Plant Devotions in Smoke: Bioregional Plant Incense

Plant Devotions in Smoke: Bioregional Plant Incense

~This post was written for the Smoke Theme of the Wild Things Roundup~

Finished block of incense made with Piñon resin, Juniper berries, Red Cedar heartwood, Douglas Fir needles, Rose petals, and much more.

The rising smoke of fragrant plants has long been considered the food of gods and ancestors by humankind. Throughout the centuries, it has retained the connotation of sacred space, magic, and the sensual. Even now, just the description of white smoke rising from an ornate censer can evoke images of ancient temples and forgotten rites. This is no surprise given the power of the olfactory system over memory, dream, and desire.

For the modern American human, however, the word incense may be more likely to bring to mind the suffocating stench of chemical infused headshop fumes than anything sacred, beautiful, or the least bit subtle.

My own sense of smell is sensitive to say the least, and I’ve been studiously avoiding most strong smelling things like perfume and incense at all costs for many years now. And not just because of some sort of uppity aesthetics either. The truth is that many scents, mostly synthetic but some botanically derived essential oils as well, can make me physically ill. I’ve grown wary of staying in motels or other people’s houses because of how I can wake up with my face swollen, my body covered in hives, and distinct difficulty in breathing.

Nevertheless, I’ve long loved burning the resins of local conifers on our woodstove during the cold season. I personally far prefer the sweet smoke of a Piñon’s resin to that of any of Frankincense or even Copal. Even the dried leaves of Juniper or Cypress species rank among my favorite smudge or incense scents, far above much more costly, and often exotic, alternatives. When I breathe in the sweet, wild scent from the very trees that make up the forest I live in I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the many levels of delight and healing they constantly provide me with.

Then I met Sarah Lawless, an herbalist in British Columbia, who introduced me to the concept of more complex native plant incenses. After smelling the incredibly sweet, complex, and euphoric smoke of her Rocky Mountain and Hawthorn-Rose Kyphi incense from her Forest Grove Botanica, I knew I was done for, and had to have more. You can read her article on making kyphi on her blog.

Sarah’s lovely work also inspired me to create incense from Southwest plants, and more specifically, with the plants of the Saliz and White Mountains of NM and AZ that I so adore. I have to say that these experiments and explorations in the realm of fragrance have been some of my most meaningful when it comes to establishing intimacy with place and gaining a greater understanding of their medicine and magic.

Ponderosa Pine resin

Now first off, before I launch into any recipes, I want to make a quick but important point. That sticky stuff glued to the bark of your local Pine tree. That is NOT sap (or pitch, for that matter). Sap is found deeper inside the tree and transports water, nutrients, hormones, and other vital fluids through the plant. Resin is an immunological secretion used by trees to help protect the plant from potential pests and pathogens, often secreted after the outer surface of the tree has been breached. While I won’t be getting into the deeper, more detailed workings of tree fluids (more on that coming soon) in this article, I feel that understanding the purpose of resin for the tree is important for a couple of reasons. Not least is so that the harvester will understand what the resin produced for, and in turn hopefully realize that it’s very important not to rip large chunks of resin off a wound on a living tree. You then open the tree up to potential infection and could place that tree’s life in danger. My point then, is that it makes the most sense to harvest resin that’s already on the ground or is overflow, not from the actual wound. Another option is to find downed trees or branches and harvest resin from where they are no longer needed.

Types and Technicalities

There are certainly easier types of incense to make than what I like to do, and abundant recipes for them can be found online. I’m writing about this type because I love it so and feel like it could use a bit more exposure so that more people can try it with their own local plants. On the other hand, it can get way more complicated than this, and once you familiarize yourself with the process, it won’t take long at all to get the hang of it and start adapting in many different directions.

The kind of incense I’ll be talking about here will be considered kyphi like to some but does not adhere to any rules or historical recipes. I like it much better than most powdered incenses, and makes a great alternative to loose incense when you feel like mixing things up a bit. I divide my ingredient types up into categories, which makes it easier to come up with a balanced recipe when I know what I need and allows for simpler substitutions as well.

Ingredients

Resins:

Conifer Resin – Pretty much any sort of conifer resin will work here, the hardened is easier to deal with than that which is still soft and gooey. I work with Piñon, Ponderosa, Juniper, Cypress,

Bud Resins – Cottonwoods are the most obvious of these but a number of other trees produce leaf bud resin as well, including Alder, Birch, and some Cherry trees.

Bee Resin – This is simply propolis, the more unrefined the better. Like the other resins, it helps hold everything together and smells wonderful as well.

Leaves & Flowers

Artemisia carruthii, a native aromatic plant

Huge number of options here depending on what you’re going for, experiment with a single isolated ingredient and see how it smells when it burns. Figure it’s going to burn way hotter and scorch easier on its own than in the final mix so just go for the general idea. Rose petals, Yarrow leaves/flowers, Douglas Fir needles, White Fir needles, Yerba Santa, all sorts of Sages, Artemisia flowers/leaves, Vervain flowers/leaves, and

Roots & Barks

Orris (a specific species of Iris) root may be the most famous example of roots in incense, but there are many aromatic roots that work well here, including Calamus, aromatic Cyperus species, and Angelica/Lovage/Oshá. Heartwood or bark of Juniper, Cedar, Alder, and many other plants can also add amazing nuances to the incense.

Berries & Berry-Like Objects

Rose hips, Hawthorn haws, Elderberries, and Juniper berries (actually cones) are some of the easiest to come up with but many more dried berries could work here, including Cranberries and Huckleberries.

Infused Honey, Meads, & Wines

Any aromatic honey or fermented honey preparation can work here, or a good wine made from local plants. I’ve used Rose infused honey, Alder/Rose mead, Alder leaf infused honey, Apple mead, Hawthorn infused wine, and many other variations. Infused honeys that are just a bit off, but not growing any strange fuzzy animals (in which in refer to our friendly molds) can work great.

Miscellania

Unrefined beeswax is my main item here, it helps hold things together while smelling nice. Too much will make your incense smell like a guttering candle though.

Proportions & Directions

Now we get to the part where people cuss me for my lack of precise measurements. I hate to tell you this, folks, but I hate measuring shit out. I have to do it in certain situations, as in formulas I use clinically, or when I make botanical perfumes, and in particularly delicate dishes. But not here, here I just go by feel and smell until I find the balance I like. I’ll provide my preference guidelines and you’ll have to figure out what you like best from there.

The thing to keep in mind here is if you don’t add enough resinous material, your incense will scorch and smell burnt much more easily. If you don’t add enough honey/mead/wine you’ll miss out on that sweet, complex flavor that comes with the fermentation and honey. Other than that, it’s pretty hard to mess this up.

You can mix and match endlessly and most likely never get bored, using each opportunity to showcase another dominant scent or scent combo. My most recent batch was Juniper-Cottonwood, and the one before that was White Fir-Rose Hip, and the one before Colorado Blue Spruce-Elderberry-Juniper.

Figure about 1 part resins (conifer resin, propolis, bud resins), 1 part berries, 1/2 part beeswax, 1/2 part roots/bark,  and 3 parts leaf/flower, all by (eyeballed) volume.

Grinding Note: I grind all my ingredients by hand in a mortar and pestle. Yes, it would be much quicker and easier in an electric grinder, I just prefer the old fashioned method for this particular project.

  • I usually start with grinding all my berries an berry like objects up to a rough powder. When I work with Juniper cones, I prefer to roast them lightly beforehand.
  • I then grind my conifer resins and propolis to a powder and add.
  • Then I grind my leaves/flowers roughly (larger for things like Douglas Fir needles, more finely for flowers like Rose) and my roots/barks to whatever fineness I can manage by hand in my mortar and pestle.
  • Next I grate the beeswax.
  • This all goes in a bowl together, and gets well stirred. And this is very important, because if you don’t get a fairly even coating of resin on everything, you’re going to end up with very inconsistent incense.
  • I then slowly add the warmed honey/mead/wine until the mix is sticky but not wet.
  • Then I cover a baking sheet with parchment paper, and put a 1-2 inch thick coating of the mixture on the paper. This part is messy and sticky, prepare to smell good afterwards (and stick to anything you touch).
  • Next I place the sheet on the cool side of my woodstove wait for the sheet to warm. When the resins start to melt and the whole mess starts to look gooey, I stir and turn the tray slowly round and round until the whole thing is warm and melty.
  • I then press the mixture flat on the tray again, and put it in a warm (but not hot), dry place to cure/dry for several days to a week.
  • Once mostly dry (but possibly still a bit sticky-soft), I break or cut into small pieces and store in an airtight container away from light or heat.
  • Burn on charcoal or a warm (not blazing) wood stove.
  • Breathe deep.

I don’t consider this to be hard-earned room deodorizer, but rather a very visceral connection to the land and plants. Another form and facet of the plant devotions I discussed in my last post. I treasure every breath taken of the pleasure these plants provide me.

23 Comments

  1. Butterpoweredbike
    Feb 23, 2012

    Thank you so much for contributing this lovely post to Wild Things. I’m feeling inspired, and can’t wait to start mixing my own blends.

  2. Farrah
    Feb 23, 2012

    Your writing makes me want to go collect resin! Thankyou for a great article.

  3. Lisa
    Feb 23, 2012

    Thank you for the post and recipe, can’t wait to try it. I know what you mean about the strong smell with most scents. I can’t go into most stores because they have such intense smells when you enter, the smell of cinnamon now gives me intense headaches because of the over use in most areas.

  4. Jana
    Feb 23, 2012

    Thankyou so much for your contributions beautiful spirit! truly inspirational- I always think of this when I smell exotic incenses from far away places that so many have become accustomed to, and i want to bring everything as close to home as possible- I look forward to tucking some of these goodies away

  5. Bridgett
    Feb 23, 2012

    I love this idea. How do you collect the cottonwood resin?

    • Kiva Rose
      Feb 23, 2012

      By collecting the buds in early spring and then you just use the whole, dried bud.

  6. Rachael Jean Harper
    Feb 23, 2012

    Thiis is so inspiring Kiva! Thank you for all of your wild inspirations
    With gratitude,
    Rachael Jean

  7. Cat
    Feb 24, 2012

    Any suggestions for harvesting Dragons Blood? I live with a 150 year old tree and have been wondering the best way to harvest.

    • Kiva Rose
      Feb 24, 2012

      Hi Cat, I haven’t personally worked with Dragon’s Blood, but I’m guessing that you probably have to score the bark with a blade to get the tree to release the resin. Just be careful not to overdo it and tax the tree.

  8. Karen
    Feb 25, 2012

    Thank you for the wonderful post Kiva, I appreciate your teachings. I harvested conifer resins recently and found them soft and sticky. I popped a bit in my mouth and it took hours to disolve off my teeth and the bit I held in my hand became gooey quickly. I can’t imagine putting this soft sticky stuff in the pestle (or is it the morter?). Should the resin be dried somewhat over the woodstove? How is it dried and harvested without sticking to everything?

    • Kiva Rose
      Feb 25, 2012

      Around here, it’s fairly easy to find both sticky and hard resin from the same trees so I use the soft stuff for infused oils/salves/tinctures and the hard stuff for incense. If you only have soft, gooey resin available though, then yes, I would try drying the resin as much as possible. The other option if that doesn’t work, would be to add the tree resin last, and let it melt sufficiently to combine with the other ingredients. That would be quite messy, but should still work.

  9. Cat Lane
    Feb 26, 2012

    Hi Kiva – I am working up some incense today and wondering about using maple buds? Also, with my poplar buds how long will I need to dry them, before they’re usable? I love this inspiring post, I’ve made incense for years but not like this! Your recipe offers endless possibilities ad I very much appreciate that. :)

    • Kiva Rose
      Feb 26, 2012

      Hi Cat, I’m not sure about the Maple… I haven’t tried them. Are your Maple buds aromatic? For resinous Populus buds, a week is about sufficient, at least here. The main thing is to get water out of them so they don’t make your whole batch of incense go moldy. So glad you’re enjoying the post and recipe!

  10. Cat Lane
    Feb 26, 2012

    Thank you for the quick reply – the species I have in my yard, Acer saccarinum, is not aromatic, so I found out today. The buds are beautiful, tiny and delicate but no aroma to speak of. I plan to use maple syrup in some of my own concoctions and may add the buds purely for the added bit of magic, but not scent.
    Still one of the loveliest trees I ‘ve ever seen, so perhaps her beauty and presence in the backyard will have to suffice. :)

  11. Phoebe
    Mar 5, 2012

    When you say, “burn on charcoal,” do you mean actual, hot, charred wood (wood stove, campfire, fireplace, etc.)—or those charcoal thing-a-ma-jigs one can purchase for incense burning? Someone told me they include chemicals to keep them alight. Sounds logical… DO YOU KNOW IF THIS IS TRUE? I certainly don’t want to breathe chemicals with my smudge!

    • Kiva Rose
      Mar 5, 2012

      It’s true of some charcoal, but not all. I think Scents of the Earth http://www.scents-of-earth.com/charcoal1.html have some not made with ignitors and such… but I don’t have a lot of personal experience as I primarily use the wood stove or a coal from the stove to burn my incense.

  12. Heather
    Mar 7, 2012

    Well, this is a silly question, but nowhere in the instructions can I find if the leaf/blossoms are to be dried prior to grinding. Of course, in your pictures, the final product looks like the materials have dried, but in the picture of the juniper berries and a few needles, the material looks fresh. I’m working with orange blossoms and leaves among other things. Should I dry them first?

    Thanks!

    • Kiva Rose
      Mar 7, 2012

      All the plants in the pictures are dried, including the berries (they’d actually been lightly roasted as well) and Juniper leaves… they’re much easier to grind this way. It’s not impossible to use some fresh plant matter, but given the curing process and such, they’ll probably ferment to some degree and you’ll need to be extra careful to cure/dry the incense long enough so that it won’t mold or go off.

  13. Heather
    Mar 10, 2012

    I just made this using redwood needles and bark, dried orange peel and blossoms, orange blossom infused honey and just a bit of sage. It’s amazing. Thanks Kiva Rose!

  14. Nora Fannin
    Mar 18, 2012

    This is electrifying!!!! Thank you so much for the education. I smudge with sweetgrass etc and am absolutely grateful for it. I knew there was more to explore though- walking in the bush, inhaling, sniffing pine and spruce resin, crushing sweetfern leaves between my fingers and revelling in the vapours, mulling poplar buds in oil…I wanted to do more, but didn’t know what I was feeling…I’m so excited to try this!!!!
    BTW of course it’s only right to express my gratitude to the 1st Nation people such as Paul Bondy who educated me on how to smudge, the use of the 4 sacred plants etc. -Life changing.
    Anyway….
    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!!!!!!!!

  15. Hedge Wife
    Jan 17, 2013

    This is an AMAZING article! Thank you so much for sharing it!
    The instructions put me in mind of the Egyptian incense Kyphi, only without the weeks of drying, regrinding, etc…so the quick method of Kyphi. Brilliant! I cannot wait to give it a shot with some of the amazing plants I’ve come in contact with here in Alaska.

  16. Madison Woods
    Jan 24, 2013

    I can’t wait to try collecting my own local scents. Thanks for this article. I do like the scent of sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh though I think I’ll like the scents of things from around my home a lot more.

  17. Dianna Clark
    Feb 25, 2013

    I am THRILLED to find such a wonderful site! I’ve only been online for six months or so, and I am continually amazed at what you can find out about anything, and I have been wanting to make my own incense for so many years. I live in the woods in West Virginia, so I am going to go out and gather all kinds of stuff to start experimenting. Thank you so much for putting the directions here where we can all enjoy doing this!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pine trees, Incense + Owl Medicine | Southern Herbalist - [...] Medicine Woman’s Roots:  Pantry Medicine…Onion Poultices, Syrups + Tinctures  and Plant Devotions in Smoke: Bioregional Plant Incense by Kiva …
  2. The Forest in Winter: Conifer Resins for Healing and Pleasure « The Mountain Rose Blog - [...] The harder grades of resin make a wonderful copal type incense all on their own, and can be burned …

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