Boswellia carterii is a small flowering plant in the Burseraceae family. It’s commonly known as frankincense, and it’s used to make incense. Its resin, also called frankincense, has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula and in East Africa for more than 5,000 years. In addition to incense, the resin has been used in medicines.
The resin is collected from trees that are 6 to 30 years old after they drop their leaves for the dry season. During this time, many different people can gather up to 800 pounds of frankincense per day! After it’s gathered, the resin is cleaned and made into strips or blocks and stored for up to 30 years until it’s ready to be used.
The earliest mention of frankincense comes from an Egyptian text called the Ebers Papyrus, which is more than 3500 years old. The resin was burned in religious ceremonies and used as medicine. It was also put into cosmetics and perfumes and added to food and drinks.
Frankincense is still used in religious ceremonies, but most of the incense sold around the world today comes from Boswellia carterii trees growing in Somalia and other parts of East Africa. Some types are exported through Gulf ports or transported by plane.
Boswellia carterii trees are tapped for their resin when they are 6 to 30 years old, and the trees can produce frankincense for up to 100 years. This means that harvesting frankincense can be sustainable.
“Frankincense (Boswellia carterii) is a threatened species due to over-exploitation,” according to UNEP-WCMC. “High demand in the international market for frankincense, coupled with poverty in range states, has resulted in indiscriminate over-exploitation. This trend is expected to continue unless coordinated management plans are implemented.”
However, some reports say that sustainable harvesting practices are improving and that frankincense can be used without damaging the tree population.
Boswellia carterii trees are native to Somalia, southern Arabia and northern East Africa. They grow best in regions with long dry seasons. The trees need full sun but can be found at elevations up to 8,200 feet where it’s cooler.