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 ...

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