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Incense in doubt as loss of Boswellia trees leads to global shortage of frankincense

Posted on: July 19, 2019 1:37 PM
Photo Credit: Raimond Spekking / Wikimedia

[ACNS, by Rachel Farmer] A global shortage of frankincense could threaten the production of church incense which some traditions use during worship as a visible sign of prayers ascending to God. The aromatic resin, used to produce incense, comes from Boswellia, a genus of trees and shrubs from the Horn of Africa, Arabian Peninsula and India. According to a report in a sustainability journal, there is a danger frankincense supplies will collapse after researchers found the Boswellia trees are being destroyed by cattle farming, drought and conflict.

Frankincense is the main ingredient in all church incense recipes and when blended with myrrh, cassia and various natural oils, it produces a unique fragrance when burned.

Members of the community at Mucknall Abbey, an Anglican Benedictine monastery in Worcestershire in the English midlands, create their own incense which is sold to churches around the UK and beyond. The production of incense at the monastery began in 2004, using the tried, tested and popular recipes which had been passed on to them by earlier monastic communities.

Sister Sally, one of the nuns who oversees the production of their various varieties of incense, said they had only been able to source frankincense ‘siftings’ last year, which were much finer grains than the usual pea sized granules they usually ordered.

“We do have plenty at the moment,” she said. “But I haven’t put in another order yet. If we couldn’t get the frankincense it would be like trying to make a cake without flour. After all, incense is frankincense!”

The shortage could have an impact on many of the Christian churches. It’s estimated that the Roman Catholic Church alone uses an estimated 50 tonnes of frankincense a year.

A survey of important harvesting sites has suggested that many have not produced healthy young plants in decades. And according to a study in the journal Nature Sustainability, production will be halved in 20 years, putting frankincense in peril.

For centuries the main source of high-quality frankincense was Boswellia sacra, a tree found in Oman, Yemen and Somalia. Harvested raw frankincense is tapped from the small, drought-hardy trees by slashing or stripping through the bark. Pearly white resin bleeds out and hardens on the trunk into semi-opaque drops or “tears”. These are scraped off, dried and then sold as frankincense.

This is done two or three times a year with the final cuts producing the best tears. Around 3kg (7lb) of resin can be extracted from a single tree. The more opaque the resin the higher the quality.

Habitat loss, drought and over-production have greatly reduced the Boswellia sacra population, the study says. A survey of 23 areas of nearly 22,000 Boswellia papyrifera trees found that most were old and dying. It stated: “These changes are caused by increased human population pressure on Boswellia woodlands through cattle grazing, frequent burns and reckless tapping.”

The report says that action must be taken soon to rescue frankincense. “Populations can be restored by establishing cattle enclosures and fire-breaks, and by planting trees and tapping trees more carefully,” it says. “Concerted conservation and restoration efforts are urgently needed.”