~Herb of the Month~
Frankincense (Boswellia carterii/sacra)
Frankincense (Boswellia carterii/sacra/serrata)
Reflecting on this season, it is one of the few times when so many of us follow traditions. Just heading out of the darkest time of year here, it seems that many of us can understand the need for gathering in a ritual at this time. There is a recognition of the significance of the season. The desire to come together a little closer, warm each other and give comfort and blessing until the light returns! It can also be a painful time, perhaps it is a painful event to spend time with the family that otherwise you don't see, or you are mourning the loved ones who are not with you anymore. It can be a time of so much excess, often garishly so, that it can highlight the lack of needs being met. It is a time, in its lightest way, to rest, eat well, hold our hearts and those of our loved ones close; to share generosity and time. In its darkest, a time that can bring a painful wound of the distance and dysfunction of our families, communities and ourselves.
Frankincense has a root in this season, as one of the three gifts that the wise men brought Jesus at birth: Gold, frankincense and myrrh. It comes as a tool perhaps for the season. Its familiar scent uplifting dark moods, awakening clarity of thought and sense, calming anxiety as well as bolstering the immune system and soothing pain, including arthritis often made worse in the damp cold.
An incredible smell that hits you brightly, the aroma of frankincense is soothing and enlivening at once. It is citrusy and camphory, bright and somewhat spicy. It is calming to the nerves and awakening to the senses. Some use the scent to assist them in meditation or prayer.
Frankincense is burnt together with myrrh for religious ceremonies, ritual, to clear a room or traditionally to embalm the dead. It is a familiar smell of catholic mass. On a trip to Seville, Spain last spring, we would pass by merchants burning Frankincense on the streets. The aroma blending with the cured meats and orange blossoms wafting through the lively city. I am reminded how much scent is tied to memory.
Frankincense is harvested by cutting into trees of the Boswellia family, collecting the gummy sap, which dries into tears. Originally from Arabia but cultivated in China, as it has had use in Traditional Chinese Medicine since ~500 B.C. It was desired across Europe to Asia, and has been traded from Arabia/North Africa for over 5000 years, making Arabia part of Silk road, Mediterranean and Indian trade routes. Apparently some of the first domesticated camels used to carry Frankincense and myrrh across the deserts of Arabia, receiving their name as 'beasts of burden'.
Appearing in temple murals, Ancient Egyptians used the resin for repelling insects, healing wounds and sores, embalming the dead, as well as burning it down into a powder used for a heavy eyeliner used for women. Greeks and Romans burned Frankincense as incense, used it to treat various ailments and for cremation and funerals. One roman emperor reportedly burned a year's worth of Frankincense at the funeral of his deceased love! Together with myrrh, it was ritually burned in sacred temples of Jerusalem. Despite incense being banned in early Christian worship (because of a pagan association) it eventually became a regular part of the practices of some denominations, including the Catholic church. In this way, Frankincense has moved through history with potent cultural, religious, and medicinal importance.
Medicinal properties were documented early on as antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, which reflect ways it is still used today, treating wounds, skin afflictions, indigestion, chest coughs, hemorrhoids, ulcers, nausea, fever, and post-childbirth recovery.
There have been recent studies that point to its usefulness in treating some types of cancers, Chrohn's, anxiety, arthritis and asthma.
Astringent (meaning tissue tightening), antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties make Frankincense a great addition to skin care oils or creams, firming up skin and reducing scars and acne. Its analgesic, warming and circulatory stimulating actions, making it helpful for massaging onto sore joints or muscles.
Presently, it is not as popularly used internally, though it was highly revered in the past.
Herbalist Guido Mase writes that it is especially useful with controlling inflammation of the nervous system and cardiovascular system, with important mood balancing effects. It is in his tool kit for dealing with depression and as an “ally for the darker days”. He typically suggests ¼ tsp to ½ tsp of the “tears” (amber-like resin chunks) to be eaten daily. It can also be used as a tincture, brewed into a decoction, or inhaled as essential oil or burnt on coals.