December 23rd, 2011 by

This golden resin from Boswellia sacra trees is better known as frankincense. (Credit: Peter Presslein)

Gold, frankincense and myrrh. I’ve heard the story since I was a child, and frankly, other than gold, I never had any idea what those three wise men were carrying as they trekked across the desert. Recently, I’ve learned a bit more: apparently myrrh and frankincense are oil and perfume, respectively; each are made from tree resin; and both are still in use today. Yet, in a modern retelling of the tale, one of the wise men could be arriving empty handed.

Frankincense is a resin from trees in the Boswellia genus, particularly Boswellia sacra. It is used in perfumes, incense, Eastern medicine and even aromatherapy, and it has been harvested for literally thousands of years. But the tree, which lives mainly in Ethiopia, hasn’t been doing so well in recent years. A two-year study by Dutch and Ethiopian scientists found that about seven percent of the tree population dies off each year, and new seedlings aren’t surviving long enough to become trees at all, much less trees that produce frankincense. If their projections are correct, the rate at which the trees are failing could cut frankincense production in half in the next 15 years. More importantly, the trees themselves will be in danger of dying out entirely, with a prediction of a 90 percent decline over the next 50 years.

What’s causing this? The harvesting process doesn’t damage the trees — in fact it’s pretty similar to the process for collecting sap for maple syrup. Instead, the culprit is a combination of factors. The lowlands in Ethiopia have been seeing an influx of new people relocating there from the highlands, placing more stress on the ecosystem. Some trees can also be over-tapped in an effort to increase the harvest, and these are left more vulnerable to natural threats, particularly fires and longhorn beetles, both of which have increased.

That’s the adult tree side of the story, but why aren’t any new trees growing? The highlanders brought cows with them — a lot of cows. And little green seedlings are apparently quite tasty to the average bovine, so none of them survive long enough to grow into saplings, much less trees.

It is interesting to note that the plight of Boswellia would probably go unnoticed by most if not for the species’ ties to such a longstanding industry. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists 10 species of Boswellia as vulnerable to extinction. So is there any hope for this tree and the traditions that it has supported for millennia? More careful forest management is really the only route, according to the recent study, so we can only hope that these startling findings have some effect.