Frankincense drying up

Drought, over-harvesting and pests threaten the aromatic resin.

Bob Moon: So if you know the biblical story of Christmas, you know the three wise men and the gifts they brought with them. Say it with me: Gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Well, that first one still makes it onto a lot of Christmas lists. But this year, myrrh crops have been hit by drought. And you might want to snap up some frankincense for that special someone. Because I am, to be frank, incensed to learn that it's looking like there could be a lot less of it soon. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.


Eve Troeh: Frankincense is smelly, dried tree sap. And back in B.C. times, it was indeed the finest gift ye could bring.

Keridwyn Hershberger: There have been many times in the history of humanity that frankincense has been more valuable than gold.

Keridwyn Hershberger runs Devonshire Organics, an incense and soap company in Texas. She says today the good stuff runs $200 a pound, much less than gold.

But it's still kind of rare. Frankincense comes from boswellia trees that only grow wild in Africa and the Middle East.

Hershberger: Very tough, desert dwelling trees, and they tend to be extremely old trees. They're still very controlled by individual family groups.

Those families make cuts in the trees, then scrape off the dried droplets of sap, called tears. But droughts in the region mean less sap, more overharvesting. The sap also protects the trees from pestsand less sap's led to a deadly beetle infestation in Ethiopia, a major supplier.

Jason Eslamieh runs a greenhouse in Arizona. He's tinkering with tougher boswellia trees that can stand up to climate change, and grow in the U.S.

Jason Eslamieh: With a little bit of care and understanding, one can definitely commercialize frankincense.

He can sell you a starter plant on eBay.

Eslamieh: Costs about $55.

Or a full-grown tree, ready to tap for frankincense. That's $1,500.

"We Three Kings" song

He's already sold out for Christmas, but you have a scriptural out. By the church calendar, the wise men didn't show up with their precious frankincense until Jan. 6th.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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