Please enable JavaScript to experience the full functionality of

Frankincense may become a thing of the past

A team of international researchers believe the tree used to produce the ancient incense is in ecological danger            

The nativity scene usually stays engrained in the memory of children who act out the biblical story of Mary and Joseph on the way to Bethlehem. Trying to recall the names of the Three Wise Men may draw a blank, but their gifts come to mind as quickly as a Christmas carol: frankincense, gold and myrrh. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, though, the tree that produces frankincense could be headed towards extinction.

In Biblical times, frankincense was harvested in the wild on the Horn of Africa and on the Arabian peninsula, but today the boswellia papyrifera tree is mostly grown in Ethiopia. A team of Dutch and Ethiopian researchers found that upwards of 7% of the trees die every year, and that seeds are not germinating into saplings, reports USA Today. At this rate, production of the trees’ resin could decrease by 50% in the next 15 years, and 90% of the trees could die out in the next half century.

Frankincense is harvested by cutting into the tree’s bark every few weeks. As a healing measure, the tree releases the aromatic resin, which is incorporated into various religious services as incense and used in traditional Chinese medicine. The exact amount of frankincense produced worldwide is hard to calculate. Frans Bongers, a professor of tropical forest ecology and management at Holland's University of Wageningen, told USA Today that Europe imports around 400 tons per year, which is then divided between China and churches and perfumers.

Most of this resin originates from Ethiopia, where the government has sought to shift populations from the highlands to the lowlands. The trees growing in lower elevations have suffered, as highlanders heard in cattle that eat the seedlings before they mature. Harvesters also burn the grasslands to get to the trees, killing saplings in the process, Bongers said. And extensive harvesting leaves the trees susceptible to longhorn beetles, which infest 85% of mature trees that die.

An Iranian-born man living in Arizona is doing his part to reverse this trend. At his nursery in Tempe, MiniaTree Garden, Jason Eslamieh grows and sells the boswellia papyrifera species, which are acclimated to growing in Southern California, Florida and portions of Arizona. The seeds themselves are particularly difficult to germinate, and only between two to four percent mature into a plant, Eslamieh told USA Today. He predicts that over-harvesting has left the species inbred and weak and seeks to find a more viable hybrid. If he does, one of the first holiday gifts might live on in more than cultural memory.  


By Editor Will Cade