Chestnut Herbal School

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.

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Homegrown and Wild Harvested Smoke Sticks

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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 her 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!

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Homegrown herbs for preparing smoke bundles: Bergamot, anise hyssop, lavender, yarrow, and white sage

Homegrown herbs for preparing smoke bundles: Bergamot, anise hyssop, lavender, yarrow, and white sage

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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.

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Garden sage (Salvia officinalis)

Garden sage (Salvia officinalis)

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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. 

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Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

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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).

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Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), photo copyright Juliet Blankespoor-2

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

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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.

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Aromatic garden with anise hyssop, eucalyptus, western mugwort and sweetfern

Aromatic garden with anise hyssop, eucalyptus, western mugwort and sweetfern

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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.

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Potted Barbeque Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Potted 'Barbeque' rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis 'Barbeque')

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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.

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White sage (Salvia apiana) growing in my North Carolina garden

White sage (Salvia apiana) growing in my North Carolina garden

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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.

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Homegrown aromatic smoke sticks prepared from white sage, lavender, rosemary, and Mexican sage

Homegrown aromatic smoke sticks prepared from white sage, lavender, rosemary, and Mexican sage

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.
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Arrange 5-10 sprigs of your plant (or plants) in the same direction

Arrange 5-10 sprigs of your plant (or plants) in the same direction

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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.
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Tightly encircle the base of the bundle and tie it off in a knot

Tightly encircle the base of the bundle and tie it off in a knot, leaving the long end of the twine free

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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.
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Wrap your twine up and around the bundle at a diagonal angle

Wrap your twine up and around the bundle at a diagonal angle

Circle back down the bundle crossing over the rising twine to make little xs

Circle back down the bundle crossing over the rising twine to make little "X's" as you go

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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!
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Eastern red cedar aromatic smoke stick

Eastern red cedar aromatic smoke stick

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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.


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Smoldering aromatic smoke stick resting in an abalone shell

Smoldering aromatic smoke stick resting in an abalone shell

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!
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Never leave a burning smoke stick unattended

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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

JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.

These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.

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