Frankincense tree (Oman)

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Scientists working in Ethiopia have written a report that says many of the trees from which frankincense is made are dying out.

Boswellia trees

Frankincense is a resin. It comes from a sticky substance, called sap, produced by trees from the Boswellia genus. These grow in parts of North Africa and the Middle East. Cutting, or stripping, an area of bark from the trunks of Boswellia trees produces the resin. This is called tapping. Where the tree is tapped the milky-white sap rises to the surface, where it dries and hardens. Then it is collected in chunks. Oil produced from the resin is used in perfumes and ointments. When heated or burnt, frankincense gives off a strong fragrance, or smell. It is used in this way during Jewish, Islamic, and Christian religious ceremonies. Different types of frankincense are considered to be of different quality. Light- or white-coloured large chunks are the most valuable.

Chunks of white-coloured frankincense Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25th December. Twelve days later, on 6th January, they celebrate Epiphany. On this date, in the Christian tradition, three kings, or magi, arrived from distant lands to visit the baby Jesus. As gifts they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is known that the Ancient Egyptians used frankincense around 5,000 years ago. It was first taken to Europe by French knights who took part in the crusades, or holy wars, in the 11th and 12th centuries. This is how it gets is name. Frank is an old word for a person from France or western Europe. In Arab countries, frankincense is often called olibanum.

The scientists studied 13 groups of Boswellia trees growing in different parts of north west Ethiopia. Over 6,000 trees were included in their research. Some were tapped, while others were untouched. The scientists recorded measurements for two years. These showed by how much the trees grew during this period, and how many seeds they produced. The scientists noticed there were fewer young trees, called saplings, than older trees, which were nearing the end of their lives. The scientists used their measurements to predict what will happen to the ‘frankincense forests’ in future. If their calculations are correct, it means within several years there will not be enough young trees to replace the dying older ones.

The scientists say there are several reasons for this. Other types of trees are now growing in the forests, taking space where Boswellia saplings could have grown. Tapped trees also produce fewer seeds than untapped ones. In addition more areas of the trees are being cut down and turned into grazing land for farm animals. And a type of insect, called the longhorn beetle, is attacking some of the trees.

The scientists who did the study have made some recommendations. They say young trees must be allowed to grow in protected areas and not tapped for several years. If this doesn’t happen, they warn, it’s likely that there will be much less frankincense in the future.