Friday, December 23, 2011

Frankincense & myrrh

"And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh." (Matthew 2:11)

Frankincense is tapped from the Boswellia tree by slashing the bark (1st image) and allowing the exuded resins to bleed out and harden into what are known as "tears" (2nd image). The resin differs between species of the tree, which is so hardy it can grow out of solid rock, and even within species due to differences in soil and climate. The trees are native to the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. The frankincense they produce is eaten raw in traditional Asian medicines, burned as incense, and distilled into essential oils for use in perfumes and aromatherapy.

Myrrh is tapped from the Commiphora tree (3rd image) by wounding the sapwood and allowing the resin to bleed out and become hard and glossy (4th image). The small, thorny trees grow in dry, stony soil and are native to Yemen, Somalia, and eastern Ethiopia. Myrrh is used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine, a salve or antiseptic in Western medicine, and an incense in Christian and other religious rituals.

The Network for Natural Gums and Resins in Africa estimates global demand for frankincense and myrrh at about 2,500 tons per year. Solid frankincense resin currently sells for up to £37.33 per kilo, according to the International Centre for Research in Dry Areas, with myrrh roughly twice as expensive and prices volatile. In fact, the supply of frankincense may be in jeopardy. A study out of Wageningen University in the Netherlands and published this week in the Journal of Applied Ecology finds that adult Boswellian trees are being attacked by longhorn beetles* and are not being replaced because cattle are eating all the seedlings. In addition, overtapping of the trees causes them to produce smaller fruits with seeds of lower weight and reduced vitality. Where they do grow, they are being systematically cut down or encroached upon by other species. Researcher Frans Bongers says, "Current management of Boswellia populations is clearly unsustainable. Our models show that within 50 years, populations of Boswellia will be decimated, and the declining populations mean frankincense production is doomed. This is a rather alarming message for the incense industry and conservation organizations." Myrrh may also be suffering from droughts, grazing, and political instability - making both plants vulnerable to extinction - but has not been the subject of such an eye-opening study.

*Note that although this site is called The Backyard Arthropod Project, the URL is!

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