Frankincense resin

Incense lovers, you’re on notice: Frankincense trees are facing serious threats according to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

A fixture in the story of Christmas as well as a beloved fragrance, essential oil and incense, frankincense comes from the resin of a Boswellia tree found in forests facing serious decline, says co-author of the study, Frans Bongers, an ecologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands: “In places like Oman and Yemen, it is being cut down systematically. Now, in Ethiopia, it is being cut down as land is being turned over to agriculture.”

Frankincense trees grow in rocky regions and they play a critical shade role for other plants in the ecosystem. The trees can produce more than six pounds of resin per year on average and require a resting period after five years for a similar amount of time, but the trees have been having trouble after germination in recent years, coming up through the ground and then going back in during dry seasons, Bongers explained to BBC News: “In the landscape, this tree has been the dominant species. That is why we can call it a frankincense forest, just like we can refer to beech woodlands in the UK,” but now the once dominant species is being replaced by other species as the frankincense continues to struggle.

“Our models show that within 50 years, populations of Boswellia will be decimated, and the declining populations mean frankincense production is doomed. This is a rather alarming message for the incense industry and conservation organisations,” said Bongers, but, he adds that resin collection is not likely the culprit. Burning and grazing and insect infestations are more likely the cause of the rapid decline: “The number of fires and intensity of grazing in our study area has increased over recent decades as a result of a large increase in the number of cattle, and this could be why seedlings fail to grow into saplings. At the same time, a large proportion of trees we studied died after being attacked by the long-horn beetle,” and, he added that protected areas be set up for at least a decade to help the tree saplings establish and proliferate.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: mamamusings