From: Emily Sohn, Discovery News
Published December 23, 2011 09:17 AM

Frankincense May Be Doomed

Frankincense has a long history as an ingredient in incense and perfumes, with references dating back to ancient Egypt. In the Bible, the Magi brought the fragrant resin as a gift to the baby Jesus, along with gold and myrrh -- and it remains part of the classic Christmas story.


But frankincense, whose smell is sometimes described as sweet or spicy with a mix of lemon and pine, will soon become only a relic of the past if nothing is done to protect the trees that produce it, according to a new study.

Those trees, which belong to a species called Boswellia, grow in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. To extract frankincense, people tap adult trees by cutting into their bark, allowing the resin to ooze out and harden so it can be collected.

Previous studies have shown that tapping Boswellia trees can sap out carbohydrates, stunt growth, and reduce the viability of seeds. To assess the long-term effects of those injuries, scientists from the Netherlands and Ethiopia studied more than 6,500 trees and seedlings for two years in a remote region of northwestern Ethiopia.

When the researchers compared data from tapped trees with data from untapped trees, they came up with some discouraging projections. Given the tree’s current rate of decline, they reported in the Journal of Applied Ecology, numbers of frankincense-producing Boswellia could drop in half over the next 15 years. Fifty years from now, there will be 90 percent fewer trees.

Tapping doesn't actually appear to be contributing much to the tree's decline. Instead, fires, beetle attacks and cattle grazing are making the biggest dents. In order to save frankincense, the researchers say, intensive management techniques will be required to protect saplings and reduce deaths of adult trees by as much as 75 percent.

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