Though I hate to open on a negative note. I’m going to anyway :-).
I’m still shaken up by the small fire in my lab the other day. Small being a relative term. It is a small space and could have been much worse given all the high-proof alcohol tinctures and essential oils crowded in the small work area. With good reason they call them volatile oils.
Luckily I caught it before too much damage was done. And one of my lessons is to always have a working fire extinguisher handy. Luckily I didn’t leave things completely unattended. The consequences would have been much more serious had I not been in hearing range.
That being said and out of the way. I had quite a productive time leading up to the fire.
White Spruce essential oil
While demonstrating how to make a pot-still from a pressure cooker for my last post, I distilled a lovely essential oil from the oleoresins of White Spruce. It has a wonderful fragrance and is different from the needle distilled essential oil. I attribute this in part to the function of the oleoresins as healers of the trees, while the oils found in the needles perhaps have more of a nourishing anti-freeze in nature. A hypothesis. In reality, I just enjoy working with the saps. I believe they provide a more holistic and broader therapeutic spectrum in healing balms and salves. A better, or perhaps different representation of the spirit of the tree.
While the needle and twig essential oils definitely have proven therapeutic properties, the essential oils from the oleoresins bring a different character to perfume and aromatherapy blends as well.
There is also a great affinity between the oleoresins of trees and our skin. Whether Pine, Spruce or Fir, Frankincense or Myrrh, all are produced by the trees in response to injury and designed to heal their “skin” and protect it from external damage.
The soft smooth feeling of my skin after washing off sticky sap with olive oil and dish soap, is much more than the oil alone produces. There is nothing I have personally experienced that leaves my skin feeling as healthy and supple as tree saps do. Over the years I have had a couple of clients who noticed a reduction of wrinkles, neck wrinkles in particular, from applying my spruce cough and chest rub. On some level this makes sense.
I started on the 24th of April, only a few days after returning from Ethiopia with the fresh Civet paste, did nothing for 2 months. No matter how I plied it, agitated and warmed it, filtered, fussed and poured it, it would not transform into the fragrant tincture I was aiming for. After giving up and setting it aside for over 4 months, I put it on the heated stirrer for a few days. Lo and behold after cold filtering I found a lovely strong tincture with beautiful colour and fragrance.
Though one can still smell the slightly fecal note of Civet, the floral notes are already present and will continue to grow as it ages. From experience I have found even a small amount of tincture will age and within months one will notice a change in its subtleties. You don’t need much in a perfume, so even a 10 ml. Bottle should leave more than enough to experience this cool transformation for yourself. You can find a link to it in the photo above or in the drop down menu at the top of the page.
I should mention, the instigator of the fire was a flask of new Civet tincture with 96% alcohol. Apparently I turned the heater knob to “high” and the magnetic stirrer knob to low, instead of the reverse. Luckily I was around to hear the pop of the exploding flask and the whoosh/thump of the alcohol igniting. Things are so tightly packed in the lab that flaming alcohol pouring over and under the table and cabinets was impossible to smother or put out. A housemate who was quick with his own fire extinguisher saved the day.
As promised, here is the recipe for my “Abyssinian Twirling Wax”, a Frankincense summer styling wax made with the oleoresin of Frankincense Frereana, co-op harvested in Somaliland. The Frankincense resins in the formula can be replaced with Spruce, Pine or Fir resins if desired. I chose Frankincense Frereana because of its wonderful fragrance and lack of water-soluble gum, perhaps the only Frankincense with this quality. This allows it to dissolve readily in the oils and butters, as the coniferous saps do.
Much as I love my spruce sap moustache wax, (solid moustache wax recipe), I find I am always learning, growing, exploring, and discovering new things. I better be improving with age.
Instead of adding olive oil as a solvent and carrier with the spruce sap in my earlier recipe, I mixed the hot cocoa butter and the coconut oil with the semi-melted Frankincense which gave the resin enough mobility to be filtered through a metal mesh coffee filter. (Easier on the hands than squeezing hot resins through a pillowcase! ). It was then put back in the water bath in the mixing vessel and the rest of the ingredients blended into it till the texture and consistency were just right. This method works just as well with Pine, Spruce and Fir saps.
Resins have the very cool attribute of training or “perming” ones hair. After using a resin based wax for a day or two, one’s moustache notably keeps its shape with less or no waxing. Hairs may still separate, but they will do so according to the shape the resins imparted to them. When you want to try a different style, the resin wax holds it exactly where you want it and sets your facial hair to the new style with the same ease. Simple or extremely elaborate creations are thus possible with no extra effort.
So here is my new and improved recipe for a really lovely resin based, solid moustache wax This recipe is pretty close to the “Abyssinian Twirling Wax”. The product in the shop also has resins of Frankincense Rivae from the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, (hence the Abyssinian part), but it is not a prerequisite for a wonderful product. To it, I added some Frankincense Rivae resin left over from distilling the essential oils, but you could simply add a little essential oil of Frankincense Rivae to accomplish the same end. These two fragrances compliment each other well.
If you would like to try out a Frankincense resin moustashe wax before you make it, buy some to compare to your own recipe, or if you would like to support and encourage my need to make cool things for cool people, you can find it in my Etsy shop here. https://www.etsy.com/listing/193421122/abyssinian-twirling-wax-a-frankincense
You can experiment with a wide range of ingredients and proportions. A little more Frankincense adds durability and hold in hot humid conditions, a little less, works well in cooler climates.
We all have different needs from a grooming wax, so take the time to play with the proportions and ingredients, and do a”drop test” on a room temperature surface as often as you need, till you are happy with the results. I often do this 10 -20 times till I am satisfied. Remember you can re-melt and redo your wax almost indefinitely. Just return it to the waterbath at any point to experiment , add or adjust ingredients.
-The Frankincense Frereana adds tenacity, nice hold and “perming power”. Plus it has a most lovely fragrance of amber, wood and spice
-The Cocoa butter helps it go on smooth without pulling hairs and smells wonderful with the Frankincense.
-The coconut oil is semi solid at room temperature so I figure it is better for consistency than olive oil, and of course it’s all the rage now for skin, hair and everything else it seems.
-I always use fresh fragrant local Beeswax, not the bleached or deodorizer stuff. Fresh beeswax smells amazing complements the resin’s fragrance, and adds a lovely texture and hold of its own.
You can use any kinds of oleoresins you like or have around, in similar proportions to those below. This recipe yields 1 liter of moustache or beard wax. The percentages should help you make smaller quantities. For a beard wax or dressing, I would reduce the resins and Beeswax, and up the Lanolin and Cocoa butter till you have the consistency and hold you are looking for. I hope to get some in the shop sometime soon.
In a water bath, (See a solid mustache wax recipe), heat up the items below. (Note these are not exact proportions that must be followed to the letter or decimal point, but do work well. I expect everyone to tweak them to their own individual taste and grooming needs.)
Frankincense Frereana-125 grams for a summer wax. 100 grams might work well for a winter or cold weather wax. 100 to 125 grams-10%-12.5% . (Or 150-200 grams-15% -20% Spruce, Pine or Fir sap).
Vitamin E. 400 IU per 250 ml. or more. It helps preserve fats from rancidity and is nourishing to hair and skin. Not obligatory, but an option.
Essential oils if you like. You can add essential oils of your choice during the cool down period, before you pour your wax into containers. The fragrance of the Frankincense, Beeswax and Cocoa butter combined is warm, mild, woody and lovely on its own. Some oils that go well with Frankincense Frereana are other Frankincense types, Cedars, Opoponax, Balsam Peru, Cabreva, Muhuhu, Sandalwood, Pettigrain and citrus types.
So, in the water bath, heat up all your ingredients. Wait till your water boils and everything has melted. Gauging by eye, or with a thermometer wait till they reach a similar temperature.
Add part of the Cocoa butter and part of the coconut oil to the gooey Frankincense resin, stir thoroughly till it is homogeneous and all the Frankincense has dissolved.
Remove and carefully pour it through a metal coffee filter via a funnel or directly into your mixing jar. Use the back of a spoon or a stir stick to press it through and keep the pores in the filter open. If you have a large quantity, do this in small batches and return the Frankincense mix to the water bath to keep the contents liquid. If you can’t get a reusable metal coffee filter, (The gold coloured Melita type), then use the corner of a clean and well rinsed pillowcase, and wearing gloves press the mixture through the fabric and funnel to the jar.Any residual goo left on hands and tools cleans up well with olive oil then soap and water.
Put the container with the filtered mix into the water-bath, wait till it is same temperature as the rest of the jars, and you are ready to start adding the remainder of the ingredients to it.
I ususally don’t pour things in all at once, but reserve some for final adjusting. Often I will measure more into the jars than the recipe calls for, just so I have some room for play. Its easy enough to measure what I have left over afterwards and deduce how much I used. Add most of your ingredients then do a cold drop test and see if it suits your needs. More Cocoa butter? More beeswax? Coconut oil? What do you think??
When you are happy with the result, you are ready to pull it out of the waterbath and either mix in your essential oils or just pour it into containers to set. And that’s it.
Enjoy the gender you were blessed with this life.
And always always remember to take notes! Clear legible and dated notes!
Your future self will thank you…
Oh and if you are considering using Frankincense frereana in your recipe, you can find it here-https://www.etsy.com/listing/191307066/frankincense-frereana-maydi-somaliland
It is very easy to distill the essential oils from our local North American Pine, Spruce and Fir tree saps ourselves, but, to fully capture the exquisite qualities this type of small-scale distillation can offer us, a different approach and perspective is called for. Everything leading up to the distillation is as important to the quality of our oils as the physical process of distillation. The approach is simple.
We have to shift our perspective from being product oriented to relationship oriented. From getting to giving, and change our role of consumers to that of stewards. We each exist in a relationship with nature, the planet, and much more than is visible to the eye. We are part of a vast dynamic living matrix linking and coordinating all life in its many forms, from beyond the planets and stars to the very atoms within all things. Severed from it but for a moment we would cease to exist. Literally. I know, it’s a big statement to open with, but for now, keep an open mind, and I will I will try to keep this to one post of readable length, and address these concepts in upcoming posts.
We have put a lot of stress on the planet’s systems the past few hundred years. We have excelled at taking and making, and most definitely gained a lot. We have progressed and evolved as a civilization. As we see the negative impact on the health of the planet and our bodies, we struggle to understand what we are doing wrong. Skyrocketing cancers and other diseases. What are we missing? How can we do this differently so nature thrives along with us? Lucky for us Nature sees us as part of her, not the enemy, or we would have been disposed of and reabsorbed into the planet a long time ago. Dominant species or not, our behaviour has been abhorrent towards each other and the planet. Dominant Shmominant. We have intellectualized our role here, separating ourselves from nature as beings superior to all others. Crowned ourselves kings of the planet without assuming the responsibilities of rulership.
Here are some simple methods of extracting essential oils from conifers
Though more sophisticated methods areinvented daily, let’s hope, ethics and sustainability are an important part of them.
Needles, smaller branches and twigs can be mindfully trimmed, sent through a “mulcher”, then hydro/steam distilled. This is done easily in a home-made pot still. (See the post on distilling Frankincense). The chopped material will float on the water in the pot, avoiding the danger of material burning on the bottom. This allows us to distill the essential oils of evergreens that do not exude their saps such as White Cedar and the Junipers. They can also be set atop the boiling still pot and steam distilled.
The trees can be tapped, and the essential oils distilled from their sap in a process similar to the preparation of Maple syrup. (Tapping spiles can be purchased, (Stainless steel), or made from Elder branches as these shown below). If I had a choice between a cold metal tube, or a body temperature tube made of the same material as my body, inserted into me, I know which I would choose.
In the turpentine industry, Pine bark is cut, stripped or slashed, using methods similar to the extraction methods of Frankincense and Myrrh trees. The ensuing exudate of oleoresin, (essential oils and resins), collected and processed in copper stills. The vapours from the heated oleoresins are condensed for turpentine and essential oils, while the leftover resin is drained and filtered to make the rosin we use on the bows of violins and other stringed instruments, and other applications where increased friction and contact is needed. With a little love and ingenuity, you can make your own beautiful crystal clear amber Rosin from Pine, Spruce or Fir saps. You can get creative and cast this rosin in any shape you can envision. It makes a lovely incense even after separation from its essential oils.
Rosin, Make your own high quality Rosin from the saps of trees that grow around you
By far the simplest and gentlest method for distilling essential oils from local conifers, especially if one lives in the city, is from the sap already present from the trimming of lower branches. This requires no further damage to the trees, while giving us the opportunity to produce our own exquisite essential oils and rosins for perfume, medicine and many other products.
Even in the middle of the city, you will find a connection to the trees that grow in your sphere. I would say you already have a relationship with them whether you recognize it or not. To notice a tree, acknowledges the existence of a relationship between you. Life is full of subtle truths. The quality of that relationship is mostly in your hands. The quality of the products you make with the trees in your sphere is completely in your hands. A little piece of the planet’s well-being is yours to watch over and nurture. These are the seeds of stewardship.
Today some large-scale operations distill essential oils from pulp, sawdust and foliage left over from milling and processing trees for lumber and paper industries. The quality of the essential oils produced by these large industries can not compare to those you can distill in small quantities on your own. The chemical and fragrance industry is vast, and many of these factory produced essential oils, especially those distilled from coniferous trees are used as starting materials for other chemicals and essential oils utilized in our everyday products.
On the bright side, Small scale “Artisan” Distillers of essential oils, made from hand collected plant materials, by craftspeople that have personal and intimate relationships with their local flora, people who practice ethical and sustainable methods due to their philosophies and convictions, are becoming recognized in commerce. They are increasingly in demand by “bespoke” and small-scale perfumers, naturopaths and alternative healers around the world. This, I believe, is how change on a global scale is slowly unfolding.
We need these small-scale producers and artisans in as many fields as possible, and we need to support them whenever, wherever and however possible. They represent a new paradigm and model of how we can live in harmony and balance with the planet instead of our current destructive model of impersonal mass production which is taking a growing toll on our health and wellbeing , and that of the planet.
Small scale farmers, conscientious and ethical animal husbandry operations, local dairy and artisan cheese producers, private-label vineyards and cottage industries, ethical wildcrafting homesteads and collectives, and small-scale distillers, all allow this type of rich, intimate, respectful relationship with nature to flourish. Supporting them enriches our communities, nurtures an ethical and sustainable relationship with the planet and provides us with high quality products that help reintegrate us on an individual and societal level with nature. They are the vanguard of change and evolution.
In the production of essential oils, I believe this is the only practical way to keep the integrity of the fresh plant, the nuances and depth, their healing potential, and the metaphorical “heartbeat” of the plant intact through the process. Something not achievable on an “Industrial scale”. Though each batch may differ slightly in complexities of fragrance, I believe these small distillations using planet friendly and non destructive practices, built on intimate personal relationships with nature, from the tapped or exposed saps of the trees, yield perfume and therapeutic ingredients of the highest quality
Distilling essential oils from tree sap. An opportunity for Stewardship.
As mentioned above there are 3 materials we can extract essential oils from in a non destructive and responsible way.
Needles and twigs,
Sap from tapping the trunks
Sap collected from the exterior of the trees.
I am going to focus on the external sap we can collect. If there is interest, leave a comment below, I will write about the other methods in future posts.
One obvious difference is that we are working with a very specific product the tree has produced in response to an injury. One can safely assume this is not the regular sap that flows within the tree due to the unique role of these self-produced “Bandages”. These oleoresins are exuded by the tree as a barrier against opportunistic organisms and microorganisms, and to heal an injury to itself. Their composition differs from the essential oils distilled from the tapped tree and from the needles. They are higher in resins, and in my opinion, the essential oils they yield, are richer and more complex in fragrance.
For this reason, it is thought, that these saps and their essential oils have a greater healing potential, and are especially suited to managing skin ailments, aging skin, wrinkles and scarring. Healing our own “bark”. The affinity is obvious. The Pinenes in these saps are considered anti inflammatory and broad spectrum antibiotics. They open bronchial passages, stimulate surface blood flow, stimulate brain function and memory. These are only a few of the therapeutic properties and beneficial traits they offer us.
Each and every species of Pine, Spruce and Fir has its own unique chemical compounds, characteristics and fragrance
Learn to differentiate between the different species and types of trees. Always collect and distill Pine, Spruce and Fir sap separately. If you like, you can start by collecting unidentified Pine, Spruce and Fir saps, and distill a more generic essential oil from each tree type, until you can discern between them. For most medicinal purposes this works well. If you invest some time in study, you will learn to tell the difference between the various species in each of these families. Your relationships with the trees will grow and deepen, leading you to consistent and higher quality essential oils. This is a craft and an art that calls for mastery.
A simple way to tell the difference between the three families, is that pine needles are “almost always” multiple, and are joined at the base in a sheath. Spruce and Fir needles are attached to the branch individually, a Spruce needle will roll easily between thumb and forefinger, while a Fir needle is flat and will not roll. Spruce needles are often more rigid and have sharp skin penetrating tips, Fir needles are softer. Spruce cones grow downward while Fir, as far as I know has upward growing cones that do not last the whole season. Someone once said “Loving someone is knowing them”. It is so with Nature, you will find that love and knowledge will grow hand in hand.
We raise our children detached from Nature. Shamans, elders, Priests and priestesses, medicine men and women, those who have traditionally kept the spirit and connection with nature alive in our communities, have lost their roles in modern society. It is up to us to address this void. There is no one else. Our natural “resources” are much more than just chemical compounds we can take and process into useful products, there is a unique life force within each plant, animal and mineral woven through the universe. Can we keep this energetic vitality alive from harvest to finished product?
Sustainable and Ethical Harvesting or Wildcrafting
The laws of Nature, Physics and Karma work flawlessly, whether we can see them or not. For every action there is a reaction, no energy invested ever disappears, and we reap what we sow. There is an intelligence of Nature that exists everywhere around us. Just because we have not yet invented the instruments to measure it, does not mean it does not exist or does not react to every action we impose upon it. More than this, we are innately and intimately involved in this dance, as individuals and societies. The intelligence of trees, and those intelligences that take care of our trees and woods and every other individual species in plant, animal and mineral world exist to my satisfaction. We too are part of this living tapestry, regardless of all attempts to intellectualize our superiority, and see ourselves as separate from the rest of life on the planet.
Do no harm, should be in the forefront of our minds whatever we occupy ourselves with. Especially with Nature. And if you can help out natures citizens while you are out in the woods, it is important you do so.There is no better use or service for our so-called “superior intellects”.
The beginning of all endeavours starts with our intent. What is your vision?
The laws of nature and physics dictate you will receive as you give.
As in many aboriginal traditions we communicate our intent, listen carefully, and give before we take.
Nature isn’t picky about what you give. Lucky for us She is not hung up on material things.
Learn to listen to Nature and to yourself. Just as in any important relationship.
There are no coincidences. Nurture your relationships.
Secrets are never shouted. They are whispered.
Be quiet and still, and Nature can teach you everything you need to know.
Let it be a devotion.
Deepen your relationships with the plants you engage, develop your own personal ethics, and methods of sustainable and mutually beneficial harvesting in the wild. Engage with the spirit of your harvest, respond to their needs there is much more to be reaped than meets the eye.
On to the harvest
Our Northern American evergreens have been suffering from an infestation of Borers that have decimated huge tracts of our forests. I always carry a long wire with me when I harvest sap. Whenever I see a hole under a patch of sap, I insert the wire to the depth of the hole, and destroy the grub therein. Not a planet saving move on its own, but if we all held the well being of the trees and all nature’s citizens in mind while we were taking what we wanted from them, it would, I believe, make a difference. Not only in the world, but in the products we create from nature.
In the winter the tree is dormant, the cold weather inhibits the growth of organisms and micro organisms that could attack an exposed area of the tree. This is when it is ideal to harvest our sap.
Try not to scrape the sap down to the bare wood. There is plenty for you and the tree.
If you get ahead of me, and try to distill these saps before the next post, please be very careful! They are extremely volatile! Keep vapours away from open flames and perform a hydro or steam distillation. Don’t heat the saps directly!
For part 2 and instructions for making your own pot still and distilling essential oils with it, please see my post, “How to build and use an essential oil still.- http://apothecarysgarden.com/2014/09/20/how-to-build-and-use-an-essential-oil-still/
I could not in good conscience, write a post about distilling from the wild, without first laying down some clear directions for ethical and sustainable wildcrafting. I apologize for the length and any excess meandering. It is obvious where my passion lies. I would feel terrible if I found that someone was hacking at trees after reading this post. Especially with that disturbing photo of turpentine collection….
If you do not have these trees in your area, or if you would like to buy ethically and sustainably harvested saps from someone who is passionately involved with the ethics and sustainability of wildcrafting, I have some beautiful fresh White Pine and Spruce saps for sale in my Etsy store. Click on the photo below or any of the Etsy badges in the sidebar to find out more.
Disclaimer- This post does in no way imply one should harvest from city or private property, or if in the Hamilton/Burlington area, stray from the marked trails on RBG property.
Labdanum. Also called Ladanum, Cistus or Rockrose, is a fragrant mediterranean shrub, rich in history, oleo-resin, and tradition, both medicinally and aromatically.
The use of Labdanum, Cistus Ladanifera, Cistus Incanus or Cistus Creticus from Crete, has been traced back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, the civilizations of Akkad, Sumeria, Babylon. It is believed to be one of the ingredients in the ancient Hebrews sacred temple incense, “K’toret”. Thus keeping privileged company with such esteemed fragrant oleo-resins as Frankincense, Myrrh and Balm of Gilead
Labdanum is the starting material for most, if not all “Amber” type scents. Since there is no naturally occurring material with this name and fragrance. If you come across anything purported to be “True Amber”, be aware it is a composite material.
The fragrance of Labdanum is musky, warm, masculine, mysterious, balsamic, woody, slightly spicy and sweet. It is a heady odour, rich, complex and long-lasting. To me it speaks of mystery and masculinity. Not aggressive or self-serving masculinity, as Mars’ energy can be at times, but the powerful and gentle, nourishing strength of the Sun. The kind of warm masculinity I associate with wisdom, compassion, love and healing. Labdanum speaks to me of the mystery and magic that we, the not so fair sex, are bestowed with. The receptive side that most men often do not discover till later in life.
Yes, men have a mystery too, an intuitive and sensitive side, a perspective and insight that only men can have. One of equal weight, but less obvious as the better known womanly mysteries. For in this reality of duality, there could not be one without the other. Nor can we respect and honour one without accepting the other as its equal and counterpoint . It can work no other way. Yin and Yang. It is a gift that all men can draw upon.
One symbol of masculinity that cannot be refuted is A beard. They say a man’s beard covers his throat area, the seat of his emotions and vulnerability, hiding and protecting them. I can’t disagree. It certainly feels necessary at times. Believe it or not, it’s not easy being a man in our society. But we also embrace and care for our masculine nature by growing and grooming our facial hair.
My personal favourite beard dressing ingredient is, you guessed it, Labdanum. It has a warm comforting and familiar scent to it, as if carried through lifetimes and centuries, adhered to our spirits. It does have an ancient and timeless quality to it, and as mentioned, it is persistent! Persistent enough to stick to our memory and genes 2000, 3000 or 5000 years later? Apparently.
Labdanum, as other oleo-resins, has an affinity with facial hair. If anyone has read my earlier post about mustaches, Waxing warmly over mustaches, or a recipe for solid mustache wax, you will know I find oleo-resins a great aid in training facial hair. I have not researched the chemistry of this effect, but the resin part seems to have chemical compounds that affect hair behaviour. Labdanum works just as well as Pine, Spruce and Fir saps in this regard. It helps shape my beard, training it to hold a form long after the Labdanum has gone from my face. It helps with stray hairs, cowlicks and in general keeps things in place without the use of extra waxes and gels. And of course, the warm Amber like scent that Labdanum imparts to my facial hair is reason enough to slather it on regularly.
Traditionally Labdanum was collected from the beards and thighs of sheep and goats. The animals would accumulate sticky gobs of resin on their wool as they rubbed against the plants while grazing. If anyone is familiar with the musky fragrance of goats, or the gentler odor of raw Lanolin, (from sheep’s wool), they may have an idea what a good match these animal essences can be to Labdanum.There is a wonderful muskiness to these smells that compliments the sweet woody balsamic notes of Labdanum. For this reason I often use Lanolin as a conditioning agent in my Labdanum based beard grooming products. When fragrance and function of materials work together naturally, it is always a joy.
Nowadays Labdanum is either collected by thrashing the plants with an ancient tool called a Ladanesterion, (There are records of its use in the first century A.D.), or by harvesting the shrub and boiling it in water, often a water and alkaloid mixture. The separated residue is then processed with solvents to create resinoids, an absolute and eventually an essential oil. There are different grades of quality depending on which type of Cistus is used, where, when and how it is harvested, the methods of separation and extraction used. Gentler solvents and lower temperatures are of course preferred when a high quality perfume ingredient is required.
When one comes upon photographs of sculptures of ancient Mesopotamian kings and gods, or Akkadian, Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian men, we gaze upon some very ornate and stylized beards carved in stone reliefs and sculptures, steles and rock walls thousands of years ago. Sadly, very few of these magnificent representations of Mesopotamic masculinity remain intact. If they haven’t been defaced by conquering armies, then religious zealots finished the job in their attempts to eradicate idolatry and any competition with their own gods and dogma. Maybe they were pissed off that someone else’s god had a more magnificent beard than their god.
When I come across references that ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian figures may have pasted Labdanum soaked, sheep’s, (or goat’s), wool on their faces as part of their facial hair grooming methods, I always feel it is too tempting to underestimate the sophistication of our ancestors and misinterpret the visual references carved in the ancient stone. These people were not as primitive as we like to assume. Labdanum, in my experience, is an ideal facial hair styling and grooming gift from nature, on its own or when combined with oils, waxes or resins. When one learns of the elaborate beard grooming and shaping techniques employed in ancient Mesopotamian cultures, such as tying strings or ribbons, using hot irons, curling and braiding a beard, weaving in beads and precious metals, dyeing the hair with henna or other coloring agents, and of course applying sweet smelling unguents to it, it makes me question whether sticking patches of sheep’s wool on ones face would complement any of these techniques or grooming methods, or if it would be completely at odds with it.
On the other hand, incorporating fragrant resins and oils, especially those that would help with shaping and setting a beard, does seem a more likely complement to the established grooming practices of the times. In my mind, Labdanum would be a perfect aromatic accompaniment to all that beard training, styling, preening and fussing. Just as effective then as it is today.
That’s my take on it. Whatever methods you use to groom and shape your facial hair, they are part of your own unique path of self-expression. If you want to explore making your own beard or mustache grooming products, have fun, and remember to always take notes! Your future self will thank you.
If you have any questions, comments, insights or suggestions, I would love to hear from you..
Until recently, in our North American market, there was little choice as far as the type of Frankincense resin or essential oil one could buy. Religious, occult, and “new age” stores, aromatherapy and natural perfume shops offered only Frankincense Sacra or Carterii. (These 2 types are often synonymous with each other and whether they are the same or different species is still a popular topic for researchers and other experts in the field). As recent as the last decade or so there has there been an increase in the types of Frankincense one could easily acquire here. I assume this is in part to the increase in interest in aromatherapy and natural perfumes, the “Global Village” phenomenon and the integration and growth of African, Asian and Mediterranean communities in North America.
Though the Boswellia family contains over 20 different species of Frankincense, there are only 6 or 7 types that are readily available commercially.
Frankincense has been a valuable commodity and a very important part of our global cultures, religions and trade for thousands of years, highly valued for its medicinal ceremonial and esthetic uses, it is only recently that the different types of Frankincense have been examined closely and their unique chemical compositions studied. Until a short time ago there had been much confusion as to which chemical compounds were attributed to the individual species of Frankincense. Samples purchased from merchants for study were not directly taken from identified trees, and some research results were associated with the wrong species. This has been corrected and now one can look back on earlier valuable research and with an understanding of the proper chemical markers associated with each species, identify the correct oleo-resin on which the studies were based.
” Although the gum resin of B. Papyrifera coming from Ethiopia, Sudan and E. Africa is believed to be the main source of frankincense of antiquity (Tucker, 1986), there was until recently a great deal of confusion in the literature regarding the chemical analysis of its resin as well as of the essential oil derived from it by steam or hydro distillation. This was mainly due to the fact that analyses were done on commercial samples without establishing the proper botanical identity of the true source of the resin.”, on Boswellia Papyrifera, Aritiherbal.com.
Some sound and exiting research studies conducted over the past few decades had reached the right conclusions, but for the wrong trees and oleo-resins, which compounded the confusion. Now that correct chemical markers are assigned to the different species of Frankincense, we find among other critical identifying markers, that Boswellia Papyrifera has the unique chemical markers Incensole and Incensole Acetate that distinguish it from the other types of Frankincense.
Frankincense Boswellia Serrata is well known in India for its healing medicinal properties in Ayurvedic medicine. Boswellia Serrata resin extract shows great promise in the treatment of inflammatory diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and asthma. Among other characteristic chemicals it contains Boswellic acid which has been linked to anti-tumour and anti-cancer activity. I hope to elaborate on the chemical composition and medicinal applications of Boswellia Serrata in a future post.
Boswellia Frereana is another unique type of Frankincense now more readily available commercially in North American markets. It grows mostly in Somalia, Yemen and Kenya and is widely used locally for ritual and medicine. In Somalia it is called “Meydi” and is burned daily in the home after meals and used to odorize ones clothing. It is sometimes called “Yemenite Chewing Gum”. Boswellia Frereana is composed mostly of resins and essential oils and contains very little water-soluble gum, this makes it especially suited to the purpose of chewing gum, because the resin and oils are not water soluble it does not dissolve or break down in the mouth, it softens when chewed, and can be masticated for long periods of time, cleaning teeth, massaging gums and freshening the breath with its essential oils. Its unusually low gum content, relative to other types of Frankincense can be seen in this chart of solubility courtesy of Ariti Herbal in Addis Ababa. Another way this high ratio of oleo-resins to gums can be verified is noting the way Frankincense Frereana melts and is absorbed into a hot incense charcoal, leaving nearly no carbon residue and emitting very little of the traditional burnt odor other types of Frankincense do. This charred remnant is a result of the water soluble gums burning and some historic references cite this charred portion of Frankincense as an ingredient in traditional middle eastern Kohl, eye liner, along with Antimony and other ingredients.
Ethiopia is home to three commercially important types of Frankincense, none of which had been easily available in North America till recently. Boswellia Papyrifera, or Tigray type from the north, Boswellia Rivae also called the Ogaden type from the south east Ogaden area and Boswellia Neglecta from the Borena area of Ethiopia. All are used locally and are commercially important resources. Their wood is used for fuel, construction and furniture, the bark for incense and medicine and the oleo-resins are used among other things, to produce bases for varnishes and adhesives, essential oils, absolutes for perfume, and as incense and medicine. Boswellia Papyrifera is by far the most extensively used oleo-resin locally and abroad. It is used in Ethiopian households daily as incense and in their traditional coffee ceremonies, it is the choice incense of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and is also used locally as an insect repellent and for medicine. It has been the Frankincense of choice by Churches and religious institutions all over the world for hundreds if not thousands of years. Both Boswellia Rivae and Boswellia Neglecta deserve their own segment here, so I will leave their detailed descriptions for another day and focus on Boswellia Papyrifera .
The discovery of Incensole and Incensole Acetate as identifying chemical markers of Boswellia Papyrifera goes a long way to bolster the theory that Frankincense Papyrifera is indeed the true Olibanum and “Frank”(True) Incense of ancient times and scripture. Employing an incense that has psychoactive properties and elicits altered states of mind during ritual and ceremony, would make this incense a very valuable commodity to churches and other religious establishments, and would require a special knowledge to discern between regular non psychoactive incense and the true, or Frank-incense. This would be a valuable skill when one purchased such an exotic and expensive imported item for church use. Oleo resins such as Frankincense and Myrrh were at times worth their weight in gold, they were hard to come by, growing only in Ethiopia they would travel by caravan, ship, boat, donkey, horse or camel, or all the above often for many months. They would exchange hands many times before they reached their final destination which could often be thousands of miles away. One can safely assume, because of their value and scarcity in most parts of the world, they would run a real risk of being adulterated or replaced along the way with other less expensive materials for the profit of those that traded in such items. This would lend even more weight to the need to be able to identify the “true” incense from other types. The Frank-incense.
Boswellia Rivae, has a distinct haunting, rich and deep fragrance. The resin stands out in its aroma, fresh, as well as when burned as incense. The essential oil is a sweet, compelling, mysterious and complex mix that brings to mind mystery, magic and ancient sacred places. It has a surprising sweet note reminiscent of Palo Santo, unexpected in a Frankincense essential oil.
Frankincense. Boswellia Rivae
Boswellia Neglecta; Is another unusual Frankincense from Ethiopia. It is a delight burned as an incense, grounding and elevating. It has a pine like component which nicely rounds out an incense or Bakhoor mix. The essential oil of Frankincense Neglecta is also grounding, earthy & sweet. More stimulating than relaxing. The essential oil and oleo-resin have a boldness that makes them quite a different experience than the Boswellia Sacra/Carterii we have gotten used too.
Today I received my much-anticipated package from Addis AbabaEthiopia. 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. 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.
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.
Finally, a true essential oil of Myrrh. So much more complex and refined in its fragrance “profile” than the usual solvent extraction.
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..
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.
Each type of Oleo-Gum-Resin such as Myrrh, Opoponax, Mastic, the many types of Frankincense etc., contain different proportions of water-soluble gum and alcohol soluble oleo-resins, (resins and volatile oils).
I propose that when one of these Oleo-gum-resins is tinctured to extract its medicinal constituents and properties, that the 2 solvents used for tincturing, be in the same ratio to each other, as the ratio of gum to oleo-resins in the material being tinctured.
In a traditional medicinal, water/alcohol tincture, the gums are dissolved by the water, the oleo resins by the ethanol,(alcohol). What is left over after this extraction is mainly bark and other insoluble extraneous organic material. (Spagyric tinctures often put this to good use). The point of tincturing is to extract as much of the soluble active medicinal components as possible. Ideally exhausting the material by transferring all its chemical constituents to the medicine, while preserving any preexisting synergistic effects between them.
Considering that all parts of these natural Oleo-Gum-Resin exudates, (saps), contain valuable chemical constituents and compounds, and if there is no reason to isolate or change the natural composition of the material, it would be a more efficacious medicine if preserved as close to its natural state as possible
I propose that the best way to create a water/alcohol tincture that is true to its source material, is by using the same ratio of water to ethanol as the plant material exhibits in its ratio of gum to oleo-resin. That this is the only way to accurately migrate the whole material authentically, with its inherent medicinal potency, and any “synergy” that is naturally present in the original material.
Thus, if a sample of Myrrh oleo-gum-resin contains 60% gum and 40% oleo-resins, and a Tincture was made using 100% ethanol, it would only extract the resins and volatile oils. It would have a negligible amount of water-soluble gum. Certainly nothing close to the gum to oleo-resin proportions found in the original material. One would assume this extraction would not offer the same medicinal effects as the whole oleo-gum-resin. 1- Because the water-soluble gum contains chemical constituents that have medicinal value on their own. And 2- because whatever effects the synergy of the whole material had in its natural form, would be lost.
According to this method, a solvent mix composed of 20% alcohol and 80% water would not extract a tincture that was representative of the original material either. Rather it would contain more gum than oleo-resins than the original Myrrh. The same could be said of any other combination of these two solvents other than a combination of water to alcohol that reflected as closely as possible the actual proportions of gum to oleo-resin found in the material tinctured.
Some types of Frankincense contain very little gum, such as Boswellia Frereana. As low as 0. 5%-0.1%, see AritiHerbal table of Extractability of Boswellia Resin. Other types of Frankincense have greater proportions of gum to oleo-resin. According to this theory of holistic tincturing, the unique qualities inherent in each oleo-gum-resin, can only be reproduced in a tincture if the natural ratio of gum to oleo resin in the source material is reflected accurately in the ratio of water to alcohol in the tincturing solvent. One could assume it would keep the same natural synergy in the original material intact by keeping all the chemical constituents in the same relative proportion to each other in the finished product or tincture.
I am not a trained scientist, nor do I have access to the instruments that would put this theory of holistic tincturing to the test. I don’t know if this makes sense to anyone besides myself, or if there is any corroborating research out there to support this theory, but I would Love to hear any opinions, conflicting or supporting.
As an addendum ,( written a month or two after this post), I need to add that after thought, contemplation, examination and the occasional dream, I realize there may be one other way to extract all of the essential oils, resin and gum from these oleo-gum resins. The one way they could be extracted in their entirety and with their naturally occurring proportions intact, without a knowledge of their inherent gum-resin-oil ratios is, If a “disproportionately large” amount of alcohol/water is used for the extraction. So instead of making a 1:5 or 1:6 tincture with 1 being the oleo-gum-resin, something like a 1:10 tincture could be prepared. using much more water than the quantity of gum required, and much more alcohol than the oleo-resin required. In this way all the components could be extracted. However…the obvious drawback, is that there would be a much higher quantity of liquid and a lower proportion of oleo-gum-resin. So it can be done, but with a price. In a way, cheating a bit. This 1:10 ratio tincture, though containing all the soluble and desired parts of the material, would be very weak, which is not ideal and I see no finesse, or advantage to it. It would be very very difficult, if even possible, to remove the excess solvents without losing some of the volatile oils.
Since I am on the topic I will take this opportunity to raise a point that I will address in greater detail in a future post. Lately there has been a lot of talk about the healing properties of Boswellic acid found in Boswellia Sacra. Though much important research has been done on the different types of Frankincense, and Boswellic acid does show great promise as an anti-inflammatory and antitumor, among other important applications, it is not a volatile or essential oil . Which means little, if any Boswellic acid is found in the essential oil of Boswellia Sacra/Carterii. Whatever Boswellic acid is present in the oleo-gum-resins of some of the members of the Boswellia family, resides in the resin part, not in the “Oil”, and is not normally extracted with the essential oils. If a company claims that its essential oil of Frankincense Sacra has a “high percentage of Boswellic acid, then one should ask, how did it get there??
Continuing to work on a Frankincense anti aging/wrinkle crème and a Frankincense rejuvenating mask from the (post distillation) gum and resin residue of different types of Frankincense. Here I am distilling the essential oils from Frankincense, Boswellia species.
By “post distillation” I mean that after distilling off the essential oils, what I am left with are the water-soluble gum and alcohol-soluble resin.
Since essential oils can irritate the skin, especially of the face, post distillation allows me to add a controlled amount of essential oils of my choice, isolate the water-soluble gums from the alcohol-soluble resins and remove all extraneous materials from them.
The method for distillation is steam/hydro distillation using a simple home-made pot still.
The oleo-gum-resin for this distillation is Frankincense Papyrifera from Ethiopia. Because this is an experiment I only used 2 kg. of resin. Much less than this still can process.
The ratio of essential oils in each type of Frankincense varies greatly. One can collect anywhere from 0.05% to 10% essential oil from Frankincense and other oleoresins.
The sieve keeps the resin from sitting on the bottom of the pot where it could burn. If the resin did get burned, even slightly, the fragrance of all the components would be affected, making resin, gum, oil and residue in the still, unusable for any purpose whatsoever and no way to reclaim them or separate the burnt odor from them. In fact, on top of the loss of the material, the whole still, including over 8 feet of air-cooled copper condenser would have to be scrubbed and practically sterilized to make sure there was not the slightest remnant of burnt residue or odor in the whole distillation train. I shudder at the thought!!! I had already done this twice prior to distilling the Frankincense just the day before. First removing traces of the last essential I had distilled, then had to do it all over again because I could smell hints of cleaning products in the condenser when I turned up the heat and started the distillation process.
The lesson here, I believe, is that there are benefits to using standard glass water cooled condensers. I love the fact that this one utilizes air and consumes no resources to function. But it has its drawbacks.
This is a photo of the resin after distilling. Note the change in colour and texture. A pool of gum has settled at the bottom of the sieve, trying to drip into the pot through resin clogged sieve holes. Also note the milky white colour of the water after it has dissolved some of the the water soluble gums.
Now that the essential oil is distilled from the oleo-gum-resin, most of the resin is in the basket. Except for some that dripped through the sieve and formed the tastiest looking layer of caramel coloured resin on the bottom of the pot.The water in the pot is white from dissolved gum. What remains is to separate the rest of the gum from the resin, (using water as the solvent), then remove all extraneous materials, pieces of bark, stone, sand etc., and purify the components.
When gum and resin are separated and purified they will be recombined in an emulsion with the addition of emollient and skin nourishing oils, antioxidants, and a small amount of broad spectrum preservative.
Even though the prototypes and first formulas seem to have kept well for months without obvious spoilage or mold. And even though i have a deep respect for the preserving qualities of tree oleo resins. I can’t take the chance of bacteria or other organisms growing after making an oil/water emulsion.
I have been a bad blog daddy and written nothing here for far too long. Besides my usual travails and struggles through the dark of the sun and dark of the moons that go with it yearly, I have spent too much time (now almost 2 weeks!!), working on the Frankincense “anti-aging” crème, and trying to write a page about my St. John’s Wort Oil with an introduction to “Astrodynamics”. An attempt that recently led me to realize I must devote a separate post or page to each. Back to the drawing board again! Many many re-writes, but on the bright side, much material from which to draw on for a final draft.
The new batch of Frankincense crème is coming along. Smooth, creamy, fragrant and moisturizing beautifully. However, with it have come new challenges and tests. My vision for years has been to create a sublimated product from the whole Frankincense resin. Not just a crème that includes store-bought Frankincense essential oil, anyone can do that. I chose to pursue this first by creating a water/oil emulsion, a lotion, so I could fully utilize the resin, essential oils and the water based gum present in the crude tree sap.. This opened a new set of challenges and can of worms.
There are unavoidable consequences and requirements when it comes to supporting the water portion of any emulsion. It must be preserved in some way to keep, and be useful for an extended period of time. As soon as one introduces water into a formula, one has created a perfect petri dish in the equation. There are many life forms competing for dominion over our little Frankincense pool, determined to fulfill their life mandate of self perpetuation and proliferation, that drastic measures are called for. Some of these visitors are benign and simply mar the look of the lotion through time, but some are quite scary and physically dangerous to us higher life forms.
My hope was to use the naturally present essential oils and resins to preserve this creme, along with some natural antioxidants and skin nourishing oils that would keep the other oils from rancidity. Many of the healing ingredients in this crème are at the same time, anti-fungal, or anti bacterial, anti microbial, anti-oxidant,or anti viral, but the quantities needed for them to be functional full spectrum preservatives in a water based formula, makes them unsafe on the skin.
If I reduce the proportion of water to resins and oils, (using only a very small amount of water to dissolve and incorporate the gum part of the frankincense), I may find a solution, but time is needed to explore this option. No quick answers here. There are some cosmetic cremes on the market that boast having no artificial preservatives, but I don’t know how accurate their claims are. What length of shelf life they offer. Or how they manage this. This too requires more research. ……Time.
My apologies to all my Guinea pigs waiting for this lotion here at home and abroad. I will indeed keep and test this water based Frankincense “anti-aging” Creme formula, but it will be with a minute percent of “Liquid Germall Plus” added to it for everyone’s safety until I can perfect a formula which requires no added “artificial” preservatives such as my regular oil/resin formulas. It is easily researched on the web for your own edification, and for those to whom 0.1%-0.5% is an acceptable amount to apply to their skin, I will happily deliver a quantity for their feedback.
Meanwhile I have separated gum, or water-soluble parts of some Frankincense and some Myrrh, and will use this pure oil/resin as a base for a water-less “serum”. I will continue working on it, and a lotion version that holds “less water”. Of course, I will let everyone know how they are coming.
,Thank You All for bearing with me!!
Call it working outside my comfort zone, exploring new territory, or call it growing pains, stretching my envelope, learning, or all the above really.
But in the end, it seems it is I that is being ground to a fine powder by the Frankincense!! How cool is that!!!
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.
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