The Gift of Resins
Resins are useful medicine for our wounds, just as they are for the tree’s wounds.
My first memory of Tree is walking in the woods with my father — probably the Moat trail, which was his favorite — when he veered off the trail, took out his pocket knife and pried something from a tree trunk. I ran over and he held it out to me.
“Do you want to try spruce gum?”
Of course, I wanted some gum! As I reached for it, he warned, “It’s not sweet. It’s not like the gum you’re used to.” Boy, was he right! But it intrigued me, and I’ve sought it out ever since. But not to chew. I loved how it oozed out of tree wounds, or dripped down the bark, sometimes clear, sometimes yellowish brown, sometimes full of what looked like puss. It could be soft and sticky, or hard. And I loved how it smelled; the softer it was, the more fragrant.
We are blessed with numerous native species of pine, spruce, and fir in the Northeast, each of which produces a resin that has been used traditionally for hundreds of years in a diversity of ways. Though the words sap and resin are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. All trees have sap. In New England we tap maple, and sometimes birch, for their sap, concentrated by boiling into sweet deliciousness.
Deciduous trees do not produce resin. Resin is stored in the outer cells of coniferous trees. When a tree is wounded, it seeps out to protect and heal the wound preventing damage from insects and disease. Over time the resin hardens and darkens, sealing the wound. Tar and pitch are resin, just in different stages of drying: resin is the hardest, tar is sap-like but thicker and very sticky, and pitch is in the middle.
It’s important to know our environments, and the medicines that grow and thrive close to home. I sense that in the future we may well be reliant on what lives where we live. In addition, illegal and destructive harvesting practices are driving many species of the more exotic resins, especially frankincense, and woods like sandalwood, to become endangered; some even face extinction. Droughts and wildfires exacerbated by climate chaos are contributing factors.
Exploitation of local farmers/harvesters is rampant and contributes to the loss of traditional practices that have sustained cultures and ecosystems for hundreds, if not thousands of years. For these reasons it is essential to purchase resins and essential oils distilled from trusted suppliers who conform to fair trade standards. They often travel to the places where the resins are harvested, and over the years have developed strong relationships with the people, the places, and the trees themselves. If you’re purchasing resins in a retail store, ask about their sources and fair trade status. If they don’t know, ask if they could find out and explain why.
The local tree resin I’ve used the most is white pine, the largest tree in our New England forests, our guardian trees. Large white pines are intelligent and wise. As a child I took my joys and sorrows to an especially huge white pine that grew at the end of our driveway, and I found comfort in its strength. As an adult I often visited the many large white pines on our land in Fryeburg, Maine. We’d talk, I’d see how they were doing, gather bits of resin if appropriate, and also note any new wounds that may have some harvestable resin in the future.
White pine resin is deeply fragrant, similar in ways to some species of frankincense and, like all resins, is antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-microbial. It’s been used over the centuries to treat burns, infections that won’t heal, minor skin wounds and scrapes, abscesses, and more. In short, resins are useful medicine for our wounds, just as they are for the tree’s wounds. In addition, resins, when infused in oil, are excellent muscle rubs easing aches and pains, relieving sore arthritic joints, and when rubbed on the chest are even helpful as a decongestant, like Vicks®! Spruce and fir resins have similar healing qualities and can be used in the same ways. I often blend them together in creams, salves, and body/massage oils.
Light the incense! You have to burn to be fragrant. — Rumi
Frankincense (Boswellia) And Other Favorites
Frankincense is native in many regions of North Africa, India, Oman, Yemen, and western Africa. Trees start producing resin when they’re about 10 years old, but aren’t tapped for another 10-20 years. There are over 40 species, and the resin from each has a different chemical profile, and therefore different healing qualities and fragrance. Some frankincense trees even produce more than one type of resin!
In her excellent book, Frankincense Resins: The Journey and Beyond, Robin B Kessler, CCA explains that frankincense resin is “extracted by making a small shallow incision on the trunk . . . the resin is drained as a milky substance. As it hits the air it starts to get hard. Then the resin is collected and the bark is removed.” It takes a long time to remove the bark from the resin, which is traditionally done by the women, as “the men do not have the patience.” This is the traditional method, done in small quantities by villagers. In commercial operations, the work is done by machine.
People are generally unaware of the fact that most of the healing qualities of frankincense are not available in the essential oil; they are not volatile enough to be carried by the steam of the distillation process (the molecules are too large and heavy), and are left behind in what is called the “extract.”
Wildcrafter Dan Riegler of The Apothecary’s Garden, explains, “The majority of the healing compounds are discarded as waste after distillation of the resin! Out of 1 kilogram (2 pounds), of frankincense resin we can expect to receive about 5% by weight, about 1.5 ounces of frankincense essential oil. The rest is lost. Is this really a judicious use of our natural resources?
“Our enormous, (and growing), demand for essential oils is stressing the trees beyond their ability to regenerate, and contributing to the decline and immanent extinction of frankincense species. Frankincense resin offers us so much more than just an essential oil. All the resin acids, including the boswellic acids — the active therapeutic compounds that are anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer — are discarded since the big money nowadays is in essential oils. It is no wonder that our frankincense trees are quickly reaching the brink of extinction!”
According to Kessler, boswellic acids are the terpenes found in seven species of frankincense. We know their anti-inflammatory properties are effective at relieving muscle aches and pains, as well as arthritis and sciatica. And the fragrance is all there; no need to add essential oils! All resins, including our local resins, are whole and complete, fragrant, and healing.
Frankincense has been used in rituals and religious ceremonies for thousands of years, on its own or combined with other resins and herbs. Frankincense calms the mind, and is both grounding and transporting, and is thus conducive to prayer and meditation. A traditional Greek Orthodox incense I remember from my childhood combined frankincense and rose. Burning frankincense and other resins in winter clears the energy and adds light to the darkness. Not only does the fragrance soothe my mind, but I can feel the energy lift my spirits as its essence permeates my home.
A less well-known use of frankincense resin is its use internally for a variety of issues: memory support (including dementia and Alzheimer’s), to alleviate chronic pain, improve immune function, and boost fertility. It’s also strongly antiviral and anti-inflammatory. Frankincense can be purchased in capsules, but you can also make tea using the whole resin. The species B. Sacra is most recommended as it has a higher amount of water-soluble gum, and according to Kessler, it has the best taste as well. Her book includes a full section of recipes for teas, cookies, cakes, cough drops, and more.
Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) is used as incense, as well as perfume and medicine. Sources from Ethiopia are less problematic with regard to sustainability, as resin prices are regulated by the government, and there are programs that educate harvesters in tapping methods. Myrrh is extremely bitter and is anti-fungal and analgesic. It stimulates digestion, is useful for coughs, colds, and congestion, and is a must in herbal mouthwash. Opoponax (C. Guiddoti), often called “sweet myrrh,” is myrrh’s cousin. It’s sweet to myrrh’s bitter.
Elemi is soft and comes formed into balls. It’s a huge favorite of mine for skin care, which is one of its traditional uses. Elemi has no water-soluble gum like frankincense, so it dissolves easily in oil, lending its healing qualities and light, resinous, lemon/citrus fragrance to the oil.
Tips For Using Resins
INCENSE Most of us will use whole resins as incense, either on their own or mixed in blends. For many years I burned incense on charcoal, but it’s now my least favorite method. Charcoal can be difficult to light, or can take off so quickly sparks fly everywhere, creating a fire hazard. In addition, I don’t like the smell of the charcoal or the massive amounts of smoke. Adjustable manual burners that use a tea light candle under a tray that can be raised or lowered is an excellent option. But don’t put resin directly on the tray; use foil or a small metal cup. If you love burning resins, I recommend investing in an electric incense burner. Mine has an adjustable thermostat that’s perfect for all types of incense from resins to cakes to powders.
Freezing is the easiest way to break large chunks of resin into smaller pieces or into powder for infusing in oil or tincturing. Place the frozen resin in a bag, seal it, and pound it with a hammer or similar tool until the pieces are your desired size. If you use a mortar and pestle, freeze it too, and work with small amounts at a time, since it doesn’t take long for the resin to warm up and become sticky.
INFUSING IN OIL Resin oil is a must-have in my personal medicine cabinet. I use it on abrasions, sunburns, rashes, bruises, and especially on aches and pains. For hard resins, like frankincense, the first step is pounding into small pieces with a decent amount of powder. Soft resins, like elemi and spruce, and extracts don’t need to be frozen or pounded; they melt beautifully.
My go-to carrier oil for infusing herbs and resins is organic extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). I’ve also used fractionated coconut oil and jojoba oil. Use an excellent quality product and check the expiration date. The general ratio by weight of resin to oil is one part resin by weight to eight parts carrier oil by volume, i.e., one ounce of resin to eight ounces of oil. Put the measured resin and oil in a mason jar with plastic wrap under the regular lid; resin is sticky and you want to be able to open the jar!
In summer, I infuse herbs in the sun (bringing them in at night or on rainy days) for 3-4 weeks, and resins can be treated the same. If you want your infused oil sooner, a crock pot works really well. Simply put the covered resin oil jar in the crock pot, add water to no more than half way up the jar, cover, and turn on low for a couple of hours, off for a couple of hours, then on again, off again, for a day or two. Do not leave it on overnight. Shake the jar occasionally during the infusion process. When the oil is ready, strain it through layers of cheesecloth into a clean jar.
Resin and pitch are very, very sticky, but cooking oil can get it off your hands easily. I pour a small amount in my palm and massage my hands with it for a few minutes, then wash with soap and hot water, and it’s generally gone. Rubbing alcohol does not work as well, but 190 proof is helpful in removing resin from utensils. I usually have to use both cooking oil and 190 if something is really sticky. If you like using a mortar and pestle, keep one just for resins, and do not use wood or ceramic. You will never get it completely clean. Metal works best.
Having access to high quality, sustainable and fairly-traded sacred resins and their essential oils is an enormous privilege that I never take for granted. I am aware that there will likely come a day when this privilege will no longer exist, which is why I stress the importance of knowing the land around us and the healing trees, herbs, fungi, and so on that grow where we do. Even so, many of our local medicines are threatened and endangered, and as the climate shifts and we continue to lose open spaces and forests to development, there will be more losses. Invasives, already an issue, will become more prevalent.
I sense that the way resins (or herbs or mushrooms) are harvested matters — the respect for the gift of the resin, the trees which provide it, and the cultural traditions around the process. I encourage you to become friends with your local conifers and explore the many gifts they offer us so willingly, even if you never harvest any resin. Their gifts go far beyond just medicine for our bodies. They are our local elders, and offer wisdom, perspective, and comfort when we approach them with love, respect, and gratitude.
Susan Meeker-Lowry is an herb, fragrance and resin lover, and owner of Gaia’s Garden Herbals, a home-based business offering handcrafted, small-batch herbal skin care products, creams, salves, serums, and natural perfumes. She can be reached at email@example.com or visit her shop at www.etsy.com/shop/GaiasGardenHerbals.