Burn Aromatic Herbs as Homegrown Incense
Aromatic plant smoke holds an ancient yet familiar allure. The alchemy of transforming dried plants into fragrant smoke has a profound effect on the feeling — or energy — of a space or person. There’s a reason that cultures all around the globe burn aromatic plants in ceremony and religious practices. The emotional sway of scent coupled with smoke is universal and, dare I say, unparalleled.
Throughout history, people have burned a large number of plants in the form of incense, resins, and bundles for various spiritual and practical purposes. Certain botanicals contain essential oils that act as a deterrent to insects. When these plants are burned, the essential oils carried in the aromatic smoke help drive away pests, such as mosquitos, fleas, and biting flies.
Additionally, the smoke from such plants is often antimicrobial. In one 2007 study, various plants were burned to release smoke into the air, effectively reducing airborne populations of pathogenic bacteria by 94 percent in one hour. Another study in 2008 examined the antimicrobial effects of smoke obtained from various South African plants that are traditionally burned, and it found the smoke to be more antimicrobial than other types of extracts from the same plants.
Having lived in the humid Southeast in various types of homes, I can personally attest to smoke’s ability to deter mold. You can imagine the importance of aromatic plant smoke before the invention of doors, screens, and other contemporary hygiene practices. Burning fragrant leaves and resins helped keep people and their spaces healthy.
People also burn aromatic plants for the enjoyment of the scent or to promote positive feelings. If you diffuse essential oils in your home or light natural aromatherapy candles, you’re using a concentrated form of botanical aroma. Burning smoke cleansing sticks, resins, or aromatic leaves is simply a less concentrated way of releasing essential oils and related aromatic plant compounds.
The spiritual and religious traditions of burning aromatic botanicals are rich and varied, traversing multiple religions and continents. The ancient Egyptians burned botanical incense 4,000 years ago. Aromatic plant smokes have figured into the ceremonies of Buddhists, Christians, Taoists, pagans, and Hindus. Throughout North America, various Native peoples have bundled and burned aromatic herbs for centuries. Plants such as white sage (Salvia apiana), sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), and sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) are used in ceremony and for other healing purposes.
Practices and rituals vary among groups with specific and deliberate traditions. I am of European descent and am not trained in any one culture’s traditional practices or ceremonies; therefore, I’m careful not to portray my bundling or burning as Native American in style or practice. Additionally, I refer to bundling and using these plants as “smoke cleansing,” as this is more universally applied across groups. Don’t confuse smoke cleansing with “smudge sticks” or “smudging,” which are specific practices that belong to certain indigenous cultures in the Americas.
Many indigenous groups believe that aromatic plant bundles should not be sold but instead should be traded, gifted, or homemade. All the more reason to learn how to make your own! Harvesting and bundling smoke cleansing sticks is actually quite easy and fun. Consider hosting a gathering with a group of friends, each bringing local material from their own garden or neighborhood. Every time you burn a stick, the warmth of your friendships will be rekindled.
How to Burn Aromatic Herbs
Light the tip of your smoke cleansing stick with a lighter, candle, or match. If the flame doesn’t go out on its own after five seconds, gently blow it out. Hold the smoldering stick over an abalone shell or a fire-resistant, shallow bowl to catch any falling ashes. (Some species of abalone have been overharvested, so be sure to purchase shells that have been farmed rather than wild harvested.) If you’re releasing aromatic smoke into an indoor space, you can move through the area with your bundle and gently blow on it or fan it with a feather.
If you’re offering healing smoke to a person, it’s preferable to be outdoors. Fan the smoke over the person with a feather or your hand. There are different traditions for smoke cleansing people and spaces — these don’t necessarily have a universal protocol. Consider quieting your mind in silence before cleansing while setting an intention for the session. Gratitude for the plant’s aromatic oils will set a respectful tone.
Remember, many indigenous cultures have definite rituals and beliefs around smoke cleansing and, more specifically, smudging. If these practices aren’t part of your culture, or if you haven’t been trained by that culture, please don’t present yourself publicly as having the proper understanding of those traditions.
After the initial aromatic smoke is released, the plant material will often continue to smolder and begin to release an unpleasant smoky smell. For this reason, I like to snuff out my stick outdoors by rubbing the tip against the same abalone shell I used to catch ashes. Leave it outdoors until the smell has dissipated.
Be aware that various plants burn differently: Some herbs will slowly smolder, others are quick to ignite with a powerful flame, and a few will even crackle with miniature explosive sparks. If you’re working with a new plant, light your bundle outdoors in a safe space where a wayward spark won’t ignite a fire. Never leave a smoke cleansing stick unattended. If you have children at home, teach them fire safety while you’re cleansing — children love to imitate adults and are naturally curious about fire. Smoke can trigger asthma attacks and aggravate respiratory conditions, so avoid cleansing around smoke-sensitive individuals.
Preparing and burning aromatic plant bundles is a pleasurable and mindful way to connect with plants, our ancestral traditions, and the seasons. Tying bundles is a blessed embodiment of these vital relationships.
Plants for Making Herbal Smoke Cleansing Sticks
When making herbal bundles, stick to plants that have traditionally been burned for their aromatic smoke, as some species of plants, such as oleander (Nerium oleander), produce smoke that’s toxic. In other words, don’t experiment with burning unknown plants. The ones in the following list were traditionally gathered, bundled, and burned in Europe for their aromatic smoke (except for white sage, which hails from Southern California).
Consider starting with one or more of these plants, combining a variety of botanicals with varying textures and hues. Add a splash of color with these beauties: lavender, rose petals, Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), and purple varieties of basil and tulsi. Attaching individual floral petals — as opposed to floral branches — is a little tricky and takes some extra finessing.
1. Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis) is harvested in midsummer before the plants begin to flower. The smoke is used to ward off negative energies, purify spaces, and offer protection. Sage is also said to absorb malevolent thoughts and feelings.
2. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is burned to impart relaxation and a sense of calm. It can be used to assuage trauma and grief and to lessen anxiety. The grayish texture of the leaves and the purple splash of the floral wands add an herbal flair to botanical bundles.
3. Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is traditionally burned to enhance dreaming and divination. Mugwort is native to Eurasia and now grows wild throughout North America. Gather the plants before they bloom. Consider it a European analogue to its close relative sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata).
4. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is easily grown in any home herb garden. Gather the sprigs in midsummer; the flowering branches add beauty but aren’t necessary. Rosemary is burned to purify and protect spaces and to increase alertness and vitality. It has traditionally been used to bolster self-confidence and resolve.
5. White Sage (Salvia apiana) is native to the coastal foothills of Southern California. Unfortunately, it’s overharvested and on United Plant Savers’ watch list for at-risk species, so purchase cultivated white sage bundles or grow your own. Garden sage can be used in lieu of white sage, although it does have a different aroma and feeling. I use white sage to clear the energy of a space and to bless gatherings. This comes from my personal relationship with the plant and isn’t derived from traditional Native American use of the plant in ceremony.
6.Juniper (Juniperus spp.) has been used in many European traditions to ward off evil or bad energies and to offer protection. Juniper grows wild throughout much of North America and Eurasia. You can use any species of juniper, which is also called cedar. (Be aware that some other conifers are called cedar.)
Make your own plant bundles in How to Prepare Herbal Smoke Cleansing Sticks.
Juliet Blankespoor is the director and founder of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. She offers online courses on foraging, medicine making, and herb cultivation at.
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