Scientists seek to enhance the future of frankincense

18 December 2012

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27 December 2012 | Anna Reynolds

New techniques to harvest frankincense have been discovered that botanists hope will make the fragrance more sustainable.

A study published this month in the journal Annals of Botany revealed high demand for frankincense in some areas of Ethiopia is putting populations at risk.

Frankincense is harvested through a process known as tapping, which involves cutting into the bark of boswellia trees and collecting the resin. This is repeated several times along the stem and insects can attack the wounds, which causes many trees to die. Increased demand for the fragrance means more trees are dying, threatening the livelihoods of villagers dependent on resin production.

Botanists from Ethiopia – the main exporter of frankincense – and the Netherlands carried out the study near the village of Lemlem Terara, in the north of the country.

Commenting on the findings, leader of the study Motuma Tolera said: “One of the problems is the lack of knowledge of the type, architecture and distribution of resin producing, storing and transporting structures in the tree. Such knowledge is needed for improved tapping techniques in the future.”

The study found by making a deeper cut earlier in the tapping cycle, resin can be drained more efficiently. “Since the 3D resin canal network may allow for long-distance movement of resin when it is intact, this would be an option to reduce the number of cuts, and reduce the damage to the trees,” said Tolera.

He added this technique would create new ways for a more sustainable frankincense production system, but further studies are necessary to show how these improvements can keep trees healthy.

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