Frankincense is becoming more popular as a treatment for inflammation, joint pain and potentially cancer. How New Yorker Trygve Harris fell in love with Oman and became a frankincense distiller.
Trygve Harris has spent a long time thinking about what makes frankincense happy. “Everything has to be from where the plants are happiest,” she says. Having exported it for the past decade she has concluded that for frankincense that place is the Sultanate of Oman.
Harris, 50, has run her essential oils business,Enfleurage, since 2010. She sources oils from independent distilleries around the world and sells them in her aromatics boutique in New York: hemlock from Quebec; rose from Azerbaijan; lavender from France; cinnamon from the Seychelles.
But frankincense is Harris’ greatest passion. It has been used by Omanis for centuries to freshen the air, as a stomach remedy and to clean the teeth. But it is quickly growing in popularity in Europe and the US because it can be used in anti-aging skincare products, perfume and to treat inflammatory bowel diseases and joint pain. Recent scientific research has also suggested that it could be used to treat certain types of cancer.
Harris is red-haired and dressed in elegant, flowing clothes with big silver bangles on each wrist. She takes me on a skype tour of her distillery in Muscat. The copper pipes of a small still are glugging away in the background.
She came to Oman in 2006 in search of the rare frankincense oil and travelled to the southern governate of Dhofar, near the border with Yemen. But shortly after, the local distiller she worked with quit the frankincense industry. He bought a ship and started selling scrap metal to China.
“For two years there was no Omani frankincense on the world market. In my industry this was huge,” she said.
Falling in love with Oman, she decided to stay and to start distilling her own supply. A decade on, she now owns ten 40 litre stills capable of distilling 25 kg of resin a day and supplies frankincense oil to small businesses around the world. She splits her time between Muscat and New York.
There are two types of frankincense: boswellia serrataoriginates from India and Pakistan; and boswellia sacrawhich is grown in Oman, Somaliland and Ethiopia. Boswellia sacra is one of the most important varieties of frankincense used commercially. Industry sources indicate that the global market for the oil ofsacra amounts to 30-40 tonnes each year. Around a third of that is used in aromatherapy.
“It’s the most beautiful one aromatically, with all due respect to the Somali tree,” Harris says.
But it is its potential for use in medical contexts that is creating a buzz. Dr Mahmoud Suhail leads research into Omani frankincense at the Ayub laboratory in Dhofar. He has tested a specially concentrated oil on cancer cells for the past decade.
“The tests have shown that it can be used to treat, for example, bladder and breast cancer cells,” he said. He cautions that it is unclear whether it could ever be used in clinical contexts but thinks it could lead to an increase in homeopathic use.
Increased appetite for frankincense could be an opportunity for the Omani economy. Harris praises the way that Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said has protected the industry so far by requiring all distillation be done in-country.
“Oman is the land of frankincense and it should be bound up with Oman. His Majesty (the Sultan) took petroleum and developed the country and they want to do something similar,” she said.
She is well known in the tight community in Salalah, the main frankincense hub in Oman, where she lived before moving to Muscat. Salalah is a small, traditional place so it was unusual for a single American woman to live and work there.
She alludes to the challenges of being a female entrepreneur. Oman is a welcoming country, but is socially conservative and people are private. In 2011, she gained international attention for her frankincense ice cream when it made its debut. She started selling it on the roadside, with the local municipality’s permission. Some people objected to it until they had tasted it and came back for more.
But she has earned the respect from leading people in the frankincense community. “She is a brave woman and is a symbol. It was difficult for her in Salalah but she was very determined. She has inspired me because of how much she loves the frankincense,” said Dr Suhail.