May 14, 2020

Japanese Incense 101: Classic Aromatic Resins

There are several aromatic resins often used in Japanese incense. But despite appearing in Japanese incense less frequently than others, none are as well known as Frankincense and Myrrh.

The Biblical account of the visit of the three wise men, or Magi, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus is most likely responsible for Frankincense and Myrrh's notoriety. Every December, nativity scenes world-wide reenact this passage from the Book of Matthew:

"And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh."

Viewed through today's lens, Gold would seem to be the most valuable of the Magi's gifts. But in their time, it was actually Frankincense and Myrrh that were more precious. Ancient kings paid princely sums for these highly fragrant resins, and often sent spies to secure the source plants for cultivation in their own kingdoms. When this failed, conquering the countries where these sacred spices were produced was often considered a potential option.

According to the Christian Old Testament, Frankincense and Myrrh were used as part of the holy rituals performed in the Temple of Jerusalem. The ancient Greeks and Romans used great quantities of both resins as incense, medicine, and in cremation rituals. Roman historian Pliny the Elder recorded in the first century CE that the highly prized - and equally highly priced - resin had made the people of the Arabian peninsula the richest in all the world.

Yet Frankincense and Myrrh have a much broader tradition that dates back millennia before the time of the Magi. Botanical cousins of the Burseraceae plant family, Frankincense and Myrrh have been sought after commodities for more than 5,000 years, with extensive trade in them documented throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Used in religious ceremony in Babylon and Assyria, and imported in large quantities to Egypt, Frankincense and Myrrh were prized for their fragrance, medicinal properties, and used extensively in Egypt's mummification process.

In the east, Frankincense and Myrrh have been staples of both traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for over a millennia, with records of use dating back to 500 BCE. Often combined in the same prescription, these traditional medicines were believed to be more effective as a pair rather than individually due to their complementary nature in treating diseases such as inflammation and cancer.


Known also as olibanum or luban in Arabic, the word "Frankincense" come from the Old French words for "pure" or "noble" (franc) and "incense" (encens). Long treasured for its sacred, ceremonial, and medicinal properties, Frankincense has been used for over 5,000 years.

Frankincense is obtained from several species of Boswellia tree of the Burseraceae family that thrive in the arid climates native to Northeast Africa, Somalia, and the Arabian Peninsula near the coasts of the Arabian Sea. Although there are as many as twenty-five different species of Boswelia tree that produce the resin, Boswelia sacra - commonly known as Frankincense or Olibanum-tree - is the genus from which Frankincense is most often attributed, as it is believed to posses the most sublime and enduring fragrance.

Native to Oman and Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia in Northeast Africa, Boswelia sacra is a small deciduous tree with peeling papery bark and densely tangled branches. Reaching heights of up to 15-20 feet at maturity, Boswelia sacra's ability to tolerate harsh arid conditions makes it truly unique in that it often grows in the poorest soils - even seemingly out of rock. It is not unusual for Boswelia sacra to grow on steep rocky cliff-sides, often making harvesting the trees somewhat dangerous.

In recent years the population of Frankincense trees has been declining as the trees are being increasingly pushed to their limits as demand continues to expand. The lack of resting the trees between harvest causes a significant drop in germination rates of Boswelia seeds by as much as two-thirds, resulting in far fewer new trees. Several species of Boswelia trees are now listed as threatened species, due to both over harvesting and elimination of their natural habitat by encroaching development, with cultivation and production increasingly being strictly regulated.

Boswelia trees typically start to produce resin at approximately 8-10 years of age. Harvesting of Frankincense is achieved by stripping off a portion of the bark with a sharp knife. The injured tree then starts the process of gummosis - the tree's natural reaction to injury in which a white milky sap is produced to essentially gum up the injury site and prevent infection. This is a delicate process to balance, as injuring stresses the tree - too much injury could reduce future production or even kill the tree.

Once the bark is stripped, the resin is left to bleed out and harden for a period of several weeks. The hardened resin forms into droplets called "tears" which are then harvested by hand. Much like grapes grown for wine, the shape, color, and quality of the tears is affected by many factors such as the species of tree, region of growth, soil type, climate, and season of harvest. All these factors combine to create significant variety in Frankincense resin - even from the same species of tree. For many, especially in the Arab Gulf States, the trees of the Nejd region near the Dhofar mountains in the Sultanate of Oman are considered to produce superior resin due to the tree's slow growth, fog-prone environment near the sea coast, and the large, white tears produced.

Due to the many different factors that influence resin production, Frankincense is often graded specifically within the region it is produced. For example, in Somalia there are three grades of Frankincense produced from Boswelia sacra based largely upon color and size. Frankincense from Oman has four grades based largely upon region of production, further broken down into four types based upon the season of harvest - with resin collected during the monsoon season considered the most desirable. In general, the grade of Frankincense is based upon several aspects including color, purity, fragrance, size, season of harvest, and geographic location.

Just as no two fine wines are alike, describing the fragrance of Frankincense is not straight forward. Depending upon the region and grade of resin, Frankincense can be any combination of rich, sweet, woody, warm, fresh, fruity, and even posses delightful citrus and balsamic green notes. In addition to its heavenly fragrance, Frankincense is used in Japanese incense for its fixative properties, extending the life of other fragrant ingredients in the incense recipe.

As incense, Frankincense has a wonderful relaxing quality for both the body and the mind. It is believed to reduce anxiety, calm aggravation, and act as sedative, allowing for opening the inner mind to insight and spiritual experience.


Meaning "bitter" in Arabic, Myrrh has been used for millennia for its rich earthy fragrance and its antiseptic and anti-fungal properties. Fourth-century Greek physician Hippocrates, regarded in the west as the father of modern medicine, cites the use of Myrrh more often than any other plant derivative in his writings on treating various maladies. Long a part of Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, Myrrh has been prescribed for pain, infections, and inflammation. In Egypt, the resin was a key ingredient in the mummification process as a preservative. Mixed with wine, Myrrh was used for pain relief and as an antiseptic in mouthwash for over 1,000 years. Myrrh continues to this day to be a key ingredient in many natural toothpastes due to its positive affects upon gum health.

Myrrh is produced by a number of species of the Commiphora genus of the Burseracaea family native to the arid regions of Northeast Africa and the sea coasts of the Arabian Peninsula. Although many of the nearly 180 different species of Commiphoraproduce resin, Commiphora myrrha is the most common source of Myrrh. A small deciduous tree with sparse leaves and short branches covered with sharp thorns, Commiphora Myrrha  grows in arid locations with shallow rocky soils, reaching a mature height of up to nine feet.

As with its botanical cousin Frankincense, Myrrh is harvested by injuring the tree with a sharp knife, stripping away a portion of the bark to promote gummosis. The wound is left to bleed sap for several weeks, which then dries into a reddish colored resin that is harvested by hand. And just as with Frankincense, the quality and fragrance can vary considerably depending upon the species of Commiphora and region of harvest. Myrrh resin that is slightly sticky when broken open is considered of the best quality, as resin that remains sticky, rather than dry and brittle, is considered higher in essential oil content.

Myrrh is used in Japanese incense in many the same ways as Frankincense - as a fixative and for its fragrance. Depending upon the region and species, Myrrh has a deep, rich, earthy fragrance that has a semi-sweet, spicy, bitter, and sometimes musky, medicinal overtones. As a fixative, it extends the life of other fragrant materials leading to superior quality long lasting fragrances.

Myrrh as incense is both calming and stimulating - allowing for greater focus and clarity during meditation and spiritual rejuvenation. It has long be used for purification, not only spiritually, but for its anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties capable of purifying odors in the air it is released into. Myrrh is also believed to be uplifting and invigorating, helping to boost the immune system and lessen depression.