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Frankincense, Myrrh and Amber: Tree Resin Facts and Uses

Updated on June 15, 2016
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honours degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

An ancient dark-winged fungus gnat preserved in exquisite detail in amber
An ancient dark-winged fungus gnat preserved in exquisite detail in amber | Source

Natural Resins

A natural resin is a viscous secretion produced by certain plants when they're wounded. The liquid resin oozes over the wound and usually hardens over time, acting as a sealant that protects the plant from infection, attack by herbivores and water loss.

Plant resins are useful for plants and are often very useful for humans, too. Resins such as frankincense and myrrh have a lovely fragrance and are used in perfumes and incense. Some resins, including both frankincense and myrrh, seem to have medicinal or antiseptic properties.

Amber is an ancient, fossilized resin that sometimes contains the preserved bodies of small creatures, such as insects. Millions of years ago, these creatures were trapped in the resin when it was in its liquid form. Their bodies became incorporated into the solid amber. Amber is admired for its beautiful appearance and is also used in jewelry.

An ancient ant preserved in amber
An ancient ant preserved in amber | Source

Types of Plant Resins

Plant resins are made by glands that line resin ducts and are secreted into cavities. They're generally made by woody plants rather than non-woody plants and can be harvested by deliberately injuring or "tapping" tree trunks. In some plants, flowers or buds secrete resin.

Biologists use three general categories to classify plant resins.

  • Hard resins contain no oil or only a tiny amount. As they solidify, they become a hard substance that has a high degree of transparency. Amber and natural lacquer are hard resins.
  • Oleoresins contain so much oil that they may remain liquid once they're secreted. As a liquid, they have a viscosity resembling honey. If they do solidify, the solid is very soft and breaks easily. Turpentines and balsams are oleoresins.
  • Gum resins are sold mixtures of resin and gum. Frankincense and myrrh are gum resins.

Frankincense from Yemen
Frankincense from Yemen | Source

Frankincense

Frankincense is a gum resin produced by trees in the genus Boswellia, especially Boswellia sacra. Boswellia is a shrubby tree found in Africa, India and the Middle East. It generally grows in rocky areas with dry soil. The tree's resin is usually pale yellow in color and has a pleasant scent.

The resin is also known as olibanum and is popular in the perfume industry. It's used as incense because when it burns it releases a fragrant smoke. In fact, its name is derived from the Old French "franc encens", which means "pure or high quality incense". The incense is lit in religious ceremonies, used during meditation or aromatherapy or simply lit for pleasure. It's sometimes used as an insect repellent and an air freshener.

Frankincense has been popular as an incense for thousands of years and was used in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. It's mentioned in the Bible as one of the three gifts of the wise men to the baby Jesus, along with myrrh and gold.

An Ancient Bee Trapped in Amber

Health Benefits of Frankincense

Pure, uncontaminated frankincense is edible and can be chewed like gum, although it has a stickier texture than modern chewing gum. An oil can be extracted from the resin. The resin, the oil and the Boswellia plant are said to have many health benefits.

The medicinal effects of frankincense or Boswellia haven't been confirmed by scientists, but there have been some intriguing preliminary discoveries. In one set of experiments, both capsules of frankincense and an extract from Boswellia called 5-Loxin significantly improved the pain caused by osteoarthritis of the knee. Another experiment showed that frankincense oil destroyed bladder cancer cells in lab equipment without harming normal bladder cells.

Myrrh
Myrrh | Source

Myrrh

Myrrh is produced by trees in the Commiphora genus, especially Commiphora myrrha, which grows in Africa, Saudi Arabia and Oman. The tree has spiny branches and small leaves. The resin is yellow to red-brown in color and is aromatic. It contains oil and is used in perfumes and incense.

Myrrh is harvested like frankincense. A cut is made in the tree trunk, which stimulates the release of liquid resin. The resin drips down the tree trunk, forming "tears", which are collected when they have partially hardened.

In addition to providing a lovely scent, myrrh seems to have antiseptic properties. It's added to oral hygiene products such as toothpastes and mouthwash. In the past it was added to embalming mixtures to preserve dead bodies.

As is the case for frankincense, there are many unproven health claims for myrrh. Although frankincense is generally considered to be safe when ingested in small amounts, there are far more concerns about the safety of ingesting myrrh. Myrrh may stimulate the uterus to contract, which could be dangerous during pregnancy. It may also lower blood sugar, which might be harmful for someone taking diabetes medication. In addition, high doses of myrrh may affect the heart rate.

Blue amber
Blue amber | Source

Amber

Amber is a tree resin that has become fossilized. It often has a beautiful golden color and is commonly used in jewelry. It may also be green, blue, red, brown or black. Evidence suggests that trade in amber began in the Stone Age.

Amber has another claim to fame in addition to its lovely appearance. It sometimes contains inclusions, such as the bodies of dead insects. It's fascinating to look at an insect or other animal trapped inside amber. The animal's body is often preserved in exquisite detail.

The preservation of an insect in amber begins when the insect becomes stuck in a sticky resin oozing from a tree and dies. If the resin completely engulfs the insect it preserves the insect's body. Volatile components of the resin (those that escape as a gas) are slowly released. After many thousands of years the resin is transformed into a hard but still slightly gummy material called copal. If it's left undisturbed, copal eventually turns into amber, which is completely hard and is said to be "fossilized" resin.

Colors of Baltic Amber

Polished amber
Polished amber | Source

Ancient Mites Preserved in Amber

Insects in Amber and Dinosaur DNA

Some insects preserved in amber date from the time of the dinosaurs, which became extinct about 65 million years ago. For a long time, it's been hoped that some of the insects fed on dinosaur blood and that scientists would discover dinosaur DNA fragments in the insects' bodies. This idea provided the background for the creation of the dinosaurs in the first Jurassic Park movie.

DNA is a chemical that contains the genetic code. This code contains the instructions for making an organism. We have the ability to insert DNA from one creature into the egg cell of another creature, replacing the egg's own DNA. When the egg develops, the baby that is born will have some or all of the characteristics of the DNA donor, depending on how much DNA has been replaced.

Since insect bodies are preserved in such wonderful condition inside amber, scientists had hoped that the DNA inside them would have survived, too. Surviving dinosaur DNA could be studied and perhaps even transferred into a modern reptile egg or into the egg of an animal believed to be the closest living relative of the dinosaur. If all went according to plan, the infant would exhibit some of the characteristics of the dinosaur. Unfortunately, DNA from such ancient times has not yet been discovered.

A De-extinction Poll

If it's ever possible, do you think we should bring back a dinosaur from extinction?

See results
DNA is a long molecule with a complex structure. This illustration shows only a small section of the molecule.
DNA is a long molecule with a complex structure. This illustration shows only a small section of the molecule. | Source

DNA Degradation

DNA is a delicate substance and breaks down quickly after an organism dies. DNA of organisms that became extinct relatively recently has survived under special circumstances, however. For example, mammoths found in cold and icy environments sometimes contain intact pieces of DNA. The low temperatures surrounding the mammoth bodies helped to preserve the DNA.

In the 1990s several different scientists claimed that they had found dinosaur DNA in insects preserved in amber. Recently, however, scientists from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom have concluded that this research involved contamination of the samples with modern DNA.

After following meticulous experimental conditions and using procedures that were designed to prevent any contamination of the samples, the scientists found no convincing evidence of ancient DNA in copal, the forerunner of amber. Some DNA was found, but it was in the form of tiny fragments and is believed to be relatively modern.

The copal that exists today was created from resin that was secreted long after dinosaurs disappeared from the earth. Since the copal that the scientists tested contained no ancient DNA, they say that they have "doubts " that ancient DNA can be found in amber, which is millions of years older than copal.

Gum benzoin is a resin produced by trees in the Styrax genus.
Gum benzoin is a resin produced by trees in the Styrax genus. | Source

Other Plant Resins

Many other plant resins are used by humans.

  • Turpentines are oleoresins produced by conifers. The resin forms a soft, sticky substance that is sometimes known as pitch. The resin can be distilled to produce oil of turpentine.
  • Balsams are oleoresins that contain benzoic acid and/ or cinnamic acid, which gives them a lovely fragrance. Canada balsam is produced by the balsam fir tree and is classified as a turpentine, despite its name. This is an example of how confusing the classification system can be!
  • Lacquer is a hard resin produced by the Chinese lacquer tree, also known as the varnish tree. A red resin secreted by the tiny lac insect is also known as lacquer, or as shellac.

The list of resins in current use is very long. The fact that some plant resins are useful and appear to be beneficial for our health is one reason why it's important to help plant life survive on Earth. New medicines that can treat health problems or even save lives may be hiding in plants.

© 2013 Linda Crampton

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    • iAccura profile image

      iAccura 3 years ago

      A very well written post and informative as well. I have worked with amber and many resins in my life and thought no more than it as a substance to be used by man in his tools and in production of chemicals used to beautify his surroundings. And smell nice.

      Thanks for the information.

      Wallace

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, Wallace! I appreciate your visit.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      Hi Alicia,

      This is a fascinating read here. We have used anointing oil with the Myrrh and such and also in candles for a beautiful fragrance during worship.

      My husband has arthritis in his knee and he takes the supplement Boswellia.

      I do not believe I would want the dinosaurs to be brought back this day!

      Excellent and informative hub as always.

      Blessings, Faith Reaper

    • Suzie HQ profile image

      Suzanne Ridgeway 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Hi Alicia,

      What an interesting article and full of facts I did not know. I love Frankincense and Myrrh and have some several skin care recipes with it. Such a precious oil with a great history. Amber jewelry I have and love the different colors available. Thanks for another well penned article with great info!

      Up, useful, interesting, shared!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 3 years ago from New York

      One of the things I love about HP is the education I receive by reading hubs like yours! Of course I've heard of frankincense and Myrrh but actually knew little about them.

      This was very interesting and so well written it was easy to follow through.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile image

      Stephanie Bradberry 3 years ago from New Jersey

      This is really great coverage of resins and types. I just started offering resins like frankincense and myrrh as part of my product line for incense. They are quite interesting to look at.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Faith. I hope the Boswellia helps your husband. Frankincense and myrrh do have beautiful aromas. They are lovely resins for providing a pleasant scent. Thank you for the comment and the blessings!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, the votes and the share, Suzie! I think amber is beautiful, although I don't have any amber jewelry. I love the wide variety of plant resins that are available.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, tillsontitan! I appreciate your kind comment and the votes.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Stephanie. Adding frankincense and myrrh to incense is a lovely idea! Thank you for the comment. I appreciate it!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      This was an interesting read, very thought provoking with the idea that DNA may be found in old amber deposits. It's strange that several different scientists made the claim of finding it in the 1990s but that all of them involved contamination. Seems like basics of lab work may have been neglected, don't know. I liked your selection of photos. Beautiful. Voted up and more.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      That was really interesting, Alicia. As a former science teacher I knew most of this, but you managed to slip in some info that I was not aware of, so thank you.

    • ChristyWrites profile image

      Christy Birmingham 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I finally understand what frankincense is! Thank-you for that. Also, nice to see another writer from BC!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, FlourishAnyway. Apparently it's easy to contaminate samples with modern DNA, since it's in microbes and cells shed from the human body. I've read that the lab methods for detecting and analyzing DNA in the 1990s were less accurate than today's methods and were susceptible to giving inaccurate results, which may also have been a problem. I'm very interested in seeing what scientists discover as their tests become more accurate! Thanks for the comment and the votes.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit, Bill. I think that plant resins are very interesting to study, especially as many are useful for humans.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Christy. Thanks for the comment. It's nice to meet people from BC and around the world at HubPages!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      I love frankincense! Have a bottle of the essential oil handy for aromatherapy. Always reminds me of Christmas. Lovely hub. Voted up & interesting!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment and the votes, Heidi. I love the thought of using frankincense oil at Christmas! I'll try that this year.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Frankincense, Myrrh, Amber and Other Plant Resins what a lovely hub and the photos make the presentation outstanding. Most informative and a useful hub

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, DDE. I appreciate it!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Many remarkable things are found within plants, as evidenced in your own research. The sky is the limit with numerous things, especially with many of the things in use today received from rubbers. Great work, Alicia!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Deb! Yes, plants are a great resource. They contain so many useful chemicals and materials.

    • Rolly A Chabot profile image

      Rolly A Chabot 3 years ago from Alberta Canada

      Hi Alicia... what an awesome read this has been and so very informative. I have always been a great believer in nature and the medicinal it offers which are free for the taking.

      Spruce and Pine gum has been known for years to provide for good oral care and fights off gum problems and freshens breath. After all I would have to add our North American Native populations have known the benefits for generations. Great post and voted up....

      Hugs from Canada

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Linda. What and interesting and fascinating article. I always learn so much from your hubs. Like others, I am familiar with and have heard of frankincense, myrrh and amber but actually knew very little about them. Until now. Another wonderful addition to your library. Voted up, shared, pinned, etc....

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Rolly. There are so many resins that are helpful for humans! Nature can be a great friend to us if we treat her well. Thank you very much for your comment and vote, and thanks for sharing the information, too.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bill. Thanks for the visit. I appreciate all your comments and support very much!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 3 years ago from south Florida

      Wow, Alicia, what a fascinating read this is - kept me completely engrossed from beginning to end. I once purchased some amber jewelry in the Dominican Republic and now I know precisely how it may have been formed.

      And wouldn't that be a hoot if genuine dinosaur DNA could be extracted from these resins? Voted way up, m'dear.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much, drbj! I appreciate your lovely comment and the vote. Bringing back a dinosaur could create problems. but it would certainly be fascinating to see one of these creatures!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I really enjoyed reading this. First I ever heard of blue amber too, lol, it is like saying blue yellow to me. I love amber. The wise men's gifts, wow, who would have thought? Perhaps they knew back then what they don't yet know today?

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Jackie. Yes, I think earlier people were more familiar with the benefits of plant resins than many people are today! Thank you for the visit and the comment.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      Fascinating information. I love the perfumes mixed with frankinscnse and myrrh, such a lovely fragrance. The amber is quite another educational read for me. Great post, as ususal.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, Dianna. I appreciate your visit!

    • thelyricwriter profile image

      Richard Ricky Hale 3 years ago from West Virginia

      Great article Alicia. I remember first seeing this amber in Jurassic Park :) I've always been a big fan of dinosaurs. I'd love to see them in their great awe, at least once. Everything else that you mentioned, I had no clue it exist. This was certainly interesting and fun to read. Awesome job :) Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting, and shared on Facebook. Best wishes

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much for all the votes and the Facebook share, thelyricwriter! I appreciate your visit. Best wishes to you, too!

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 3 years ago from California

      Truly well written and educational, your students are very lucky to have you for a teacher.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the lovely comment, tirelesstraveler!

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK

      An interesting and well illustrated page Alicia. Also a nicely laid out page - something which I think is very important in making a page visibly attractive and enjoyable to read. Frankincense and Myrrh and some of these other resins are familiar as names to all of us, but not so many know the fascinating stories behind them, so thanks for that.

      Re-Dinosaur DNA. I don't think it would be possible to obtain viable DNA from amber, but I know some scientists have been experimenting with selectively breeding and manipulating DNA in chickens to favour the more dinosaurian characteristics (DNA for tails, teeth etc, which birds still possess) and weeding out the more bird-like DNA, in the hope of eventually producing a creature which is at least dinosaur-like in appearance. Ethical or not? I don't know, but I definitely voted pro-dinosaur in your poll - I would give everything to see a real live, breathing dinosaur in the flesh!!

      Voted up Alicia in several categories. Alun

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the kind comment and for sharing the interesting information, Alun. I appreciate the votes, too. It would certainly be absolutely fascinating to see a living dinosaur, even though there would be many points to consider before recreating it either completely or partially!

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      I had no idea what Frankincense and Myrrh were - thank you! Perhaps the three wise men were onto something. Thanks for a fascinating hub, voted up

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Anne. It's nice to meet you!

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 2 years ago from California

      Where do you get good quality frankincense?

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, tirelesstraveler. I've seen different brands of frankincense at both Whole Foods and Amazon, but I couldn't say which is the best brand. Amazon has frankincense from a range of companies as well as reviews for the different products, so that may be a good place to start your search.

    • GiftsByDiana profile image

      Diana Burrell-Shipton 21 months ago from Hubbard, Ohio, USA

      Great page !

      More folks are finally starting to understand the natural systems and getting away from the artificial.

      Thank you for this page to help even more people learn how important this is.

      I use frankincense and myrrh quite often in my handmade products for my family and for my gift shop.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 21 months ago from Dallas, Texas

      Fascinating information on these natural resins. I learned a lot here, especially about Frankincense of which I had heard but never knew exactly what it is. No wonder it was considered so valuable for thousands of years.

      Congratulations on a well deserved HOTD.

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 21 months ago from Germany

      What a very useful and informative hub! I enjoyed reading this. Congratulations on the HOTD!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 21 months ago from Chicago Area

      Another super interesting hub... and a timely one, too, with the next Jurassic Park movie coming out. BIG congrats on Hub of the Day! Well deserved!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, GiftsByDiana. Thank you very much for the comment! I'm happy to meet you.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the congratulations, Peg. The resins are fascinating. They can be beautiful, too!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Thelma. I appreciate your comment and congratulations!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks so much for the comment and the congratulations, Heidi. I always appreciate your visits.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 21 months ago from sunny Florida

      Congrats on HOTD....I thought I had read this and commented before but don't see it.

      This is such an interesting read, Alicia. We use oils including myrrh in some of our worship services and in special blessings for those who request it.

      The ant preserved in gum resin reminded me of Jurassic Park and the 'findings' discovered there.

      This is certainly deserving of the recognition you are receiving.

      Angels are on the way to you this afternoon ps

      Voted up++++ shared and Pinned to Awesome HubPages.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the congratulations as well as the votes, the share and the pin, Patricia! I appreciate the angels very much, too, as I always do. It's very interesting to hear how people use plant resins.

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 21 months ago

      Voted up. I learned some cool things about resins.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment and the vote, poetryman6969.

    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 21 months ago from USA

      Hi Alicia, congratuations on HOTD and thank you for explaining more about these precious resins.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the congratulations, ologsinquito.

    • Romeos Quill profile image

      Romeos Quill 21 months ago from Lincolnshire, England

      Extract from Boswellia as a painkiller and the frankincense oil destroying bladder cancer cells - fascinating applications of this amazing tree and striking colours of your chosen resins.

      Thank you for the educational and felicitations on your achievement.

      Best Wishes;

      R.Q.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Romeos Quill. I appreciate your visit and comment. It's very nice to meet you.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 21 months ago from the short journey

      Such an interesting read--thanks! Learning more about these resins is a reminder of what an amazing world we live in. It's a wonderful thing to live in times that allow for more intricate study of creation. Congrats on your Hub of the Day award!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, RTalloni. Thanks for the congrats. It's definitely wonderful to learn about the fascinating world in which we live!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 21 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I just noticed you had the HOTD. Congratulations!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Bill!

    • sheilamarie78 profile image

      sheilamarie78 21 months ago

      This is very interesting. I appreciate the research you've put into writing this hub.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, sheilamarie78. I appreciate your comment.

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