The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Boswellia sacra Flückiger


Frankincense Tree




Burseraceae (Bursera Family)

Forms and Subspecies


The true frankincense tree can exhibit considerable variation, depending upon its place of origin. For this reason, it has been described under numerous names that refer solely to local varieties, forms, or races. The taxonomy of the genus Boswellia is represented very irregularly in the literature, particularly the nonbotanical literature. An additional difficulty lies in the fact that many species of the genus produce resins that are sold under the name frankincense (Watt and Sellar 1996, 22f.).



Boswellia bhau-dajiana Birdwood

Boswellia carteri Birdwood

Boswellia thurifera sensu Carter

Folk Names


Ana, bayu, beyo, djau der, echter weihrauchbaum, encens, frankincense, frankincense tree, incense tree, kundara (Persian), kundur (Persian), lebona (Hebrew), libanotis (Greek), lubân, luban-tree, maghrayt d’scheehaz (Arabic), mohr (Somali), mohr madow, mohr meddu, neter sonter (Egyptian), oliban, olibanum (Roman), olibanumbaum, seta kundura (Hindi), weihrauchbaum, weihrauchstrauch, weyrauch, wicbaum, wichboum



Frankincense, the true incense, is the golden yellow, pleasantly aromatic resin of the bushlike frankincense tree, great forests (“balsam gardens”) of which thrive near the Red Sea, especially in Arabia (the ancient land of incense known as Sa’kalan) and Somalia (the legendary land of Punt) (Wissman 1977). For at least four thousand years, frankincense has been obtained in these regions from incisions made in the bark of the tree (Howes 1950). In ancient times, this was the most coveted of all resins used for incense, and it was transported along the famed Incense Road—probably the most important trade route of antiquity—between Egypt and India (Groom 1981; Kaster 1986).

Since ancient times, frankincense resin has been used to manufacture incense, cosmetics, and perfumes. Arabian women still burn frankincense to perfume their bodies, in particular the vulva (Martinetz et al. 1989). This not only lends them a more pleasant scent but also is said to make them more erotic.


The true frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra) in its natural habitat. (Photograph: Walter Hess)



Two qualities of olibanum, the resin of the frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra). Left, high-quality ware from Eritrea; right, the coarser, impure product from Ogaden.


Frankincense has been attributed with psycho-active powers since the early modern period (Lonicerus 1679, 738*; Menon and Kar 1971; Farnsworth 1972, 68*). As a result, frankincense was swallowed, burned, or smoked in the Ottoman Empire, in Arabia, and even in Europe (often in combination with opium; cf. Papaver somniferum). Other incense plants have also been claimed to induce hallucinogenic effects (cf. Bursera bipinnata).

The history of frankincense and the tree it is obtained from is simultaneously a history of mistaken identities and confusion, as all drop-shaped aromatic resins were once referred to as “frankincense” (Schneider 1974, 1:185f.*). Since all species of Boswellia—and their resins—display considerable variation, the botanical classification is often a question of chance (cf. Hepper 1969). The botanical identity of the stock plant was not determined until the middle of the nineteenth century (Carter 1848; Hepper 1969).



The frankincense tree occurs in Somalia and southern Arabia. In Somalia, it is primarily found in areas between 100 and 1,800 meters above sea level (Pabst 1887, 1:54*).



Cultivation methods (assuming any are actually known) are a well-protected secret of the peoples who live from the collection of frankincense. The ancient Egyptians attempted to plant frankincense trees in Egypt but were unsuccessful in spite of their great knowledge of gardening (Dixon 1969). They excavated small trees together with soil that they then shipped back to Egypt in tubs. The trees died shortly thereafter.



This small, rather graceful tree grows from 4 to 5 meters in height, and in rare cases to 6 meters. It has a robust trunk and a dark brown, papery bark that sheds repeatedly and immediately regrows. Each year, new shoots form that are thickly adorned with short yellow trichomes. The pinnate leaves grow in clusters on the ends of the branches. The small, petiolate flowers grow from the leaf axils and are arranged in paniculate racemes. The whitish flowers have five petals and ten red stamens. The small fruits form light brown capsules that have three lobes, in which the angular stones sit individually with the small seeds. Flowering occurs in April.

The true frankincense tree is very easily confused with Boswellia serrata Roxb., the Indian incense tree, especially because this species is also a source of incense (Indian frankincense) (Schneider 1974, 1:187*). The very similar Boswellia papyrifera (Del.) Hochst. is easily distinguished on the basis of its height; it grows much taller and is more ramified than the other species.

Psychoactive Material


—Resin (olibanum, Somalian olibanum, Aden olibanum, Bible incense, Arabian olibanum)

In Persia (Iran), a distinction is made between two types of olibanum: kundara zakara, “male incense,” is dark yellow to reddish in color and comes in the form of round drops; kundara unsa, “female incense,” is yellowish-whitish, pale, and transparent and usually comes in the form of oblong drops (Hooper 1937, 92*).

Resins used to counterfeit frankincense are false incense (spruce resin; Picea spp.), gum arabic (cf. Acacia spp.), fir resin (Abies spp.), mastic (Pistacia lentiscus L.), sandarac (the resin of Tetraclinis articulatia (Vahl) Mast or Callitris quadrivalvis Vent.), and calcite crystals (Pabst 1887, 1:56*).

Preparation and Dosage


The resin is obtained by making long (4 to 8 cm), deep incisions into the bark. A special scalpel-like instrument known as a mengaff is used for this purpose. According to Theophrastus, the resin should be collected during the dog days, i.e., the hottest time of the year. Pliny also noted that the first incision into the bark of the stock plant should be made around the time of the rising of the Dog Star (Sirius).

Frankincense is an important component in many recipes for psychoactive incense. It is also an ingredient in the Oriental joy pills and was formerly used as a spice in wine (cf. Vitis vinifera).

“[Amun] transformed herself into the form of the majesty of her spouse, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt; they [Amun and Thoth] found her as she rested in the splendor of her palace.—She awakened from the scents of the god; she laughed at his majesty. . . . She was filled with joy to see his beauty, his body went into her body, [the palace] was flooded with the scents of the god, all of his scents were [scents] from Punt [the land of incense].”




“God does not permit himself to be held, nor heard, nor seen, but in the scent of the divine flower or the taste of the sacred juice, it is most likely that the conception of him will be awakened. Using incense, balsam, and sacred oils, through tonic and heart-strengthening plant extracts, the Egyptians speak directly to the gods, they begin to breathe, to speak, to open their mouths and live.”






(1990, 23)



Other Types of Olibanum


The following species of Boswellia, which occur in East Africa and India, also yield resins that are referred to and marketed as olibanum:




An ancient Egyptian illustration of the frankincense tree as a potted plant, in the grave of Hatshepsut (1504–1483 B.C.E.). The inscription reads: “Greening incense tree, 31 pieces; brought here among the delicacies for the majesty of the god Amun, the lord of the earthly throne. Never has its like been seen since the creation of the universe.” (From Engel)


Ritual Use


For both cultic and economic reasons, frank-incense was the most important incense of the ancient Assyrians, Hebrews, Arabs, Egyptians, and Greeks. The resin was used as a fumigant and offered to the gods at every ceremony. The Assyrians burned it especially for Ishtar, the queen of the heavens, for Adonis, the god of resurrecting nature, and for Bel, the Assyrian high god. The Assyrian kings, who were also high priests, offered frankincense to the tree of life, which was sprinkled with wine (cf. Vitis vinifera) as it was bathed in smoke. The pagan, pre-Islamic Arabs consecrated frankincense to Sabis, their sun god, and the entire supply was required to be stored in the temple of the sun. Among the Hebrews, frankincense was one of the ingredients of the sacred incense and a symbol of divinity. The Bible refers to it as a sacred incense and an article of tribute and trade. It later became the most important incense of the Catholic Church. In central Europe, the resin of the frankincense tree became known primarily through the Catholic Church. At the time of Charlemagne, it was burned not only during masses but also during the “trials by ordeal” that were common at the time.

Egyptian and Greek magicians of the late ancient period used the smoke to conjure demons, the intermediary beings that they wished to put to use. In Egypt, the frankincense tree was consecrated to Amun of Thebes. Incense was also sacred to Hathor, the goddess of drunkenness (cf. Mandragora officinarum). For the Romans as well, there was no ceremony, no triumphal procession, no public or private celebration that did not include the use of this aromatic resin. It was said that frankincense “enabled one to recognize god.” Frankincense manna was sacred to the sun and the oracular god Apollo (cf. Hyoscyamus albus). Frankincense was also important in the cult of Aphrodite. Offering the goddess incense was a way to ensure that the hetaerae, or temple servant girls, would be provided with sufficient clientele. In Ethiopia, frankincense is still burned to “control evil spirits” (Wilson and Mariam 1979, 30*). Similar practices have been preserved in certain Swiss folk customs (Vonarburg 1993).



Both frankincense and the tree from which it comes are frequent subjects in ancient Egyptian works of art (wall paintings, poetry). There are a great many incense vessels and other devices for burning incense (cf. Martinetz et al. 1989).

Medicinal Use


Frankincense was used for numerous medicinal purposes in ancient times and was praised by Hippocrates, Celsus, Dioscorides, Galen, Marcellus, and Serenus Sammonicus. It was used to produce oils to treat colds, enemas to treat constipation, agents for cleaning wounds, bandages to treat the “sacred fire” (cf. Claviceps purpurea), and ointments against frostbite, burns, skin nodules, rashes, scabies, warts, psoriasis, inflammations, excrescence, watery eyes, scars, ear inflammations, boils, rheumatism, and gout. More recently, an extract of Boswellia serrata (H 15)53 has been used with success in Western medicine and phyto-therapy to treat rheumatoid arthritis (Etzel 1996). Essential oils distilled from a number of different types of frankincense are also becoming increasingly important in aromatherapy (Watt and Sellar 1996).

In traditional Chinese medicine, frankincense is generally regarded as a stimulant, and it is used to treat leprosy, skin diseases, menstrual cramps, coughs, and lower abdominal pains. The smoke or the essential oil is inhaled for coughs.

In the early modern period, frankincense was even used for “psychiatric” purposes as a mood-enhancer:


The smoke of Olibani is good for heavy eyes / when taken in there. It removes sorrow / increases reason / strengthens the heart / and makes one of cheerful blood. (Lonicerus 1679, 738*)


In Ethiopia, frankincense is burned as a fumigant to treat fever and as a tranquilizer (Wilson and Mariam 1979, 30*).



All types of frankincense are composed of 53% resin (C30H32O4), gum, essential oil, boswellic acids, bitter principles, and mucilage. Frankincense contains 5 to 10% essential oil, consisting of pinene, limonene, cadinene, camphene, П-cymene, borneol, verbenone, verbenol, dipentene, phellandrene, olibanol, and other substances. The composition of the essential oils of the different species varies somewhat (Tucker 1986). The essential oil from bejo (olibanum from Somalia) contains 19% α-thujene and 75% α-pinene, as well as sabinene, α-cymene, limonene, β-caryophyllene, α-muurolene, caryophyllene oxide, and other, unknown substances. The oil of olibanum Eritrea consists of approximately 52% octyl acetate; the oil of olibanum Aden contains approximately 43% α-pinene (Watt and Sellar 1996, 28).

For years, both the literature and the media have reported claims that pyrochemical modifications and reactions produce THC when frankincense is burned (Martinetz et al. 1989, 138; Faure 1990, 30).54 To date, however, THC has not been detected in any genus other than Cannabis. The results of recent studies at the Pharmaceutical Institute of the University of Bern have demonstrated that no THC is produced when frankincense resin is burned; not even one nanogram was detected (Kessler 1991). But since there are numerous types of olibanum, it may be that some of these do contain THC or produce it when burned while others do not. However, the smoke was not “investigated with respect to other psychotropic substances, so that its last secrets are still preserved” (Hess 1993, 11).



Both olibanum and the incense of the church have long been attributed with inebriating, euphoriant, and mood-improving effects (Menon and Kar 1971). The Universallexikon of 1733 to 1754 states:


It strengthens the head, reason, and sense, but when it is used needlessly, it awakens painful days in the head and is damaging to the reason, otherwise it cleanses the blood, strengthens the heart, takes away sorrow, and makes the blood cheerful.


Cases of “olibanum addiction” are still observed and noted in the toxicological literature (Martinetz et al. 1989, 138). It is not unlikely that many people attended church services in the past because of the inebriating effects of olibanum.

Commercial Forms and Regulations


The olibanum that is now found in trade comes primarily from Boswellia sacra, the true frankincense tree, which is indigenous to Somalia, Iran, and Iraq. Olibanum is traded in different qualities and is named after its place of origin (Aden, Eritrea, Beyo). The unrefined drops (olibanum electum) are the best. Olibanum is available without restriction and can be obtained from sources specializing in devotional articles and incenses.



See also the entry for incense.


Carter, H. J. 1848. A description of the frankincense tree of Arabia. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Bombay Branch) 2:380–90.


Dixon, D. M. 1969. The transplantation of punt incense trees in Egypt. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 55:55–65.


Etzel, R. 1996. Special extract of Boswellia serrata (H 15)* in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Phytomedicine 3 (1): 91–94.


Faure, Paul. 1990. Magie der Düfte. Munich and Zurich: Artemis.


Groom, N. St. J. 1981. Frankincense and myrrh. London: Longman.


Hepper, F. Nigel. 1969. Arabian and African frankincense trees. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (London) 55:66–72.


Hess, Walter. 1993. Weihrauch-Beweihräucherung, Harze und Balsame. Natürlich 13 (12): 6–17.


Howes, F. N. 1949. Vegetable gums and resins. Waltham, Mass.: Chronica Botanica.


———. 1950. Age-old resins of the Mediterranean region. Economic Botany 1:307–16.


Kaster, Heinrich L. 1986. Die Weihrauchstraße: Handelswege im alten Orient. Frankfurt/M.: Umschau.


Kessler, Michael. 1991. Zur Frage nach psychotropen Stoffen im Rauch von brennendem Gummiharz der Boswellia sacra. Inaugural diss., Basel, Switzerland.


Martinetz, Dieter, Karlheinz Lohs, and Jörg Janzen. 1989. Weihrauch und Myrrhe. Stuttgart: WVG.


Menon, M. K., and A. Kar. 1971. Analgesic and psychopharmacological effects of the gum resin of Boswellia serrata. Planta Medica 19:333–41.


Tucker, Arthur O. 1986. Frankincense and myrrh. Economic Botany 40 (4): 425–33.


Vonarburg, Bruno. 1993. Wie die Innerrhoder “räuchelen.” Natürlich 13 (12): 13.


Watt, Martin, and Wanda Sellar. 1996. Frankincense and myrrh. Saffron Walden, U.K.: The C. W. Daniel Co. Ltd.


Wissmann, Herman v. 1977. Das Weihrauchland Sa’kalan, Samarum und Moscha. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, 324).