Trees In Trouble: Grim Future For Frankincense

Dec 25, 2011
Originally published on December 25, 2011 6:20 am

The original Christmas presents were gold, frankincense and myrrh. That's what wise men brought to the baby Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew. Frankincense is still used today — for perfumes, incense and traditional medicines — but a new study suggests that its future looks grim.

The trees that produce this fragrant resin are in serious trouble, says Frans Bongers, a forestry expert at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He says production of frankincense could be cut in half in just 15 years. And in the next 50 years, tree numbers could decline by 90 percent, according to his new study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Frankincense comes from various species of Boswellia, a tree that mainly grows in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. People make cuts in the bark and let the tree sap ooze out. After it hardens into yellowish lumps, they come back to collect it, and then make more cuts. "And so they come back every two weeks for the whole dry season, and that's about nine months," Bongers explains.

He and colleagues monitored forests in Ethiopia with thousands of frankincense trees for about two years, comparing plots where trees were tapped with plots where trees were left alone.

They found that the forests were declining, regardless of whether they were tapped for frankincense or not. In general, they found big, old trees that were dying at an alarming rate, possibly because of insect attack.

Meanwhile, they found a dearth of younger trees. Bongers said they mainly saw just tiny seedlings in the grass. "They do not grow into a sapling, and they do not grow into a new tree," says Bongers.

He says that's because they burn up in fires set by farmers or are eaten by grazing cattle.

The only hope of preserving frankincense is to set aside large areas, to let young trees get established, says Bongers. But that's a hard case to make when local people are struggling to make a living.

"People say, 'Well, yes, we do understand, but at the same time we have to survive,' " he says. "So I'm realistic on this, I think."

Already, in some countries, like Yemen and Oman, says Bongers, the frankincense is almost gone.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. The original Christmas presents were gold, myrrh and frankincense. That's what wise men brought to baby Jesus, according to the gospel of Matthew. Frankincense is still used today as incense for churches, as an ingredient in perfumes and as a traditional medicine. But the future of frankincense looks grim. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that the trees that produce this spicy, fragrant resin are in serious trouble.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Frankincense comes from various species of Boswellia, a tree that mainly grows in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula.

FRANS BONGERS, FORESTRY EXPERT, WAGENINGEN UNIVERSITY: And those are all the frankincense from the Bible. That's the same frankincense.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Frans Bongers is a forestry expert with Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He says, to collect frankincense, people make cuts in the bark and let the tree sap ooze out. After it hardens into yellowish lumps, they come back to collect it and they make more cuts.

UNIVERSITY: And so they come back every two weeks for the whole dry season, and that's about nine months.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But Bongers says frankincense production could drop by half in just 15 years and tree numbers could be nearly wiped out in the coming decades. That's according to his new study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. He and colleagues monitored forests in Ethiopia with thousands of frankincense trees for about two years. They found big, old trees that were dying at an alarming rate, possibly because of insect attack, and they found a dearth of younger trees, just tiny seedlings in the grass.

UNIVERSITY: Very small plants, and they do not grow into a sapling and they do not grow into a new tree.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says that's because they burn up in fires set by farmers or are eaten by grazing cattle. Bongers says the only hope of preserving frankincense is to set aside large areas to let young trees get established. But that's a hard case to make when local people are struggling to make a living.

UNIVERSITY: People say, well, yes, we do understand but at the same time we have to survive. So, I'm realistic on this, I think.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says already, in some countries, like Yemen and Oman, the frankincense is almost gone. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.