From elemi, the obvious place to go is frankincense. I wrote a post on frankincense back in 2010 when I started this blog, but it wouldn’t hurt to do an update. Frankincense, also known as olibanum, is another resin that comes from trees in the family Buseraceae, in this case Boswellia. The resins used in incense and perfumery come from several different species, each with its own aroma profile, and each species yielding a slightly different scent depending on origin. Boswellia is native throughout arid landscapes in India, North Africa, and the Arabian Gulf regions.
The trees themselves are, to me, very attractive, typically with gnarled trunks covered with smooth bark that peels as the tree grows, and sparse, lacy leaves. Boswellia trees are deciduous, losing their leaves during times of stress, typically during the dry season. Resin is obtained by making shallow cuts in the bark of the tree and harvesting the dried resin. Oil is obtained by distillation, although the raw resin can also be tinctured.
I am growing seedlings of several different Boswellia species: dioscoridis, neglecta, and carteri. Given my propensity to under-water or just forget to water, they seem to do well in my hands. The carteri is the largest one, and has kept its leaves this summer. The other two have lost theirs because they’re small and in a very hot, dry location. They’ve done this before, so I know they’ll perk up and grow when summer is over.
Frankincense is one of those materials that I’m worried about. Although it’s listed as “not threatened”, the trees can only produce so much, and it’s likely that their habitat is diminishing due to the same sort of reckless human activities that are destroying nature everywhere. Boswellia seedlings are eaten by domestic animals, trees are burned by fire, they are cut down to clear land or to use for firewood or lumber and, of course, over-harvesting of resin weakens trees. I keep my stash of resin and oil against the day when these things may no longer be available, or when the price has risen because supply cannot keep up with demand.
Boswellia is a traditional Ayurvedic medicine reputed to have strong anti-inflammatory properties as well as anti-microbial, anti-fungal and insect-repellant properties, yet another example of trees producing compounds that help keep them healthy and infection-free.
The species that produces the “lightest” and greenest oil is B serrata, which grows in India. This oil is closer to the citrusy-green scent of elemi than the others, and very much in the direction of pine needles. The primary constituent is alpha-pinene (over 70%!), with small amounts of limonene, verbenol, pinocarveol, myrcene, borneol, para-cymene, and other trace molecules. I used Boswellia serrata oil in Gujarat along with B carteri to provide a light incense note to go with the smoke element of the scent.
Boswellia carteri is the most common species used for the production of resin and oil. The scent is very different from that of B serrata, much richer and more resinous. Alpha pinene makes up less than half of B carteri oil, the main constituents being diterpenes whose long chemical names you really don’t want to see, although if you’re really curious you can view them here, and octyl actetate, which has a distinctive fruity smell. I have used Boswellia carteri oil in a number of my perfumes, most notably the Devil Scent series, where it was used to give a vague impression of burning incense. I also use it, along with natural sandalwood oil, in my Body Balm.
This is getting long, so the post on the different types of Boswellia will probably be continued next week.
Leave a comment about what type of frankincense you like, or what frankincense-containing perfume(s) you like and be entered in a drawing to win a 5-ml travel spray of the Devil Scent of your choice plus some extras.
[All images are from Wikimedia]