It’s the classic holiday scene: the church Christmas pageant, children dressed up as donkeys and camels and sheep, Mary and Joseph reclining in the makeshift stable, reminding the congregation of the birth of Christ. And what Christmas pageant would be complete without the entrance of the three wise men, bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Jesus?

Anjanette Decarlo, chief sustainability scientist at the Aromatic Plant Research Center and director of the Save Frankincense initiative, says that there’s a hidden layer to the story of the wise men’s gifts. “They brought frankincense to baby Jesus for a reason,” she said. “They knew there was really high child mortality in these days, and these were the most potent medicines known, frankincense, and myrrh. Talk about a clinical trial!”

Frankincense has been prized since ancient times as a potential panacea, and today it’s being used in everything from skin-care products to cancer treatments. But the frankincense tree is in peril, according to Decarlo and a recent study in Nature Sustainability by leading frankincense researcher Frans Bongers. The increasing popularity of frankincense products (essential oil in particular) has left many of the world’s frankincense trees dangerously overtapped. “We loved frankincense for 5,000 years,” Decarlo said. “With the growing world population and a real desire to use natural products and natural medications that are effective, we love it so much that we might love it to death.”

Decarlo first encountered the frankincense tree eight years ago on a research trip to Somalia. She returned in 2016 after the boom of the essential oil industry— which is particularly supported by Christians. She was stunned by the frankincense trees’ steep and sudden decline, caused by mismanagement and overtapping due to increased demand. “What was happening on the ground shocked me and rocked me to the core,” she said, so much so that she walked away from a coveted faculty position at the University of Vermont to dedicate herself to frankincense conservation full time. “After a lot of deep prayer, I just kept coming back to wanting to go back to my frankincense work again.” She said the trees she’s seen in Somalia and elsewhere are currently in dire condition.

Were the frankincense tree to go extinct, not only would the world lose its aromatic and medicinal benefits, but some forms of Christian worship would have to be altered. In the form of liturgical incense, frankincense has played a key role in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Anglican and Lutheran worship services.

Article continues below

Frankincense is also part of the livelihood of the Orthodox monks of Holy Cross Monastery in Wayne, West Virginia, who manufacture incense and sell it to Christians around the world. Father Basil, a resident monk, has been assisting with the manufacture of incense at the monastery for several years, a process that involves procuring pure frankincense resin from Ethiopia. “We take that raw frankincense, which is essentially an aromatic tree sap, grind it to a powder, and add fragrant oils to it,” Basil said. “That’s what gives it a particular smell.” For those who have never smelled frankincense, Basil described it as somewhere between a pine and citrus scent.

The use of incense hearkens back to the Old Testament, when the Israelites are commanded to offer incense to God, and it is also referenced in the Psalms (141:2). In Orthodox worship, frankincense-based incense is used in nearly every worship service in a process called “censing.” “There’s always at least one censing during the service and sometimes several,” said Basil, “where the priest or deacon will go around and cense the altar, the icons on the walls, and also the people and the church.” Some Orthodox Christians use incense in their homes as well.

Basil said that if frankincense were to become increasingly rare, it would make the manufacture of incense difficult. “It might require some inventiveness on the part of suppliers,” he said. “It’s such an integral part of Orthodox worship that it’s something that’s very much worth preserving.”

Derek Hatch, professor of Christian studies at Howard Payne University, said incense is also referenced in the New Testament: first in the book of Luke, when Zechariah offers incense at the altar and is told his wife will bear a son (1:8–17), and then, when it is described as going up before God “with the prayers of God’s people” (8:4).

Still, the use of incense is very rare for those in evangelical traditions, a casualty of the Reformation. “It’s not really an element of our worship that would disappear” if frankincense became rare, Hatch said, though he has noted that in the last two decades, some evangelical churches are incorporating elements like incense and visual art to make worship a multisensory experience, partly under the influence of the late Wheaton College professor Robert Webber.

Article continues below

Hatch said that he spends a lot of time impressing the importance of multisensory worship, or embodied worship, on his students. “How we worship shapes our theology,” he said. Embodied worship, with the inclusion of liturgical elements like incense, reminds us of the importance of the Incarnation, and it makes worship more accessible to the illiterate, including children and those with developmental disabilities.

To help drive this point home, Hatch takes a group of students to the Easter service at a nearby Greek Orthodox congregation every year. (The Orthodox Church operates on a different calendar than the Western Church, so Easter is typically on a different date.) Incense is a prevalent part of this service, something that Hatch’s students notice right away. “We’ve been talking about embodiment all semester, and here they’re confronted with what it would look like if we took that very seriously,” he said. “It’s very memorable for the students.”

Another part of taking the embodiment and the Incarnation seriously is recognizing the intrinsic value of all of creation—even a humble frankincense tree. “I want people to love the trees as much as they love the resin and the essential oil,” Decarlo said. “I want people to love the frankincense tree itself as much as what it gives. Sometimes there’s a disconnect—we get a frankincense product in a bottle and don’t necessarily think about the trees and the ecology of where it comes from.”

By purchasing frankincense products, consumers are affecting the lives of those whose livelihoods depend on tending healthy trees. “There’s a lot of demand for frankincense,” Decarlo said. “High demand is good in one way, because the folks that tend these trees are poor, and this is their livelihood. They deserve to make a fair wage, and they deserve to have a fair livelihood supplying the world with these resins.” The problem, Decarlo said, is improper management of the trees. “We want to see that the trees are managed properly so that we’re not overshooting what the trees can give versus what the world demand is.”

Another challenge facing frankincense trees is that they grow almost exclusively in war-torn areas. “The people around the trees are suffering,” Decarlo said. “They’re water insecure, they’re food insecure. So, when you’re in that situation, and someone comes around and says they’ll buy whatever you can get out of your trees, of course you’re going to be tempted to overtap your tree.”

But the danger of overtapping is that it exposes the trees to infection and insect damage. Though climate change is also a factor, it is not the biggest one, and overconsumption of frankincense in the West is leading to the tree’s decline. According to Decarlo, when a community’s population of frankincense trees collapses, residents are forced to leave their homes, becoming “environmental refugees” and being driven even deeper into poverty.

Article continues below

Decarlo said that many of the people directly involved in the harvest of frankincense resin have no idea that the resin will be distilled into essential oil. One Somali resident, after Decarlo showed him a bottle of essential oil made from local resins, exclaimed, “Woman, how did you bottle my tree?”

As part of their conservation efforts, Decarlo and her team are experimenting with new ways of tapping frankincense trees and planting new trees. “It’s not easy to do,” she said. “A lot of trees are too weak to propagate from seed, so we’re experimenting with new ways of doing that with clippings and cuttings, and we’re having great success.” In Somalia, the Save Frankincense initiative has created the first frankincense nursery, with 250 successful cuttings. “A lot of people said it couldn’t be done,” Decarlo said. “We’re experimenting with putting some of those back out in the wild to see what happens.” Decarlo hopes to roll out a tree sponsorship program in the coming year.

When the Magi present their gifts in the church pageant, frankincense is a reminder of Christ’s embodied presence in our world—but also the fragility of ecosystems and of life itself. Decarlo says frankincense was brought to Christ because it was a precious substance—in other words, a gift befitting a newborn king. “We should use it with that level of reverence.”

Elyse Durham is a writer in Detroit.