In the Christian tale of the magi, the three kings of the orient came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for their savior, but in the future gifts of frankincense will be hard to find. There is plenty of gold around at $1,612 an ounce, which for a king the price might not be prohibitive. Myrrh gum is similar to frankincense and is commonly harvested from the species Commiphora myrrha, which is native to Yemen, Somalia, and eastern Ethiopia. It is resin like frankincense and burned as incense or can be distilled into a liquid and used in perfume. Myrrh is $58 for 30 ml distilled and affordable. Frankincense, however, is becoming more rare and difficult to obtain due to ecological issues in Ethiopia where it is native.
The frankincense gum produced by the boswellia papyrifera tree is used as incense in religious rituals in many cultures, but researchers have discovered that 7% of the trees are dying every year and the seedlings are not surviving.
In this month’s edition of the Journal of Applied Ecology researchers found that the Ethiopian trees that produce much of the world's frankincense are declining so dramatically that production could be halved over the next 15 years and the trees themselves could decline by 90% in the next 50 years
The frankincense carried by the three wise men probably came from that area but those trees are mostly gone, says Frans Bongers, a professor of tropical forest ecology and management at the University of Wageningen in Holland.
"There's still some in Somalia, but no one knows how much. The main production area in the world right now is Ethiopia," says Bongers, who has studied the trees for the past six years.
Specialists have long said frankincense trees aren't doing well, but the paper is the first hard data on them, and the outlook is not good.
Frankincense and Myrrh are harvested by making cuts in the tree bark during the dry season. A cut is made every two or three weeks, and the resin that emerges to heal it is collected. It can be dried and burned as incense or distilled into a liquid.
Grow Your Own—Frankincense that is…
In Arizona a man is taking advantage of the frankincense market. Jason Eslamieh who is Iranian grows and sells 19 different species of boswelllia trees that produce frankincense at his nursery in Tempe.
The seeds are difficult to germinate with only 2-8 percent success out of 100 seeds will actually grow into a tree. Mr. Eslamieh says the species have been weakened, so he is trying to create vigorous hybrids.
His nursery website is Miniatree.com, and he sells more than 100,000 seeds a year as well as 1,000 plants. A 4 inch seedling costs $55, and a fully mature tree can go for as much as $1,000.
Southern California, Florida and parts of Arizona have similar weather supporting the growth of the trees. It takes about four years before a tree can be tapped for frankincense.
If the three kings were bearing these gifts today, it would be a hefty investment, depending on how much is needed. And they might have to wander a little farther than “field and fountain, moor and mountain” to locate frankincense. But then Amazon.com might be able to help them, and then there is the issue of authenticity and the use of fillers. Perhaps it is better to grow your own and more profitable!
December 2011 Price Index for the gifts:
Frankincense: $28 an ounce
Gold: $1,612. An ounce
Myrrh: $58 for 30ml distilled