Burn Aromatic Herbs as Homegrown Incense

Learn about the art of smoke cleansing, make some of your own plant bundles to burn, and enjoy the benefits of this age-old tradition.

| May / June 2018

  • Sage is popular to use in smoke cleansing sticks, and this usage contributes toward overharvesting of certain species.
    Photo by Stocksy/Kara Riley
  • Smoke from plants are can be antimicrobial and a deterrent to insects.
    Photo by Getty Images/bjphotographs
  • Sage is a highly popular base for smoke cleansing sticks.
    Photo by Getty Images/bagi1998
  • Lavender is known as a relaxing and calming plant, used also for its colorful wands.
    Photo by Juliet Blankespoor
  • Mugwort is used for dreaming and divination.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/bonnontawat
  • Rosemary is more than just for cooking; it's also used to purify spaces and promote vitality.
    Photo by Getty Images/gaffera
  • Because of overharvesting, white sage is on United Plant Savers' watch list.
    Photo by Juliet Blankespoor

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.

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