science of us

I Wish I’d Gotten Some Frankincense

A wooden spoonful of frankincense. Photo: FooTToo/Getty Images/iStockphoto

’Twas the day after Christmas and all through the internet, blog posts are extolling the fascinating history of frankincense (and gold and myrrh)!

In case anyone else forgets, as I always do: Frankincense and myrrh are both aromatic tree resins that have been used throughout history for healing, religious, and perfume purposes (both are also in the Burseraceae, or torchwood, plant family). Along with gold, they are the gifts — according to the Bible — that the three Magi presented to Jesus. Frankincense is the golden-nugget one that looks like little raisins, while myrrh is darker and less immediately striking (appropriate for its gathering gloom).

Both frankincense and myrrh are essentially tree scabs — globules of resin (or “tears”) that each tree forms to heal its “wounds.” Humans manipulate this by creating the wounds and harvesting the resin, without killing the trees. “Over millennia, people have learned just how far you can go,” one frankincense and myrrh expert told Popular Science in a fun rundown of what the two resins are, exactly.

Frankincense smells woodsy, piney, spicy, and lemony. It’s believed to counteract inflammation, and in its various forms it’s been been touted as a remedy for acne, ulcers, indigestion, and anxiety, among other ailments. (If it works for the tree … ) However, a 2008 BMJ review of randomized trials testing frankincense on asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, osteoarthritis, and collagenous colitis found that evidence for its effectiveness was “encouraging but not compelling.”

Some people chew it like gum, although it can stick to the teeth, and one person who does so recommends that “careful chewing is the way to go.” Most often it is burned as incense.

If you are compelled, as I now am, by the idea of distributing handfuls of frankincense to your co-workers in the coming year, one-pound bags of it are available on Amazon in the $12 range. (Frankincense is also popular in essential oil form.) It can also be made into holiday hand balms and eyeliner.

I asked my colleague Katie Heaney if she had any frankincense questions I might be able to answer, and she asked: “Is it heavy? To me frankincense seems like it’d have to come in a big urn.” The answer to that is that it’s not heavy (not any heavier than regular resin), and it does not have to come in a big urn. Although double-checking the urn requirements led me to covet this nifty little resin burner.

I Wish I’d Gotten Some Frankincense