salves, cremes, tinctures and oils.
Tested on Animals and Babies, Children, Parents and Old Folks.
A sap for resins, ritual, Sun, Moon and Mother Nature.
A journal about Herbs, plants and processes. Recipes, plant Alchemy and our Relationship with Nature. Natural fragrance and medicine. Astrodynamics, rhythms and cycles, Medical Astrology, traditional Wisdom. Herbs and Healing, Science and Spirit. Oh and moustaches.
Fairtrade Frankincense explores our ancient and modern relationship with Nature's fragrant, medicinal oleoresins and provides a link joining traditional harvesters directly with our western market in fair and mutually beneficial commerce.