Homegrown and Wild Harvested Aromatic Smoke Sticks
Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
This article was originally written for Mother Earth Living magazine and is published here with permission from the publisher. Mother Earth Living is an American bimonthly magazine about sustainable homes and lifestyle.
Aromatic plant smoke holds an ancient and 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 leafy 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 helps drive away pests like mosquitos, fleas, and biting flies. Additionally, the smoke from such plants is often antimicrobial. In one study, various plants were burned to release smoke into the air, effectively reducing airborne populations of pathogenic bacteria by 94% in one hour. Another study examined the antimicrobial effects of smoke obtained from various South African plants that are traditionally burned, and found the smoke to be more antimicrobial than other extracts from the same plants.
Having lived in the humid southeast in various primitive structures, 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 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 sticks, resins, or aromatic leaves is simply a less concentrated way of releasing essential oils—and related aromatic plant compounds—coupled with the visual and olfactory mystique of smoke.
The spiritual and religious traditions of burning aromatic botanicals are rich and varied, traversing almost every religion and continent. The ancient Egyptians burned botanical incense as much as four thousand years ago. Aromatic plant smoke figures 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. The practices and rituals vary among groups, with very specific and deliberate traditions.
I am of European descent and am not trained in any one culture’s traditional practices or ceremonies, therefore I am careful to not portray my bundling or burning as traditional Native American in style or practice. Additionally, I gather or grow plants that were traditionally used for aromatic smoke in Europe, and incorporate these into my bundles. As such, I will refer to these aromatic bundles as “smoke sticks,” as this is more universally applied. I’m specifically avoiding the terms “smudge sticks” or “smudging,” as these refer to specific practices, which 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 aromatic smoke sticks is actually quite easy and fun. Consider hosting a gathering with a group of friends—each bringing material from their own garden or neighborhood—and combining the botanical bounty into collective aromatic smoke bundles. Every time you burn a stick, the warmth of your friendships will be rekindled!
Plants for Making Herbal Aromatic Smoke Bundles
When making herbal bundles, stick to plants that have traditionally been burned for their aromatic smoke, as some species of plants produce smoke that is toxic. In other words, it’s best not to experiment with burning unknown plants. The plants in the following list were traditionally gathered, bundled, and burned in Europe for their aromatic smoke (except for white sage, which heralds 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 (Lavandula spp.), rose petals (Rosa spp.), Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), and purple varieties of basil and tulsi (Ocimum spp.). Attaching individual floral petals—as opposed to floral branches—is a little tricky and takes some extra finessing.
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.
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 there are other conifers that are also called cedar).
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.
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), although they have a different fragrance and tradition of use.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is easily grown in the 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 increase alertness and vitality. It has traditionally been used to bolster self-confidence and resolve.
White Sage (Salvia apiana) is native to the coastal foothills of southern California and is threatened from habitat loss and overharvesting—primarily for aromatic smoke sticks. Purchase cultivated white sage bundles or grow your own and leave the white sage for the indigenous peoples of the area who use white sage in ceremony and for medicinal purposes.
How to Prepare Herbal Smoke Sticks
Before harvesting, take the time to center yourself and cultivate a state of peaceful mindfulness. Consider sitting with the plant and simply breathing in silence, taking the opportunity to observe the plant’s beauty and strength. Throughout the world, traditional peoples ask permission from medicinal and ceremonial plants before harvesting. This practice fosters humility and interconnection.
Whatever your beliefs, a feeling of gratitude and appreciation sets the stage for a lovely harvesting and bundling session. As always, be sure of your identification and only gather plants that are abundant and haven’t been sprayed.
Don’t take too much from any one plant—cut a little and then move on to the next plant. Before harvesting, seek permission from the landowner, or if you’re on public land, from the appropriate governmental agency. For more on harvesting safety and ethics, see my article here.
1. Cut eight- to ten-inch sprigs from the plant. Depending on the plant(s), you’ll want 5 to 10 sprigs per bundle.
2. Arrange your sprigs in the same direction in two- to three-inch diameter bundles. You can prepare bundles made from one type of plant or you can prepare mixed bundles comprised of different species. Your bundle will shrink as it dries, so make it a tad plumper than the desired size. However, if the bundle is too thick and you live in a humid climate, it increases the chance of it molding on the inside.
3. Using any kind of natural twine, cut a piece that is about five to six times the length of the bundle. Tightly encircle the base of the bundle and tie it off in a knot, leaving the long end of the twine free. As the plant material dries, the bundle will shrink, so it’s important to tie your bundle tightly so it doesn’t fall apart.
4. Wrap your twine up and around the bundle at a diagonal angle (like the stripes on a candy cane), remembering to pull the string taut as you go. Fold the plant material over at the top to make a neater edge, if desired. Now circle back down at a diagonal angle, crossing over the rising twine, making little “X’s” as you go. If your bundle is a little rough around the edges, you can circle up and over one more time. Tie off the string at the bottom of the bundle after encircling the base again. If your bundle is a little unruly, don’t worry: it will become tamer as it dries.
5. Dry your bundles by spreading them out in a warm, dry space. Heat and air movement will hasten the drying, which is important if you live in a humid climate. If the bundle dries too slowly, the interior will mold. If you live in a dry climate or are heating or air-conditioning your home, this isn’t a concern. Test for dryness after four to seven days by bending the plant material: if the plant breaks and feels crisp, it’s dry and ready for igniting!
6. Store your bundles in jars to preserve freshness and aroma. If you live in a humid climate, this is essential to prevent molding and to keep the sticks dry enough to burn.
Burning Smoke Sticks
Light the tip of your smoke 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 an overarching or universal protocol.
Consider quieting your mind in silence before igniting your bundle while setting an intention for the session. Gratitude for the plant’s aromatic oils sets a respectful tone. Remember, many indigenous cultures have traditional rituals and specific practices around smoke healing or cleansing. If this is not part of your culture, or you haven’t been trained and granted permission by that culture to share, please do not present yourself publicly as having the proper understanding of those traditions. Instead, consider looking to your ancestral heritage for guidance around aromatic smoke 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 smoke stick outdoors by rubbing the tip against the same abalone shell I use to catch ashes, and leave it outdoors for five minutes until the smell has dissipated.
It’s important to be aware that various plants burn differently: some herbs will slowly smolder, while 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, be sure to light your bundle outdoors in a safe space where a wayward spark won’t ignite a fire!
Never leave a burning smoke stick unattended. If you have children at home, be sure to teach them fire safety when igniting bundles—children love to imitate adults and are naturally curious about fire. Smoke can trigger asthma attacks and aggravate respiratory conditions—avoid smoke cleansing around smoke-sensitive individuals.
Preparing and burning aromatic plant bundles is a pleasurable way to connect with plants, our ancestral traditions, and the seasons. Tying bundles is a blessed embodiment of these vital relationships.
Meet the Green Mastermind Behind Blog Castanea:
JULIET BLANKESPOOR is the founder, primary instructor, and Creative Director of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, an online school serving thousands of students from around the globe. She's a professional plant-human matchmaker and bonafide plant geek, with a degree in botany and over 30 years of experience teaching and writing about herbalism, medicine making, and organic herb cultivation. Juliet’s lifelong captivation with medicinal weeds and herb gardening has birthed many botanical enterprises over the decades, including an herbal nursery and a farm-to-apothecary herbal products business.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession through her writing and photography in her online programs, on her personal blog Castanea, and in her new book, The Healing Garden: Cultivating and Handcrafting Herbal Remedies. Juliet and her family reside in a home overrun with houseplants and books in Asheville, North Carolina.
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17 thoughts on “Homegrown and Wild Harvested Aromatic Smoke Sticks”
Anna Alaniz says:
Great article! I’d love to try this with my homegrown herbs. I live in the South and it is very humid. I need more specifics on how to store these in jars- should it be closed up? I’m thinking airtight would not be preferable when the herbs are not dry yet. Can I get a little more detail, please? Thanks!
Christine Borosh says:
In humid climates, running both a dehumidifier and a fan (for increased airflow) in the room where you are drying your herbs can be really helpful. You can also try using a dehydrator if you have one. You’ll want to dry your aromatic smoke sticks completely first and then you can store them in a closed jar or another type of airtight container for longer-term storage.
Anna Alaniz says:
Thank you so much for that clarification! That’s exactly what I need to know!
Frankie Hall says:
I want to thank you for this article. I created 3 beautiful smoke sticks. I love using my home grown herbs in this fashion. I will be planting more of your suggested plants for next year sticks!
Christine Borosh says:
That’s so wonderful to hear! You’re welcome 🙂
Sheila ackers says:
Thank you Juliette for this lovely informative article . Blessings to you
Delta Williams says:
I am so happy to learn about the different herbs that can be burn beside sage. I like the way you explained the combination herbs that works well together. I’m in Los Angeles and I am starting a home garden as well as experimenting with the different herbs growing . I also like your articles. Thanks Deltiva
Sara Kinney says:
Thank you, Deltiva! Best of luck with your new garden. 🙂
Good morning Juliet, i appreciate the update on burning herbs. i need more explanation on other leaves that could serve more purpose.
God bless you my dear Sister.
Christine Borosh says:
This post is just an introduction! There are certainly many other aromatic plants that contain essential oils and can be burned in a similar way. These plants will generally be anti-microbial, a deterrent to pests, and helpful to kill mold spores, among other benefits. There are numerous traditions of using aromatic smoke and I encourage you to research the traditions and plants that closely align with your ancestors to look into this further. Another thing you can do is read about the properties of different essential oils. The smoke from the same plant will likely have similar benefits to the essential oil.
Abby Nolan says:
Can you say any more about which herbs specifically are good at deterring mold in, say, a damp off grid cabin? Or how often or in what manner this works best… Thanks!
Christine Borosh says:
Many aromatic herbs are anti-fungal and will be useful for mold. Sage, lavender, and rosemary are all good choices. Burning these plants regularly throughout the cabin a few times per week during the damp time of year will be a good start. The exact amount will depend on the size of the cabin and the severity of the mold, but you’ll get a feel for how often to do this for your specific situation over time. Good luck!
Denise S. says:
Thanks for the white sage/smoke stick email article. Perfect timing as I am nursing a 4” pot of white sage I picked up at Safeway (grocery store food chain.) This info. Helps me realize how special white sage is. Will transplant into larger pot, & hope it grows well. I like coasters/wheels under big pots for moving around indoors or out into microclimates as the seasons/conditions change. I also appreciate that you have a botany degree. I’m in zone 8b, zip 98239. Enjoy Autumn.
Sarah Karinja says:
Wonderful article. I appreciate especially that you stress looking to your own culture for ideas as opposed to appropriating another.
We have a huge issue here in S. California with people over harvesting white sage.
More people should know you can burn other types of plants that are more abundant, or that they can grow their own.
Andrea Marie says:
Thank you so much! Through life’s circumstances I do not have my own herb garden anymore. This article opened my heart to finding a way to create one again.
Sara Kinney says:
That is lovely to hear, thank you! We have a host of articles on container gardening, maybe that would help un-pave the way? 😉
Bernadette Barber says:
Thanks for the read