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January 01, 2009

Frankincense – A Brief Catch-Up

Copyright ã Tony Burfield. Jan 2009.

The year 2008 saw the publication of a number of papers on the analysis & therapeutic properties of Frankincense gum, extracts & distillates, and it is only in recent years perhaps, that we are gaining further insight into the true nature & therapeutic potential of these various exudations & preparations. The whitish-yellow or yellow-orange tears or lumps of Frankincense gum (syn. Olibanum) (syn. Incense) are obtained by tapping the trees of a number of Boswellia spp., and the gum & derivatives are valuable exported commodities for the Horn of Africa region (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia & the island of Socotra (Yemen)), but also for Sudan and other African regions. Frankincense gum is used to prepare incense, and extracts & distillates have been widely used as fragrance ingredients. Indian, Arabian & African Boswellia spp. have a number of uses in local ethnic medicine, which is starting to translate into uses in evidence-based conventional medicine (see for example, the major feature on Frankincense & derivatives in Phytomedicine, June 2008).

For a working definition, we can say that Frankincense is the dried exudation obtained from the schizogenous gum-oleoresin pockets in the bark of various Boswellia spp - the Boswellia group itself being placed within the Burseraceae family. The Boswellia group constitutes some 25 species of shrubs or small trees found in the dry tropical areas of N.E. Africa, S. Arabia and India (including N.E. Tanzania and Madagascar) growing at a height of 1000 to 1800 m.:


Boswellia Species. Eritrea Ethiopia Somalia Sudan India Kenya Oman Nigeria
B. dalzielii Hutch.               X
B. frereana Birdw.     X          
B. microphylla Chiov.   X            
B. neglecta S. Morre   X X     X    
B. ogadensis Vollesen   X            
B. papyrifera (Del.) Hochst X X   X        
B. pirottae Chiov.   X            

B. rivae Engl.

  X X          

B. sacra Flück **

  X X          

B. serrata Roxb.

        X   X  

Table 1. Distribution of some Boswellia spp.
*some now say syn. B. sacra Flück ** syn. B. carteri Birdw.

Frankincense – Uses

Frankincense has been very highly valued for thousands of years, dating to pre- Roman times, and has many uses & applications. It is the Horn of Africa’s highest volume export, and apart from uses in incense/perfumery, the gum oleoresin & preparations thereof are also used in a number of medicinal systems, for flavourings (‘maidi’ type of frankincense preferred) & for skin cosmetic applications for toner, emollient & anti-wrinkle uses.

Survival Pressure on Boswellia spp.

Several Boswellia spp. are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008, including several individual spp. from the island of Socotra, off Yemen. However, some Frankincense- yielding species of commercial importance would also appear to be under threat e.g. Boswellia papyrifera in Eritrea, Ethiopia & Sudan (see Cropwatch’s Updated List of Threatened Aromatic Plants Used in the Aroma & Cosmetic Industries v1.09 Dec 2008). The results of the analysis of the essential oils from three threatened Boswellia species from Socotra have recently been published (Awadh Ali et al. 2008).

Frankincense - Anti-inflammatory Effects

Given the use of Indian Frankincense (B. serrata) gum-oleoresin in treating inflammatory disease in Ayurvedic medicine, a number of researchers have investigated the anti-inflammatory & anti-arthritic effects of the Boswellia resins. Frankincense contains α- and β-boswellic acids from 3α-hydroxy-olean-12-en-24-oic acid and 3α-hydroxy-urs-12-en-24-oic acid respectively, amongst others. Boswellic acid & pentacyclic triterpene acids are marketed as anti-inflammatory & anti-arthritic drugs in India (Handa 1992). Examples of commercialised products containing boswellic acids include ‘H15’ and ‘Sallaki’. Another, ‘Boswellin’ (a patented product of Sabinsa Corporation) is described as the standardized ethanol extract of Boswellia serrata gum resin, containing 60% to 65% boswellic acids.

The mechanism of the anti-inflammatory action may occur via the inhibition of 5-lipoxygenase (and hence leukotriene biosynthesis: Ammon et al. 1993; Ammon 1996). This action taken together with inhibition of human leukocyte elastase (Safayhi et al. 1997) may constitute the basis of the anti-inflammatory effect, since both of these enzymes play key roles in inflammatory & hypersensitivity-based diseases. The most active inhibitor of 5-lipoxygenase seems to be acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid, which is also cyctotoxic to meningioma cultures (Park et al. 2000).


The use of Boswellia preparations to treat another inflammatory disease, ulcerative colitis, may also owe its beneficial action to 5-lipoxygenase inhibition (Gupta et al. 1997).

Anti-carcinogenic Effects.

Leading on from the above, extracts of B. serrata & boswellic acids & their derivatives have been investigated by a number of researchers for their (chemopreventive) anti-carcinogenic/anti-tumorigenic effects via their cytotoxic & apoptosis effects in various in vitro cell lines. In particular acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid shows strong cyto-toxic activity against meningioma cell-lines and is the strongest 5-lipoxygenase inhibitor yet tested amongst triterpenoids (Hostanska et al. 2002). See Cropwatch’s Frankincense Bibliography v1.02 Jan 2009 for further details.

Use in Treating Respiratory Disease.

Gupta et al. (1997) investigated the use of Boswellia serrata gum resin in patients with bronchial asthma in 23 males & 17 females with a history of the disease, in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, 6-week clinical study, 70% of the patients showed an improvement (against a 27% improvement in the control group).

Incense: the Purifying Smoke.

The smoke of incense is traditionally used in Arabia & NE Africa for its deodorizing and purifying effects. Basar (2005) showed that the pyrolysates of Boswellia carterii & B. serrata resins showed anti-bacterial inhibition for contained certain substances e.g. 24-norursa-3,12-diene, incensole acetate & cembrene A, in the case of B. carterii. The author concluded that the results could support the successful use of certain Boswellia resins as a disinfectants in traditional ceremonies.


The literature is beset with analytical investigations of non-botanically verified frankincense samples, often obtained from local markets. A few papers have been published more recently where proper botanical identification has been established. One such paper is that of Hamm et al. (2005) who analysed the mono-, sesqui- & di-terpene contents of 6 olibanum samples of botanically certified origin. For example the characteristic chemical compounds of Boswellia papyrifera were stated as the diterpenic biomarkers incensole and its oxide and acetate derivatives, n-octanol and n-octyl acetate.


Ammon H, et al. (1993) “Mechanism of antiinflammatory actions of curcumine and boswellic acids.” J. Ethnopharmacol 38(2-3), 113-19.

Ammon H. (1996) “Salai guggal Boswellia serrata : from a herbal medicine to a non-redox inhibitor of leukotriene biosynthesis.” Eur J Med Res 1(8), 369-70.

Awadh Ali N.A., Wurster M., Arnold N., Teichert A., Schmidt J., Lindequist U. & Wessjohann L. (2008) "Chemical Composition and Biological Activities of Essential Oils from the Oleogum Resins of Three Endemic Socotraen Boswellia Species." Rec. Nat. Prod. 2(1), 6-12

Basar S. (2005) Phytochemical investigations on Boswellia species: Comparative studies on the essential oils, pyrolysates and boswellic acids of Boswellia carterii Birdw., Boswellia serrata Roxb., Boswellia frereana Birdw., Boswellia neglecta S. Moore and Boswellia rivae Engl. PhD Thesis, Universität Hamburg 2005.

Gupta I., Gupta V., Parihar A., Gupta S., Ludtke R., Safayhi H. & Ammon H. P. (1998). “Effects of Boswellia serrata gum resin in patients with bronchial asthma: results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled, 6-week clinical study.” Eur. J. Med. Res. 3, 511-514.

Hamm S., Bleton J., Connan J. & Tchapla A.(2005) "A chemical investigation by headspace SPME and GC-MS of volatile and semi-volatile terpenes in various olibanum samples." Phytochemistry. 66(12), 1499-514.

Handa S.S. (1992) Fitoterapia 63(10), 3.

Hostanska K., Daum G. & Saller R. (2002) "Cytostatic and apoptosis inducing activity of boswellic acid towards malignant cells in vitro.” Anticancer Research 22, 2853-62.

Gupta I., Parihar A., Malhotra P., Singh G. B., Ludtke R., Safayhi H. & Ammon H.P (1997) “. Effects of Boswellia serrata gum resin in patients with ulcerative colitis.” Eur J Med Res . 2(1), 37-43.

Park Y.S., Lee J.H., Bondar J., Harwalakr J.A., Safayhi H. & Golubic M. (2000) “Cytotoxic action of acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic Acid (AKBA) on meningioma cells.” Planta Med. 68, 397-401.

Safayhi H., Rall B., Sailer E-R. & Ammon H.P.T. (1997) "Inhibition by boswellic acids of human leukocyte elastase." Pharmacology 281(1), 460-463.

Posted by Tony Burfield on January 1, 2009 in Ecological/Cultural Sustainability, Essential Oils/Plant Extractions, Incense | Permalink


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Thank you so much for sharing information on essential oils. I linked you to my perfume blog in Brazil and I think it is crucial to everyone who loves perfume to get to know your blog.
congrats and happy 2009

Posted by: maisqueperfume | Jan 3, 2009 9:51:55 AM

Thanks for this wonderful documentation! Please also visit our site and see our source for the highest quality frankincense in the world!

Posted by: Dianne Hansen | Feb 16, 2009 5:50:56 PM

Wonderful article, thanks for putting this together! "This is obviously one great post. Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have so provided here. Keep it up!"

Posted by: thesis paper | Aug 17, 2009 12:11:09 AM

you might be interested in Frankincense in Oman - a PDF of an article I wrote a few years ago

Oman Frankincense

Posted by: Oman | May 10, 2010 5:59:10 AM

I have looked for a site were I can contact sellers of Frankincense in this area and have not found any. I have looked in areas as Sudan,Yemen,Oman, and Angola but have not seen any site were a producer or person sells this product were I can e-mail him or her and ask for infomation regaring the price of frankincense and myrrh per kilo. Can anyone tell me were I can find this site I have tryed a lot of different addresses and nothing thanks. Gustavo

Posted by: Gustavo Navarro | May 2, 2011 9:59:49 AM

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