Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The ABCs of Essential Oils: Frankincense

Frankincense (Boswellia)

If you talk to me about essential oils, you'll likely hear me say "that's one of my favorites" so many times it seems to lose meaning. But I really do love many of them, and it would be hard to limit the number of favorites that I have. That said, frankincense really is one of my favorites, and I would place it somewhere in my top ten (but please don't ask me what the other 9 are!).

I could write a lot about frankincense - not only does it have a long history, but it also is amazing for aromatherapy. I'll stick to a few bits of information, and include my thoughts on using it as a scent.

Frankincense starts as a resin, the tears from tree. It is formed in the bark of the various Boswellia species, and for production purposes, incisions are made in trees, and the exudate collected. This is also how we get myrrh, frankincense's buddy. The tears can be used as incense, or processed to form materials for perfumery or aromatherapy. In addition to the tears, I have the absolute, essential oil, and CO2. 

Frankincense & myrrh tears.

Like all essential oils, frankincense will vary based on the exact species, its origin, age, and extraction method. Boswellia carterii is the most commonly available, based on what I've seen. Most species of frankincense come from Africa and the Middle East, including Somalia, Oman, Ethiopia, and Kenya. The essential oil might be produced in the country of origin, or the resin can be shipped to another country. Boswellia serrata is from India, and it is usually the cheapest. 

Frankincense by itself is beautiful, and to me it is the scent of sunshine. I find it bright and clean with a lot of depth. Arctander describes it as "...strongly diffusive, fresh-terpeney, almost green-lemon-like or reminiscent of green, unripe apples...A certain pepperiness is mellowed with a rich, sweet-woody, balsamic undertone." He continues to describe it as "more or less tenacious with an almost cistus-like, ambre-type, balsamic note," depending on its distillation circumstances. (FYI - cistus isn't a typo, it's the essential oil of rock rose, with labdanum as its absolute.) I agree with Arctander's assessment, with caveat that the scent will vary.

As a base note, frankincense is a great base note for citrusy fragrances, keeping it light and fresh. In oriental perfumes it's peppery notes will go nicely with the spices, while it's balsamic notes will add depth to the base notes. For products, use it on its own or blend it with a few other notes. Combining it with myrrh for the holidays is popular, but try blending it with a citrus note, lavender, cardamom, or an evergreen. If price is no object, try it with rose. 

Additional species:
Boswellia neglecta
Boswellia frereana
Boswellia rivae
Boswellia sacra


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