The Holy Fragrance Ingredients
Frankincense, myrrh, sandalwood and more.
Michael Zviely, CIC; and Ming Li, The Key Laboratory of Food Colloids and Biotechnology, Ministry of Education, Department
of Applied Chemistry, School of Chemical & Material Engineering, Jiang Nan University, China
Incenseisanaromaticsubstancethatisobtainedfromcertain resinous trees and often used for purposes of religious worship. The word is also used to signify the smoke or
perfume arising from incense when burned. Ingredients can be
added to incense to increase the production of smoke.
Incense is traditionally harvested from Boswellia sacra of
Arabia Felix and Boswellia papyrifera. It is also mentioned in
the Bible: “To what purpose comes there to me incense from
Sheba, and the sweet cane from a far country? Your burnt
offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices sweet to me.” 1
Another passage reads as follows: “Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and
aloes, with all the chief spices.” 2 In the biblical era, incense was
extracted from the bark in a manner similar to gum production.
According to some sources a basic incense formula can contain
four to 13 ingredients.
One important group of fragrance ingredients found in
incense of different origins are sesquiterpene-related molecules. Sesquiterpenes are a class of terpenes that consist of
three isoprene units and have the molecular formula C15H24.
Found naturally in plants and insects, sesquiterpenes may be
acyclic or contain rings, including many unique combinations.
Biochemical modifications such as oxidation or rearrangement
produce the related sesquiterpenoids.
Frankincense is the gum or resin of the Boswellia serrata tree,
used for making perfume and incense. The Hebrew word for
it is lavonah לבונה, which means “white,” referring to the gum’s
color. The essential oil of frankincense is produced by steam
distillation of the tree resin. The oil’s chemical components
are 75% monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, monoterpenols, ses-quiterpenols and ketones. It has a good balsamic and sweet
fragrance. Some frankincense-characteristic sesquiterpenoids
are shown in F- 1.
Myrrh (F- 2) comes from a small, thorny tree. Commiphora
myrrha is the most species-rich genus of flowering plants in the
frankincense and myrrh family, Burseraceae, which was cultivated in ancient times in the Arabian peninsula. The grower
made a small cut in the bark, where the resin would leak out.
It was then collected and stored for about three months until it
hardened into fragrant globules. Myrrh was used raw or crushed
and mixed with oil to make perfume. Myrrh oil, which is steam
distilled directly from the myrrh resin, has an aroma that is
woody, earthy and a bit balsamic. Also, myrrh is occasionally
used as a flavoring agent; Somalia and Ethiopia are by far the
largest producers of the substance. 3 Some myrrh characteristic
sesquiterpenoids are shown in F- 3.
Sandalwood has been in use for at least 4,000 years and is one of
the oldest incense materials. The sandal tree, botanically known
as Santalum album, belongs to the family Santalaceae. The sandal tree grows almost exclusively in the forests of Karnataka,