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The Aromahead Blog - Aromatherapy Education and Resources

A Farmer’s Story – Searching for the True Frankincense

Mark, an essential oil distiller in South Africa, has sent me two kilos of his Frankincense essential oil, distilled from the resins he acquired on his trip. Here is Mark's story, in his words:

Mark has always been deeply interested in Frankincense from Arabia and Somaliland.  Arabia and Somaliland are the homes of the highest quality Frankincense gums found on the most ancient plantations.

He decided to travel into that world to network in the frankincense and myrrh industries, and immersed himself in a fascinating practice rooted in antiquity.


After a six-hour journey over the Ogaden desert in a 12-seater Beech craft plane, he arrived in Somaliland. No commercial airline tickets are available and you can only be offered a seat on this service if you're affiliated with one of the many non-governmental organizations that have interests in these remote parts of Africa.

Somaliland lies in the north of the Horn of Africa, with its coastline running east to west along the Gulf of Aden. Its coast runs north to south along the Indian Ocean. It is only officially recognized as an independent land by itself and Somalia. This remote land has an age-old frankincense and myrrh industry, where tribal owners and the co-operatives manage the resin. Traditional Arabia encompassed both sides of the Gulf, from Yemen to Somaliland, and the highest quality gums come from these very plantations in Somaliland.

After a safe landing at Hargeisa airport, Mark set off for Erigavo in the Sanaag province--the town is situated on a coastal escarpment at more than 2300 m. above sea level. He was greeted warmly, in surprisingly perfect English.

The following morning, they were off in the Land Cruiser headed for the Dhallo valley, heart of frankincense country. They carved their way through the outskirts of town and twenty minutes later, were standing on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Gulf coastline and the ancient groves of frankincense trees, Boswellia carterii.

After they ascended the pass, Mark entered into the ancient groves of frankincense trees that have been owned and harvested tribally for millennium.

There he saw thousands of frankincense trees, with their bulbous-based trunks and their flaking and thick stems.


Mark remembers thinking that not only was he standing in a perfumed garden of delights, but that it was probably the very garden that yielded the gum that became a gift for the baby Jesus.

After some time, they set off for a village called Gudmo Baria. The local children were extremely intrigued by him and tugged, laughed and stroked him. It was here that Mark encountered an even rarer tree, Boswelia frereana. This tree is endemic to this area and the gum is locally known as maydi. This gum is highly sought-after by the Yemeni, who use it, among other things, for dental hygiene. Boswelia frereana is rarer than the Boswelia carterii locally known as beyo, and is sold at a higher price.

The gum is induced to flow by shallowly injuring the bark of the trees with a tool known as a mengaaf. The milky sap immediately begins to appear. After a period of six weeks--twice as long for the maydi--the harvester returns to find air-hardened extrusions known as "tears." These are scraped off with the mengaaf into a special basket. The tears are taken and stored in aerated lean-tos with palm fronds where they are cleaned and graded according to size and color.

After much bartering--and an interesting lunch--farewells were made, and they departed with a few kilograms of the world’s finest frankincense resin. The next morning they made their way to the port of Maid. According to locals, most Central African people, including the Rwanda and Burundese, had their origins here.

The next port of call was the town of Berbera where the myrrh gums, locally known as Malmal and Haddi respectively, are harvested in the same fashion as frankincense.  However, there are more species involved: Commiphora myrrha commonly known as myrrh, and Commiphora guidotti known as opopanax. The harvesters on the ground in their plantations and the owners of the co-op have set the stage to begin the export of the gums down to Mark's distillation plant in South Africa.

Mark’s visit to this wonderfully unspoiled country was a spiritual experience for him. Flying back to Nairobi airport, he was greeted with a wonderful sight--Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro through the same window at the same time. He completed his journey and returned successfully from a mystical, ancient land.


Sent to Andrea by Mark, South African Farmer and Essential Oil Distiller

Founder at Aromahead Institute
Andrea Butje is an internationally-recognized Aromatherapist who has changed the educational paradigm through her inspired approach to teaching essential oils and Aromatherapy Certification. Check out her book, The Heart of Aromatherapy, at Aromatics International!

Topics: Chemical Components, distillers, aromatherapy, education, Essential Oils, Our Distiller Trips, Frankincense

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