Organic Certification is Not Enough: The Case of the Methoxydecane Frankincense

Plants (Basel). 2019 Apr 4;8(4):88. doi: 10.3390/plants8040088.


Frankincense, the oleo-gum-resin of Boswellia trees, has been an important religious and medicinal element for thousands of years, and today is used extensively for essential oils. One of the most popular frankincense species is Boswellia sacra Flueck. (syn. Boswellia carteri Birdw.) from Somalia and Somaliland. Recent increases in demand have led to many areas being overharvested, emphasizing the need for incentives and monitoring for sustainable harvesting, such as certification schemes. Concurrently, a new chemical component, called methoxydecane, has emerged in oils claimed to be B. carteri, suggesting the possibility of a chemical marker of overharvesting or other stress that could aid in monitoring. To find the source of this new chemical component, we sampled resin directly from trees in areas producing the new methoxydecane chemotype. This revealed that methoxydecane comes not from Boswellia carteri, but from a newly described frankincense species, Boswellia occulta. The presence of Boswellia occulta oil in essential oil sold as pure B. carteri, including certified organic oil, emphasizes the current lack of traceability in the supply chain and the ineffectiveness of organic certification to secure purity and sustainable harvesting in wildcrafted species.

Keywords: Boswellia carteri; Boswellia occulta; Boswellia sacra; decyl methyl ether; frankincense; methoxydecane; non-timber forest products; octyl methyl ether; olibanum; organic certification.