And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. -Matthew 2:11 (ESV)
Many of us have read the stories of frankincense being offered as a gift to the baby Jesus, but why was this plant-derived material as precious as gold in ancient times?
Though best known for its use in incense and rituals, the written and archaeological evidence demonstrate that frankincense was also considered to be a remedy for everything from toothaches to leprosy in ancient times. It was treasured as a prized medicinal substance. But its use dates back to even before mention of it in the bible. Frankincense has been traded in the Middle East and North Africa for over 5,000 years. And remember that famous heavy kohl eyeliner ancient Egyptian women wore? It was made in part from charred, ground frankincense!
So what exactly is frankincense? It comes from the resin gum of different species of the
Arabian tree Boswellia that is native to the Arabian peninsula and Northern Africa. Harvesting Frankincense is a time consuming process that begins by collecting tree resin. An incision is made into the trunk and a small piece of bark next to it is removed. This wounding causes the tree to leak a milky white substance that seals and heals the wound. After the resin has hardened, it is scraped off of the trunk. To obtain frankincense essential oil, the resin is then subjected to steam distillation.
The chemistry of the essential oil is very complex, with the oil containing hundreds of different componenets! Examples of some components are shown below. These types of molecules are believed to be responsible for the medicinal qualities observed with the use of frankincense oil.
At present, Frankincense essential oil is much more than a component of aromatherapy and perfume, and has even been investigated as a possible treatment for different types of cancers, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and anxiety. The oil appears to be helpful with respiration problems by soothing colds, cough, bronchitis and laryngitis. It is even being investigated as a possible treatment for asthma. Frankincense oil is also used by some to remove scars and stretch marks. While it is a widely used essential oil for its fragrance, its possible medicinal properties are as intriguing as its aroma! Some studies regarding its use as an anti-cancer agent have even been performed. While more research is needed to determine how it can be used to treat modern day ailments, it’s easy to see why this plant-based remedy would be treasured in ancient and modern times alike.
Find all of Wild Earth’s essential oil products by visiting the Etsy shop: Wild Earth Apothecary
Article written by Lauren Beihoffer, a biochemist and lover of natural, holistic skin care