Frankincense (from Boswellia sacra and Boswellia serrata) and myrrh (from Commiphora myrrha and other Commiphora species) belong to two major botanical species from the family of Burseraceae.
The family of Burseraceae – with 280 species, in the case of the genus Boswellia (25 species) mostly bushes or shrubs, whereas Commiphora (250 species) mostly grows in the form of shrubs or small trees – thrive in the very hot semideserts and steppes of – mainly Eastern – tropical Africa, in the Sahel and Kalahari, in Western Madagascar, the Arabian peninsula, Iranian Baluchistan, and the hot semideserts of Western India and Southern Pakistan. Some rare species also occur in South America.
The resin which exudates either naturally or following an incision on the trunk or the big branches has been intensively traded since dawn of time.
Although all species of the Burseraceae produce resins, not all are of olfactory of medical interest. The incenses and myrrhs have frequently been adulterated on all levels of the trading chain due to the high value and because they are highly estimated.
The commercial channels for the supply of the perfume industry and the use in aromatherapy, cosmetics, food aromes and medicine are well-structured, but the geographical origins are rather sensitive and inherently unstable: Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Erythrea, Yemen, Oman and other sources... A traceability study may be difficult, but is warranted in the interest of the trading.
Since ancient times the resin has been collected by nomads from “their own” trees, a precious heritage passed on from generation to generation according to the local customs. Pliny mentioned 3,000 families having had exclusive inherited rights to collect the resin in the first Century. The tools were – and still are – not to be touched by women, or to be used in funerary ceremonies.
Incisions were only to be made in places where the plant has already naturally started exudation. At all times the resin was considered the plant’s blood, of divine origin.
In ethnobotanic field studies we found that the vernacular name of the resin obtained from the same tree may change according to the collection season, but also depending on the regularity of rainfall. Under such circumstances we admire those who still maintain the control over quality standards.
The problem becomes even more complex when plant material for medicinal purposes with a defined content of active ingredients is sought. There is rarely a link between such properties and the olfactory properties. The only viable solution is to closely follow and protect the traditional knowledge.
Dhofari : Mugereh (Baum), Luban (Harz)
Several species of Boswellia (Boswellia sacra, Boswellia payrifera from North-Eastern Africa, Boswellia frereana from Somalia and Boswellia serrata from Pakistan and India) are sources of a resin traded under the generic names “incense” or “olibanum”. Each species produces a very distinct quality of resin. Blending is often made by Indians and Pakistani people, as can be observed with galbanum and other resins. Traceability can therefore only be achieved when the origins of the raw material are well understood.
Only Boswellia sacra grows in the Arabian peninsula. Its area of repartition is the Northeastern coast of Somalia, the Eastern part of the Hadramaut (Southeastern Yemen), and the Dhofar (Southwestern Oman). Boswellia carteri, which grows on the African continent and is frequently used, seems to be a synonym of Boswellia sacra. On the Arabian peninsula Boswellia sacra is mostly found at the slopes of the Wadis and at the foot of hills. Contrary to what is frequently reported, Boswellia sacra does not grow in areas reached by monsoon rains. However, sporadic fringes of monsoon rains may reach the area of repartition.
The quality of the resin is strongly influenced by the climatic conditions and the precipitation. This variability has been known at all times. It is expressed in distinctly different names for various qualities of the resin, depending on the physiological state of the vegetation at the time of harvesting.
Pliny describes two major collection seasons:
- Collection in spring time yields “Dathiathum” or “dote dt’yt”, a darker and less aromatic resin.
- The autumn collection yields “carfiathum” of “kharif khrfyt”, a clear, translucent and highly aromatic resin.
A strongly crystalline resin, “sahaz xarfi”, is collected in certain regions. This incense is also called “diamond incense”, and is generally reserved for privileged and religious purposes. Next to “Sahaz xarfi” the qualities “Sahaz sabi”, “Sahaz sabi” and “Sahaz kidi” (in descending order) are considered excellent qualities.
At the time of Ptolemy and Theophrastus – when the only origin of incense was the Arabian Peninsula, and the resin was exported from the port of Ophir – more than a dozen names were used.
Somalia: Habak malmal
As already mentioned the genus Commiphora comprises more than 250 species. The area of repartition is especially large, and the species inhabit the larger part of the semideserts of the African continent, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Middle East.
Only few species produce a systematically collected resin. Commiphora myrrha is an exception. The annual harvest is estimated with more than 1500 tons. However, when the traditional use is taken into account, the real quantity should even be much larger.
In fact the commercially available resin from Commiphora myrrha is a blend of resins from multiple species, subspecies or geographic varieties. The largest part of the harvest goes to the perfume industry.
The traditional uses of the different resins are well known. According to the needs of families or tribes the resins are either sold or used for own purposes. As with many resins the myrrh resins are highly estimated for medicinal purposes, in veterinary medicine, cosmetics, anti-parasitic or antifungal preparations, and for religious or mystic purposes.
Within this presentation we will not address the issue of the economic value of these resins, but rather the estimation by those who through the Millennia have passed on the knowlege from which we still profit today.
From the archaeological point of view it is interesting to find that blends of these resins have been used in the mummification process. Today’s uses are, however, even more interesting. The secondary plant metabolites present in the resins are responsible for potent antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal effects – properties which led to medicinal uses. Throughout history there was always a close relation between spiritual purity and the liberation from disease and evil spirits. This relation is still reflected in the importance of myrrh resins for religious ceremonies.
Today more than 50 species of the familily of Burseraceae are still used for various purposes. In this place only a few shall be mentioned:
- Boswellia sacra is still frequently used in childbirths for the stimulation of mother and child, and to protect them from the high risk of infections prevalent on the Arabian Peninsula. Mist interestingly, the resin is used in veterinary medicine in Somalia to alleviate births in livestock.
- Boswellia serrata is mainly used by the perfume industry, owed to ist olfactory properties. The species is the major source if frankincense for this market. However, there does not seem to exist a traditional use of the same importance as with Boswellia sacra.
- Boswellia dalzielli from Burkina Faso is the source of a resin (Hano) known for its effects against gingivitis and dental abscesses.
- Commiphora gileadensis yields the “Gilead resin” almost known as a panacea due to ist multiple uses as a protective cosmetic and a locally applied curative medicine. Large amounts are exported. The exudate giving the resin is called „Opobalm“.
- Commiphora habessinica is locally called “myrrh”. It has always been and is still used against dysentery, even in self-medication of some perfume manufacturers from Grasse…
- Commiphora hildebrandtii from Kenya delivers a resin (khalale or muhodja) with galactorrhoea-promoting effects applied in veterinary medicine. Urinary tract infections and veneral diseases are likewise treated with the resin.
- Commiohora erythrea (Hagar) from Somalia, Commiphora incisa (Damaji) and Commiphora rostrata (Galida-ayen) from Kenya are sources of resins with potent insecticidal and anti-parasitic effects for the local treatment.
- Commiphora merkei from the Republic of South Africa (Vendaland) is considered an aphrodisiac for the treatment of sexual asthenia.
- The resin of Commiphora myrrha (Habak malmal) is famous for its intestinal effects, its strong haemostatic properties and the promotion of wound healing, both from human and veterinary medicine. This resin is also used to a large extent by the perfume industry. As already mentioned the industrially used resin is a blend from resins of different species, geographic forms and chemotypes.
- The resin of the chemotype “Mfifina” of Commiphora zimmermannii from Kenya is used to treat female infertility. The chemotype “Mbombwe” from Southern Kenya and Tanzania (which is possibly another species) is known for its effects against infections with Salmonella.