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Chapter 9

OLIBANUM (FRANKINCENSE), MYRRH AND OPOPANAX RESINS AND OILS

DESCRIPTION AND USES

Olibanum 1, myrrh and opopanax are the hardened, resinous exudates obtained from trees of certain Boswellia and Commiphora species. The resins, particularly olibanum, are used in unprocessed form for both fragrance and flavour purposes.

The major fragrance use is for burning as incense in religious ceremonies. Small amounts of resin are distilled to yield volatile oils and these have their own characteristic, balsamic odours which find use in perfumery. Solvent extracts are also prepared (see VALUE-ADDED PROCESSING below) and both resinoids and absolutes are used as fixatives in perfumes.

The "clean", distinctive flavour of certain types of olibanum makes them highly valued for chewing and this constitutes an important use in some markets. Myrrh and opopanax oils are occasionally used as flavouring agents: the former in oral preparations such as mouthwashes and some beverages which require a slightly bitter flavour, and the latter in liqueurs.

The main use for olibanum, myrrh and opopanax imported into the People's Republic of China is in the preparation of traditional medicines.

WORLD SUPPLY AND DEMAND TRENDS

Markets

Demand for the resins is very difficult to quantify accurately. Official statistics are not always available from the major producing countries and when they are, they are often aggregated as "other natural gums, resins and balsams". There is also a great deal of unofficial trading across the borders of producing countries.

Notwithstanding these remarks, exports of "incense gum" and myrrh from Somalia for the periods 1975-80 and 1976-79, respectively, together with destinations, are shown in Tables 14 and 15. Exports of incense gum from Ethiopia for 1981-83, with destinations, are shown in Table 16.

The data serve to give some indication of individual markets although demand today is believed to be less than was current in the late 1970s/early 1980s. The Middle East and the People's Republic of China are seen to be the major consumers. Germany has imported significant amounts of Ethiopian incense gum.

More recent data are available for Indian olibanum exports and these are shown in Table 17 for the years 1987/88-1992/93.

An overview of world trade in olibanum, myrrh and opopanax was given by COULTER in 1987 and the discussion below draws on this information.

The People's Republic of China is the largest market for all three resins, mainly for use in traditional medicines. Imports of olibanum (mainly the Eritrean type from Ethiopia and Sudan) and myrrh were each significantly in excess of 1,000 tonnes in 1984; opopanax imports amounted to about 400 tonnes. Long-term demand was judged (1987) to be increasing, although difficult to estimate given the unpredictable nature of Chinese buying.

In Europe and Latin America, substantial amounts of Eritrean-type olibanum are used as incense by the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches (approaching 500 tonnes in 1987). Similar quantities are imported into North African countries where it is used for chewing.

The Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, is another important market for the chewing grade of olibanum, this time the higher quality "maidi" type from Somalia (approximately 500 tonnes in 1987). Smaller quantities of lower grade maidi are employed in the Middle East for burning in the home, although the use of maidi is declining in favour of other fragrance materials such as sandalwood.

Of the order of 50 tonnes pa each of olibanum, myrrh and opopanax are used in Europe (mainly France) for the production of essential oils and extracts.

Supply sources

The principal producers of olibanum, myrrh and opopanax and estimates of their exports in 1987 are shown in Table 18.

Somalia and Ethiopia are by far the biggest producers of the three resins. Somalia supplies most of the world's myrrh and opopanax (ca 1,500 tonnes in 1987) although some of this originates in neighbouring Ethiopia and, more recently, Kenya. Somalia is the only source of maidi-type olibanum, exports of which were estimated at 800-900 tonnes in 1987. Smaller quantities of the "beyo" type of olibanum are produced.

Ethiopia and Sudan produce the most widely traded olibanum, the Eritrean type, and in 1987 this was reckoned to amount to some 2,000 tonnes. More recent estimates are not available although production is believed to have declined as a result of severe droughts in the region and some loss of demand.

Most Indian olibanum is used domestically for making incense sticks. Volumes of exports have been erratic in recent years but averaged about 90 tonnes pa for the six years 1987/88-1992/93.

Some countries outside the natural range of Boswellia and Commiphora (for example, Indonesia) sometimes record "frankincense" in their export statistics but the botanical source in these cases is not known and they have been ignored in the present discussion.

Quality and prices

The resins are sorted and graded according to size, colour and state of cleanliness before being bagged for export. In Somalia there are up to seven grades of maidi (olibanum from Boswellia frereana) and three grades of beyo (olibanum from B. sacra). The larger, paler lumps used for chewing are more highly valued than the smaller, darker coloured pieces and the powder and siftings.

Myrrh is usually only classified as cleaned or uncleaned. It is more susceptible to quality variation than olibanum because of the mixture of species that often exists in export shipments. Pieces of good quality selected myrrh should be slightly sticky on breaking, rather than crystalline, indicating a high oil content. It is important to use high quality material such as this for production of essential oil (not only for myrrh but also olibanum and opopanax oils).

There are no international standards for the distilled oils. Quality is judged on aroma as perceived by the prospective buyer.

In early 1994, Grade 1 Somali olibanum (used for perfumery purposes) was priced at about US$6/kg C & F Hamburg. Top-grade Eritrean-type olibanum (for incense) was approximately US$3/kg.

Clean Somali myrrh was available at US$5/kg (early 1994). Somali opopanax was priced at US$3.50/kg (clean) and US$3.00/kg (natural).

PLANT SOURCES


Botanical/common names

Family Burseraceae:
Olibanum
Boswellia sacra Flückiger
(syn. B. carteri Birdw.) 
Arabic: mogar (tree) 
sheehaz (resin)
Somali: mohor (tree)
beyo (resin)
B. frereana Birdw.  Somali: yagar (tree) 
maidi (resin) 
B. serrata Roxb.  Indian olibanum, salai guggul 
Myrrh 
Commiphora myrrha (Nees)
Engl. (syn. C. molmol Engl.) 
Somali: didin (tree) 
molmol (resin) 
C. mukul (Hook. ex Stocks)
Engl.
Indian bdellium, false 
Myrrh
Opopanax 
Commiphora erythraea 
(Ehrenb.) Engl.
(syn. C. erythraea var. glabrescens) 
Somali: hagar 
C. kataf (Forsk.) Engl.  

The botanical origin of the incense resins and the names ascribed to their sources has been a subject of much uncertainty and discussion over many years. Olibanum of Middle Eastern origin is said by some sources to come principally from three species of Boswellia: B. carteri and B. frereana in Somalia and B. sacra in southern Arabia. Some other Boswellia spp. are minor sources of resin and these include B. bhau-dajiana and B. neglecta in Somalia and B. papyrifera in Ethiopia.

THULIN and WARFA (1987), however, have concluded that B. carteri is simply a variable form of B. sacra and should not be afforded separate species status. B. frereana is a distinct and fairly uniform species, easily distinguished from B. sacra.

The situation for Commiphora, the source of myrrh and opopanax, is even more complex than for Boswellia. True myrrh is produced by C. myrrha but numerous other Commiphora spp. yield resin and it is not clear to what extent these enter commerce (either as adulterants or as inferior types of myrrh). These other species include C. abyssinica, C. foliacea, C. playfairii and C. serrulata.

The name opopanax is derived from that of its original source, Opopanax chironium, but production today is entirely from Commiphora spp. The main source is the C. erythraea-C. kataf complex but resin is also collected from species such as C. guidottii and C. holtziana.

Description and distribution

The Boswellia species which yield the classical olibanum of commerce are all small trees or shrubs growing in the dry areas of northeast Africa and southern Arabia. They are able to grow in very steep or exposed situations and are often found in rocky slopes or gullies.

B. sacra is a small tree, occasionally up to 8 m tall, branching from the base. It occurs in South Yemen, Oman and northern Somalia. (Those who regard B. sacra and B. carteri as distinct species identify the former as growing in Arabia and the latter in Somalia.) B. frereana grows to a similar height as B. sacra but is restricted to northern Somalia.

B. serrata, the source of Indian olibanum, occurs in the drier parts of northern India.

Commiphora species are small trees or shrubs with short, thorny branches. True myrrh is produced by C. myrrha, a variable species found in southern Arabia and northeast Africa (chiefly Somalia) as far south as northeast Kenya. Other resin-producing Commiphora occur in southern Arabia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Kenya. C. erythraea and C. kataf, the main sources of opopanax, are abundant in many parts of southern Arabia, Somalia, eastern Ethiopia and Kenya.

Effects of resin production on the natural resource

In some cases, as in Somalia, the wild Boswellia stands belong to extended families who live in the resin-producing areas. There is therefore some incentive on the part of those who tap the trees not to do it in such a way as to damage the trees and jeopardise their livelihoods. On the other hand, it is impossible to prevent grazing of livestock and in times of drought nomads cut branches for fodder. Severe drought also affects the trees directly, slowing their growth and causing problems of regeneration. The more accessible trees are often tapped continuously through the year, with no rest periods, and this puts them under further stress.

There are no ownership rights over Commiphora species in Somalia and the trees are exploited by nomads on a less systematic basis, and with less concern for their state of health, than Boswellia.

HARVESTING/PRIMARY PROCESSING

Most resin is obtained by making deliberate incisions into the bark of the tree. The milky liquid that exudes hardens on exposure to air into droplets or "tears" which are then easily detached by the collector. Occasionally, some tears are produced by accidental injury or from splits which occur in the stems or branches of the tree.

Details of the tapping, particularly the time of year it is undertaken, its duration and the interval between individual tappings, vary according to the species and the customs in the area of production. In Somalia, there are usually two periods when B. sacra (B. carteri) is tapped, each lasting 3-4 months and involving successive tappings at approximately 15-day intervals. B. frereana is tapped over a single 8-9 month period with a longer, but variable, tapping interval. In both cases the timing of the tapping periods depends on the onset and extent of the rains.

Tapping involves removing small areas of bark from the tree, sometimes using a specially designed tool, otherwise an ordinary axe. New tapping points are made at the same place as old ones after removing hardened resin from the previous cut. If the tapping interval is short then a light scratching of the wood is usually sufficient to cause the resin to flow again.

Sorting and grading of the resin, referred to earlier, is the only form of primary processing undertaken, although this is usually done by the local merchant to whom it is sold rather than the collector.

Yields and quality variation

It is not possible from official records alone to estimate how much resin, on average, is obtained from a tree. Figures of 1-3 kg per tree per year have been cited for olibanum in Somalia. It is known that yields and quality decline during each tapping season as well as over the longer term, particularly in prolonged periods of drought. Drought conditions also affect yields indirectly since there is more competition for labour: watering and grazing places for livestock need to be sought more actively by the herdsmen and there may be less time devoted to tapping.

Unlike most essential oils, there has been no systematic study of the intrinsic variability of olibanum, myrrh and opopanax oils within the natural resource. This is due in large part to the fact that the botanical origin of any particular consignment of resin is not known with any certainty, at least in the case of myrrh.

VALUE-ADDED PROCESSING

Oils are obtained from the crude resins by steam distillation and are then normally used whole for flavouring and fragrance applications.

As an alternative to production of essential oil, all three resins may be extracted with organic solvents to furnish either a "resinoid" or an "absolute".

The resinoid is prepared by extraction of the crude resin with a hydrocarbon solvent. Evaporation of the solvent yields a dark, viscous mass with somewhat plastic consistency. It should contain all the available essential oil from the crude material, although low-grade resinoids can be produced from resins which have previously been distilled.

Strictly, an absolute should be prepared by alcohol extraction of the resinoid. In the case of olibanum, myrrh and opopanax, however, absolutes are usually prepared by direct extraction of the resin with alcohol. Like the resinoids, they may be extracted cold or hot to give products with somewhat different olfactory properties.

PRODUCTS OTHER THAN RESIN

Apart from their use for browsing or as sources of fodder, the trees are not of a size or form which enables them to be utilized for timber production or other large-scale use.

DEVELOPMENTAL POTENTIAL

Although reliable information on the distribution and abundance of the resin-yielding species is not available, and the scattered occurrence of the trees makes detailed surveys a difficult and expensive option, it is believed that the total size of the natural resource and its potential productivity significantly outweigh demand for the products. COULTER (1987) cites official estimates in 1981 of 23,000 tonnes pa for the potential production of olibanum in Ethiopia. With such a large resource base there would appear to be little incentive to domesticate the trees. The inputs (such as irrigation) needed to establish and maintain trees in cultivation would also be extremely costly. Nevertheless, a Swedish aid project in Somalia during the 1980s was aimed specifically at studying the conditions for domestication of Boswellia. The outcome of this research is not known.

Value-added processing in the country of origin is one area that could be developed and this offers the possibility of modest gains in foreign exchange for the national economy. Volumes of oil (or extract) which could be traded would be small but high in value.

Research needs

Two areas of research are readily identified. The greatest need is for up-to-date information on the present scale of production and markets for the resins and value-added products. Without this knowledge it is impossible to know how much scope there is for increased production, what types and grades of resin are in demand, customers quality requirements, deficiencies in quality of present consignments, etc.

Coupled with this is the need to undertake surveys in selected areas to try and assess the size and productivity of the resource, the extent to which it may be under- or over-utilized (and therefore capable of meeting any increased demand) and the state of health of the trees.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

BHATT, J.R., NAIR, M.N.B. and RAM, H.Y.M. (1989) Enhancement of oleo-gum resin production in Commiphora wightii by improved tapping technique. Current Science, 58(7), 349-357.

CHIAVARI, G., GALLETTI, G.C., PICCAGLIA, R. and MOHAMUD, M.A. (1991) Differentiation between resins from Boswellia carterii and Boswellia frereana (frankincense) of Somali origin. Journal of Essential Oil Research, 3(3), 185-186.

COULTER, J. (1987) Market study for frankincense and myrrh from Somalia (unpubl). Study undertaken for the European Association for Cooperation. Chatham, UK: Natural Resources Institute.

DEMISSEW, S. (1993) A description of some essential oil bearing plants in Ethiopia and their indigenous uses. Journal of Essential Oil Research, 5(5), 465-479.

FARAH, A.Y. (1988) The milk of the Boswellia forests: frankincense production among the pastoral Somali. Thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London, U.K. 382 pp. Mogadishu, Somalia: Somali Academy of Sciences.

KRISHNA-MURTHY, T. and SHIVA, M.P. (1977) Salai guggul from Boswellia serrata Roxb. Its exploitation and utilization. Indian Forester, 103(7), 466-474.

MARTINETZ, D., LOHS, K. and JANZEN, J. (1989) Weihrauch und Myrrhe. 236 pp. Berlin: Academie-Verlag.

THULIN, M. and CLAESON, P. (1991) The botanical origin of scented myrrh (bissabol or habak hadi). Economic Botany, 45(4), 487-494.

THULIN, M. and WARFA, A.M. (1987) The frankincense trees (Boswellia spp., Burseraceae) of northern Somalia and southern Arabia. Kew Bulletin, 42(3), 487-500.

TUCKER, A.O. (1986) Frankincense and myrrh. Economic Botany, 40(4), 425-433.

VERGHESE, J. (1988) Olibanum in focus. Perfumer and Flavorist, 13(1), 1-12.

WAHAB, S.M.A., ABOUTABL, E.A., EL-ZALABANI, S.M., FOUAD, H.A., DE POOTER, H.L. and EL-FALLAHA, B. (1987) The essential oil of olibanum. Planta Medica, 53(4), 382-384.

WILSON, R.A. and MOOKHERJEE, B.D. (1983) Characterization of aroma-donating components of myrrh. pp. 1-10. In Proceedings of 9th International Congress of Essential Oils, Singapore, 13-17 March, 1983, Book 4. Singapore: Essential Oils Association of Singapore.
 
 

N.17 : Olibanum ("beyo") collected from Boswella sacra, Somalia
[J. Coulter, NRI]


N.18 : Boswella sacra, Somalia [ J. Coulter, NRI]




Table 14
Exports of incense gum from Somalia, and destinations, 1975-80
(tonnes)
 
 
1975 
1976 
1977 
1978 
1979 
1980 
Total 
684 
173 
86 
81 
118 
373 
Of which to: 
Saudi Arabia 
na 
156 
11 
67 
na 
United Arab. Emirates 
na 
70 
22 
na 
China, People's 
Rep. Of 
na 
60 
na 
Djibouti 
na
16 
-
29 
na 
France 
na 
16 
na 
Italy 
na 
11 
na 

Sources: Frankincense and Gums Trading Agency, Somalia
Somali national statistics

Table 15
Exports of myrrh from Somalia, and destinations, 1976-79
(tonnes)
 
 
1976 
1977 
1978 
1979 
Total 
1352 
497 
199 
421 
Of which to: 
China, People's Rep. Of 
1017 
361 
70 
248 
Saudi Arabia 
199 
10 
83 
Djibouti 
33 
30 
11 
Yemen, People's Dem. Rep. Of 
69 
61 
Italy 
36 
16 
France 
10 
79 
37 
Kenya
26 

Source: Somali national statistics
 

Table 16
Exports of incense gum from Ethiopia, and destinations, 1981-83
(tonnes)
 
 
1981 
1982 
1983 
Total 
318 
831 
1122 
Of which to: 
W. Germany 
138 
155 
568 
China, People's Rep. of 
486 
265 
France 
64 
147 
40 
Djibouti 
55 
11 
Hong Kong 
94 
Switzerland 
72 
UK 
25 

Source: Ethiopian national statistics
 

Table 17
Exports of olibanum/frankincense from India, and destinations, 1987/88-1992/93
(tonnes)
 
 
 
1987/88 
1988/89 
1989/90 
1990/91 
1991/92 
1992/93 
Total 
167 
81 
19 
75 
70 
113 
Of which to:
USA 
25 
15 
15 
United Arab Emir. 
30 
23 
Saudi Arabia 
13 
12 
Hong Kong 
13 
13 
Singapore 
19 
17 
Trinidad 
15 
Spain 
France 
10 
Malaysia 
Japan 
10 
54 

Source: Indian national statistics
 

Table 18
Principal sources of olibanum, myrrh and opopanax and estimated world trade, 1987
(tonnes)
 
 
 
Producing country 
World trade 
Olibanum 
Eritrean type 
Ethiopia, Sudan 
2,000 
Maidi 
Somalia 
800 
Beyo 
Somalia 
200 
Indian type 
India 
200 
Myrrh 
Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya 
1,100 
Opopanax 
Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya 
400

Source: COULTER, 1987
______________________________
1/ The terms olibanum and frankincense are used somewhat interchangeably in common parlance. They are also used rather loosely at times with no clear indication of which botanical source the resins are derived from. The term olibanum is used here and, unless indicated otherwise, denotes the resin obtained from northeast African and Arabian species of Boswellia.

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