Boswellia sacra, B. serrata
Frankincense is a resinous, evergreen tree that can grow to 15 feet with papery, peeling bark.1 Five petaled, creamy-white flowers appear in the spring followed by 3 to 5 angled, red-brown capsules. While both species of frankincense are native to the tropical regions of Africa, Asia and Arabia,1 B. serrata also grows on dry hilly areas throughout most of India.2 The gum resin is collected all year and used fresh or dried.1
Historically, frankincense was used by Jews as a ceremonial incense.3 In Persia, Babylon and Assyria, frankincense was common in religious use. Among the Romans, frankincense was used in religious ceremonials, in domestic life and on state occasions.3
Both B. sacra and B. serrata have been used in cosmetics since the earliest times.1 A black powder, kohl, was made of charred frankincense and used by the Egyptian women to paint their eyelids.3 B. sacra has also been used by the Egyptians in rejuvenating face masks.3 Frankincense has been melted to make hair removal creams,4 and used as a paste to perfume the hands,3 clothes, hair and rooms.2
During the tenth century, frankincense was recommended for fevers and ulcers.4 In India, different parts of B. serrata tree were used traditionally in Ayurvedic medicine for asthma, blood purification, bronchial conditions, rheumatism and wounds.2 Historically, Chinese medicine has also used B. sacra internally for menstrual pain and injuries, and as a wash for mouth, gum and throat complaints.1
1 Bown D. The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited; 2001.
2 DerMarderosian A, Beutler J, editors. The Review of Natural Products. 3rd ed. St. Louis, MO: Facts and Comparisons; 2002.
3 Lawless J. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils: The Complete Guide to the Use of Aromatics in Aromatherapy, Herbalism, Health, & Well-Being. Dorset, UK: Element Books Ltd; 1992.
4 Grieve M. A Modern Herbal. Vol I. New York: Dover Publications; 1971.
5 Ammon H. Boswellic acids (components of frankincense) as the active principle in treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases[in German; English abstract]. Wien Med Wochenschr. 2002;152(15-16):373-8.
6 Kulkarni R, Patki P, Jog V, Gandage S, Patwardhan B. Treatment of osteoarthritis with a herbomineral formulation: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study. J Ethnopharmacol. 1991 May-June;33(1-2):91-95.
7 Frankincense Our Friend. 2003. Available at: http://www.pinterventions.org/somali_frankincense_part4.htm. Accessed March 8, 2005.