Deconstructed: frankincense

Frankincense is a firm feature of festive lore and a much-loved scent in this part of the world

Frankincense in a stone box (
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Woody, earthy and ever-so-slightly spicy, frankincense is dried resin from the Boswellia sacra tree, found across the Middle East and parts of Africa. In a process called striping, the bark of the tree is cut, and the resin allowed to bleed out and harden into highly prized drops called tears. Burnt as incense, used as a soothing fragrance, or steam-distilled to produce an essential oil that boasts healing benefits, frankincense has been traded in the Middle East for an estimated 5,000 years, and has been a feature of Chinese medicine for at least half that time.

Once deemed more valuable than gold, depictions of frankincense sticks were found painted on to the wall of the tomb of Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, which dates back to about 1458BC. The ingredient is thought to have been used as part of the embalming process in ancient Egypt, most likely because of its enticing smell, since certain fragrances were linked to holiness.

Traditionally, the multipurpose resin was also chewed, to help ward off tooth decay, thanks to its antiseptic properties. It can also be used as an insect repellent. The Boswellia tree is tough and hardy, and so resilient it can grow out of solid rock. Its ability to adapt to its surroundings means that the resin – extracted twice a year – varies widely and noticeably from region to region.

One of the most sought-after – and valuable – types of frankincense in the world is Royal Green Hojary, found high up in the Hajar Mountains of Oman. Sourced only from the upper branches of the tree there, its rarity means that for many years, this variant was reserved for the Sultan of Oman.

Today, an increasing number of beauty brands are adding frankincense to skincare. Naturally astringent, it is ideal for those suffering from oily skin, while its natural cytophylactic properties means it helps generate new cells and can work as an anti-ageing treatment.


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