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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Re-Gift of the Magi

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Worldwide production of frankincense – the favored aromatic resin of wise men and infant messiahs – is dying off. One Valley man is trying to save it.


Jason Eslamieh wants you to help stop extinction – of Boswellia trees, that is, and the rewards are rich: a personal supply of fragrant, spiritually-renowned, holistically-healing frankincense. Anyone longing for some botanical beguilement should consider adopting one of its 19 species. “This is not your typical cactus or petunia,” Eslamieh says, smiling and shaking his head as if talking about a rebellious teenager.


Famous for yielding frankincense – the amber-like, aromatic resin immortalized in the Bible as history’s most famous baby-shower gift – Boswellia trees are also known for their finickiness; the tree is “only happy in its native environment,” Eslamieh says. And since its native environment includes some of the world’s most notorious danger-zones, Boswellia is in steep decline. A recent study in the Journal of Applied Ecology estimates that Boswellia sacra trees, which produce most of the world’s frankincense, could lose 90 percent of their population in 50 years because of problems ranging from disease to over-harvesting to goats’ excessive grazing.

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Enter Eslamieh. On his half-acre Tempe nursery, called Minatree Garden, the genial 61-year-old architect presides over a 20-year preservation effort that includes 19 species of Boswellia and dozens of its sister trees. His passion began as a child in Iran, where his father, a chemist and holistic doctor, grew sacra out of interest in its medicinal qualities. Eslamieh fled Iran in the early 1970s after losing his father; years later, as ASU’s resident architect, he received a gift of three sacra seeds. Eslamieh cultivated them and became one of the most prominent growers and seed distributors in the world – he literally wrote the book on it, titled Cultivation of Boswellia: Sacred Trees of Frankincense.

Wars in Yemen and Oman – two of Boswellia’s main native habitats – have made the seeds expensive and elusive. Moreover, the saplings are cranky and temperamental. “The germination rate is extremely poor,” Eslamieh says. “Under the best-case scenario it is about 8 percent. So you buy 100 seeds, and if you really know what you are doing you get about eight plants. You are lucky to get two or three if it’s the first time you’re trying.”

Luckily, the Sonoran desert happens to mimic the plants’ natural habitat almost perfectly. As desert natives, Boswellia are dormant most of the year and then flower, pollinate, set and germinate seeds all within the monsoon season. While Arizona’s monsoons are generally brief, the addition of year-round water and fertilizer can help the trees flourish better here than in their native countries.

Though slow to get started, Boswellia become remarkably hearty after a few years. In some environments, the shrubby, raggedy trees can sprout on rocks and drink nothing but fog. “Really, you can neglect them completely,” he says. “We neglect our plants tremendously; two of our largest ones we park right next to it, water whenever we feel like it, and we have never fertilized them.”

Eslamieh says he has yet to turn a profit on his garden or book; instead, his motivation is saving a storied plant that plays a discreet but powerfully sentimental role in Western tradition.

“[The trees] have enriched our culture and healed us throughout the millennia,” he says in his book’s preface. “I love them for what they have added to my life.”


MEET THE BOSWELLIAS

Boswellia Shealynn
Jason Eslamieh developed this cold-hardy hybrid and named it after his granddaughter.
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  Boswellia Carteri
A dry climate-thriving variety from Somalia.


Boswellia Elongata
The gum resin from this extremely rare variety from the island of Socotra has a slight citrus aroma.
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