One of the most celebrated gifts in history — and a staple of the Christmas story — is endangered:
The world may still have gold and myrrh, but it’s quite possible that frankincense could become a thing of the past, given ecological pressures on the arid lands where it grows in Ethiopia.
The storied resin, known to millions as one of the three gifts of the Magi, the wise men who visited Jesus after his birth, is made from gum produced by the boswellia papyrifera tree (shown above). Its “bitter perfume” is used as incense in religious rituals in many cultures, as well as an ingredient in perfume and Chinese traditional medicine.
Dutch and Ethiopian researchers studying populations of the scraggly, scrub-like trees in northern Ethiopia found that as many as 7% of the trees are dying each year, and seedlings are not surviving into saplings.
Their paper in today’s edition of the Journal of Applied Ecology finds that the Ethiopian trees that produce much of the world’s frankincense are declining so dramatically that production could be halved over the next 15 years and the trees themselves could decline by 90% in the next 50 years
The frankincense carried by the three wise men probably came from that area but those trees are mostly gone, says Frans Bongers, a professor of tropical forest ecology and management at the University of Wageningen in Holland.
“There’s still some in Somalia, but no one knows how much. The main production area in the world right now is Ethiopia,” says Bongers, who has studied the trees for the past six years.