Botanical incense

When we hear the word incense our mind goes straight to temples and churches, to that thick smoke with such a particular aroma; also to the Three Wise Men, who arrive laden with gifts before the baby Jesus and offer him gold, myrrh and incense. You may think of those little sticks sold in herbalists' shops that you burn to set the scene; but when we talk about botanical incense we mean a humble but beautiful little green and white plant.

Botanical frankincense is one of those plants that has a simple demeanour but is a must in any garden or plant collection, not only because it has a lovely variegated colour but also because it gives off a gentle scent that has earned it its nickname. It is easy to care for and will become one of your favourites due to its stylistic versatility, as it looks beautiful however you place it due to its hanging or creeping habit.

Facts and figures about botanical frankincense

The scientific name of this plant is Plectranthus madagascariensis, also known as false frankincense, incense plant or plectrantus. The name comes from the Greek plecton, meaning spur and anthos, meaning flower. This refers to its flowers, as the back of its corolla has a prolonged section that is shaped like a spur.

Botanical frankincense is a herbaceous perennial and has a creeping habit. It originates from India, specifically from the mountain range, but thanks to its adaptability and strength, it has been introduced to a lot of regions, from Asia, through America and the African continent. As a houseplant it is very popular, because of its delicate leaf size, colour and shape it is very versatile.

Its branches can reach a variable length of 50 to 60 centimetres. It has small, oval leaves of only 5 to 10 cm, variegated between bright green and white-edged. Its wavy edges and creeping habit stand out. For this reason they look beautiful planted in hanging pots. They are distinguished because when their leaves are rubbed, they give off a delicious aroma, very similar to incense (which is actually a resin from a tree called Boswellia Sacra). They are excellent evergreen plants that can be used to keep the garden alive during the winter or as a background for seasonal flowering plants with showy flowers.

Produces flowers in the summer months, erect spikes with small white or very light violet flowers. As its flowering has no ornamental value, almost everyone trims these spikes to stimulate leaf growth. The Frankincense plant grows very fast, so you can plant a few sprigs in spring and watch it grow, to cascade out of a pot like an impressive waterfall in a couple of years.

Because it grows so quickly, botanical frankincense is used as a mulch to cover sections of ground. You don't have to worry too much if it spreads too quickly, as its root system is not at all invasive and does not pose a problem to other adjacent plants. In fact, you can place it in the shelter of other plants to cover the substrate in an aesthetically pleasing way and at the same time take advantage of its aromatic and repellent properties.

The frankincense plant arrived in Spain thanks to Arab merchants, who began to propagate it and it became a symbol of good fortune and positive energies. It is said that when it gives off its delicious aroma it means that good things are going to happen for the family living in that home. In addition, precisely because of its fragrance, this plant acts as a good mosquito repellent, so you can plant it in pots in flowerbeds, terraces and gardens, near social areas to keep these annoying pests away during the summer.

How to care for botanical frankincense

Botanical frankincense is a very pretty and simple little plant that looks great in hanging pots. As its roots are not invasive, you can make ornamental arrangements in pots with other plants and create interesting compositions, taking advantage of its hanging habit or pruning it to keep it low. Being a tropical plant, it requires indirect light, warm temperatures and moderate watering, as well as well-drained substrates. As we do not want to leave anything to chance regarding its care, we will explain it in more detail:

  • Watering

The frankincense plant requires abundant and frequent watering during the summer, but a little more discreet in the rest of the year. Some people water every 2 days in summer and reduce to once a week in cooler seasons. The most important thing here is to avoid waterlogging the plant. To avoid this situation it is preferable to check the substrate before watering. The wooden wand method is ideal and simple: you insert the wand into the substrate, if it comes out clean and dry it is time to water, but if there is some soil on it, it is better to wait another day. Another trick is to lift the pot and feel the weight after watering and draining. If it feels much lighter in the following days, it is lacking water.

This plant has a creeping habit and tends to spread out over the entire surface of the pot, which can make it difficult to water because the water can hang on the leaves without touching the substrate, so I like to water it by dipping. Just find a large container that can fit the pot and fill it ¾ full of water and submerge the pot. Leave it for a while, it will absorb all the water it needs from below. Then let it drain very well and place it back in its decorative pot, if it has one. You'll be surprised how much water it will absorb, plus you'll waste less water and avoid fungi such as mildew.

  • Lighting

This is a plant of tropical origin, so you have to place it in a well-lit, warm place, but where it does not receive direct sunlight. You can place it indoors, near windows or terraces and balconies, but protected so that the sun's rays do not burn its leaves. Outdoors they look beautiful under tall plants, because they will cover the ground, improving the humidity retention of the soil and improving the aesthetics of the space, while tall plants will protect them from the sun and strong winds.

  • Moisture

Coming from tropical locations, the frankincense plant likes to live in very humid environments. If you have it inside your home, you can put it on a small saucer with pebbles and some water (without touching the roots) that will create humidity as it evaporates. You can also put small glasses with water so that they evaporate slowly; although it would be much better if you put it in the company of other plants that help to regulate the humidity levels in the room.

In case you feel that the environment is too dry and is affecting your little plant, which would start to look drained and sad, with the leaves curled upwards, it is best to get a room humidifier. They represent a very small investment (seriously, there are some very cheap ones) and it's an investment that even your skin and hair will thank you for.

  • Temperature

Plectranthus prefers a tropical, warm and humid climate to keep it happy and lush, it does not tolerate frost at all. Suitable temperatures for this plant are between 15 and 21° C constant. If the temperature rises a little it is fine, it can live perfectly well in the heat as long as it does not receive direct sun but if the temperature drops to 10°C or less, the plant's development will be compromised. If the winters in the region where you live get very cold, then the best thing to do is to keep the plant indoors to avoid any discomfort.

  • Substrate

Botanical frankincense adapts very well to any type of substrate, as long as it has good drainage. It is not at all demanding, but if you want to pamper your plant to the maximum, then we recommend mixing some universal substrate with 30% perlite and some compost, as it likes soils that are more or less rich in nutrients. As always, you can put a layer of pebbles, expanded clay or some other material at the bottom of the pot before placing the plant and the substrate, to further optimise drainage and avoid waterlogging.

As its nutritional requirements are quite simple, there is no need to renew the substrate frequently and you only need to transplant if you want it to keep growing and expanding, as its roots are quite discreet they don't need so much space and will manage for a long time in their pot. In fact, leaving it in a pot once it has reached the size you like is one way of keeping it under control.

  • Fertiliser

The frankincense plant requires some fertiliser and nutrition to grow beautiful and lush as a two-tone waterfall, but don't overdo it with the amounts. It is best to use organic fertilisers such as guano or compost to fertilise during the spring to summer months. If you prefer to use mineral fertilisers, you can apply them in the water every two weeks. In any case, it is important to read the manufacturer's instructions carefully so as not to overdo it with the doses and frequency of fertilisation.

  • Pruning

It is necessary to prune the incense plant because if you don't, its stems will grow too long and it will lose that full appearance that the leaves give it when they grow close together. Constantly remove wilted flowers and leaves, as this helps to prevent insects and fungus, but major pruning should be done in spring. Don't be afraid and take your pruning shears, disinfect them well and get to work.

Don't overdo it, you don't need to make it bald. Just trim a few centimetres off the branches to give it shape. If it is too long, you can cut about half of each branch. Make each cut diagonally, close to the growth nodes, so that the leaves continue to grow. And don't throw the cuttings away, because that's what you can use to propagate it.

  • Multiplication

One great thing about the frankincense plant is that it is very easy to propagate by cuttings. Save the cuttings after pruning. Select the pieces that have a slightly sturdier stem and are 5 to 7 centimetres long. They should have buds for new leaves to grow. Just soak them halfway in a container of water for several days in a well-lit but semi-shaded place. After a few weeks you will see new roots and you can plant the seedlings in a pot with compost.

Some people tend to replace plants every 2 or 3 years, especially if they are planted outdoors, because the stems tend to get quite long and the leaves come out more at the tips, giving them an ungraceful appearance. This is a personal decision and if you prune the plant regularly, you can prevent this from happening.

  • Pests and diseases

Frankincense plants are fairly resistant to pests, but they are not completely immune. It is important to check them from time to time because there are opportunistic bugs that come and hide in the dense foliage of your plant. Some of these insects are snails and slugs, which you can avoid and combat by using dried and crushed eggshells and ashes. Annoying mealy bugs can also make a nest in your incense plant and you can use potassium soap or neem oil against them.

Another problem incense plants can have is fungi such as powdery mildew, which looks like a white powder on the leaves. This is caused by over-watering or when water remains on the leaves for too long, so it is advisable to water by immersion or to be very careful to wet only the substrate. If it does appear, you can use broad-spectrum fungicides.

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About the author
Ame Rodríguez

Dedicated to creating an army of cacti, succulents, poodles and cats to help me conquer the world. In the little free time I have left, I play, write and dance.

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