Used in worship for millennia, the tree’s resin is in dangerous demand due to popularity of essential oils.
Anjanette Decarlo, chief sustainability scientist at the Aromatic Plant Research Center and director of the Save Frankincense initiative, says that there’s a hidden layer to the story of the wise men’s gifts. “They brought frankincense to baby Jesus for a reason,” she said. “They knew there was really high child mortality in these days, and these were the most potent medicines known, frankincense, and myrrh. Talk about a clinical trial!”
Frankincense has been prized since ancient times as a potential panacea, and today it’s being used in everything from skin-care products to cancer treatments. But the frankincense tree is in peril, according to Decarlo and a recent study in Nature Sustainability by leading frankincense researcher Frans Bongers. The increasing popularity of frankincense products (essential oil in particular) has left many of the world’s frankincense trees dangerously overtapped. “We loved frankincense for 5,000 years,” Decarlo said. “With the growing world population and a real desire to use natural products and natural medications that are effective, we love it so much that we might love it to death.”
Were the frankincense tree to go extinct, not only would the world lose its aromatic and medicinal benefits, but some forms of Christian worship would have to be altered. In the form of liturgical incense, frankincense has played a key role in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Anglican and Lutheran worship services.