The Scent Guide: What Does Frankincense Smell Like?
Frankincense and its cousin myrrh have been used throughout Arabia and Africa for thousands of years. From Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean, frankincense has long been lauded as a spiritual scent and a holistic medicinal ingredient.
Frankincense is such an ancient aroma that you’ve likely heard of it from biblical stories. Apparently, one wise man had good scents to offer it as a gift. But what exactly is so special about this resin-sprung aroma? And an even better question is what does frankincense smell like? Homesick breaks down this heavenly yet earthy scent. Plus, we dive into its countries of origin and some of its many health benefits.
Where Frankincense Comes from
To understand how frankincense got its scent, you kind of have to know where it comes from and the method in which it’s produced.
Like the tonka bean, there’s a lot of work that goes into creating the frankincense scent. Unfamiliar with that scent? Learn what does tonka bean smell like in our guide! Frankincense is derived from the Boswellia tree, commonly found in drier Middle Eastern countries, such as Oman and Yemen, and African countries, like Ethiopia and Somalia. The Boswellia tree often huddles closer to the earth, taking root in little soil and thriving on rock slopes and ravines. As beautiful as they are wild, their spindly branches produce a pale white flower with a rosy pink interior.
Behind the Boswellia tree’s bark, which peels delicately somewhat like a birch, is where the frankincense gum-resin is produced. In these regions and some parts of India, harvesters must wait patiently for the trunks to mature. Grown in the arid environment, it could take a Boswellia tree eight to 10 years to reach full maturity capable of harvest. Once it does, it can take up to 10 bark cuts to find an acceptable frankincense-producing tree.
Frankincense scents and oils come from the gum-resin from the frankincense Boswellia tree and are harvested similarly to tapping maple from a maple tree. When harvesters peel back the tree’s paper-thin bark and tap the tree, it releases a protective resin through its “tears” which are collected and sorted by hand in two to three weeks after they have fallen and cures into a resin. The “tears” are often sorted into varying qualities–the more opaque and solid ones being of higher quality, producing a richer frankincense oil. This tapping process of cutting the bark is repeated two to three times each year.
The Boswellia Sacra, as it’s scientifically named, also has several tree subspecies, such as the:
- Boswellia Frereana
- Boswellia Neglecta
- Boswellia Rivae
- Boswellia Serrata
To create the scent and oil itself, the hardened frankincense resin of one of these species is then boiled down further through a steam distillation process to make an essence. And it’s this essence that is used in aromatherapy essential oils, perfumes and even candles!
Spirituality and the Long History of Frankincense
Frankincense has a long history, dating back 6,000 years. One of the original perfume scents, frankincense was fused with an almond oil carrier oil and a variety of flower extracts from the local region (lavender, for instance) to give a more pleasant aroma.
The resin was burned inside censers carried by holy men and placed along the altars of Christian churches, Hebrew temples and mosques alike. And even today, you don’t have to look far to find frankincense used in places of worship and religious ceremonies.
Today, of course, frankincense is often used as an essential oil in a home diffuser, for aromatherapy and also in perfumes.
The Many Benefits of Frankincense
As long as frankincense has been harvested, it’s been thought to have medicinal properties to benefit health. However, today, we have more concrete evidence and scientific data to back it all up, making it a common holistic ingredient for alternative therapy. And here are just some of the many benefits of frankincense.
Attending a church, chapel or mosque might send you away with a peaceful feeling. And while many find this calm by getting in touch with a higher power, the frankincense might have a little something to do with it, too! You enter with worries and leave a little lighter.
Used this way for thousands of years, frankincense still reduces anxiety today. You will always find it as one of the main essential oils in an aromatherapy kit, and for a good reason. It’s been scientifically proven to have psychoactive properties, lowering anxiety and providing effects similar to an antidepressant.
Boosts Your Immune System
Frankincense also helps to stimulate the immune system and respiratory system. New research points to the possibility that frankincense oil may be a natural cancer treatment step. And some research even suggests frankincense oil can detect, weed out and kill cancerous cells.
Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Indian Ayurvedic system have been using frankincense for quite some time to treat bronchitis and asthma, knowing the respiratory health benefits.
Some studies have found frankincense may help reduce the chance of an asthma attack and asthmatic-related symptoms, such as shortness of breath. According to one six-week study, 70 percent of asthmatic participants showed improvement after using frankincense regularly.
So, What Does Frankincense Smell Like?
Now that you understand some of the health benefits, you’re probably still wondering: What does frankincense smell like?
Since frankincense is a natural resin derived from various Boswellia tree species, the scent can alter slightly. Like the palatability of a fine wine changes based on whether a vineyard has a good year, the scent can also be altered by the season’s local soil conditions and weather conditions. However, frankincense does have an overall distinct aroma.
Frankincense has a very aromatic earthy scent. You will definitely get the Boswellia tree’s musty pine notes, along with citrus notes and spicy undertones. It is also quite similar to rosemary, which is a scent with which most are more familiar.
However, when frankincense resin is distilled into an essential oil, it gives off a slightly sweeter and brighter aroma which is what is more commonly used in perfumes and other scented items.
To summarize, frankincense might be your new favorite scent if you enjoy the following:
- Spices and the scent or taste of red peppers
- Musks and a sandalwood smokiness
- Earthy aromas like the tonka bean
- Bright and lively citrus fruits
- The herbiness of rosemary
- Woodsy scents like pine trees
What Notes and Aromas Pair Best with Frankincense
Frankincense offers a fantastic aroma that pairs wonderfully with a variety of other scents and notes. With a hint of spiciness, frankincense is often mixed within candles and diffusers that contain top notes, mid notes and base notes such as:
Red pepper – Frankincense offers its own spicy charm. But add the scent of red pepper, and it will be enhanced even more. Look for dry, aromatic scents that blend with woodsy scents. Think cedarwood and you’ll be on the right track!
Patchouli – Patchouli offers a lovely blend of spicy and sweet which pairs perfectly with frankincense’s own unique spiciness and citrus notes.
Geranium – While geranium offers floral notes, it’s really more of the green peppery smell that mixes effortlessly with frankincense. Geranium is quite often mixed with myrrh (frankincense’s close cousin) as well. Seek out a geranium myrrh blend to find a similar likeness to frankincense aromas.
Bergamot – Another flower note that acts similar to geranium, bergamot offers up an aromatic blend of citrus meets spicy for a subtle pepperiness. Bergamot also lends itself to frankincense, elevating its profile even more.
Rosemary – A cooking herb with a lavender-like aroma, the scent of rosemary is another well-matched addition to frankincense. In fact, as mentioned earlier, rosemary is a very close match to the citrusy smokiness of frankincense. And it’s no surprise, since both come from plants that thrive in arid environments.
Sage – Another great herb match is sage. Lending a cool minty note, sage works well in combination with frankincense. However, it works best in tinier doses so it doesn’t overwhelm and cancel each other out.
Salt – Not only does the mineral-like scent of salt pair well with frankincense, but it also enhances its signature smell. With an earthy vibe as well, it’s no wonder!
Oceanic – Oceanic notes help lighten the heavier woodsy and smoky note of frankincense into something a bit more floral. If you appreciate frankincense but in moderation, seek out a candle or diffuser with scents that make you think of the beach and the carefree days of summer vacation.
Homesick Candles and Diffusers with Frankincense Aromas
Do you lean towards earthy tones with a hint of smokiness? Then you’ll love these Homesick candles and reed diffusers!
Inspired by the Texas landscape and cowboy ways, the Dallas candles offer a smoky cedarwood and leather scent. You might also get a slight hint of grapefruit and bergamot. But under it all is a frankincense base note tying it all together. (Psst! If you just so happen to be a Texan, check out more Homesick candles: Austin, Houston and Texas.)
Texas Reed Diffuser
If you prefer a candle-free home but still dream of the Lone Star landscape, check out the Texas Reed Diffuser. This diffuser offers a large collection of notes akin to frankincense, such as woodsy pine and cedarwood. You can also pick up brighter hints of citrus through the lime notes, giving you a boost of energy like you’re a rodeo spectator.
Beach Cottage Candle
Since frankincense can give off a woodsy aroma along with citrus notes, the beach candles could be your new favorite scent! Replacing pine with the driftwood-like scent of sandalwood, along with mid notes of musk and tonka bean and base notes that include amber, this summer vacation-inspired candle will lend the same Boswellia resin scents you love from frankincense. These candles will lend a salty air that transports you to an island where you can sink your feet into the warm sand.
Summer Camp Candle
If your summers were spent at a camp in the woods instead of at a cottage at the beach, boy do we have the perfect candle for you! The Summer Camp Candle offers many frankincense-like notes, such as sandalwood, rosemary and lavender. With soft base notes of amber blended with tonka beans, it lends the same earthiness as frankincense, with a splash of river water.
New Mexico Candle
The New Mexico Candle offers notes of spicy chili peppers and earthy bay leaves that evoke a frankincense aroma. In addition, mid notes of musk and sandalwood, along with a cedarwood base note offer up the New Mexico candle to be a close match to the smoky, dry airiness of frankincense.
Of course, if you simply appreciate the aroma of frankincense because it reminds you of the holidays, Homesick has plenty of candles for that, too. One in particular stands out: The Nutcracker. This festive candle offers a punch of spice with top notes of clove, along with mid notes of sandalwood that can give you the same dry, arid likeness of frankincense. Rounded out with base notes of musk, this seasonal candle will offer the same complexity and restfulness of frankincense-infused holidays you’ve come to love.
Give the Gift of the Magi
So much more than a Christmas scent or spiritual incense, frankincense scented candles make the perfect gift for family, friends and loved ones. Whether it’s to remind them of their Texas ranch back home or to relax them with its divine aroma, come bearing one of the magi’s original gifts with a frankincense candle or reed diffuser!