Homegrown Incense

Numerous plant materials can be used as homegrown incense because of their fragrances.

| October/November 2004

Homegrown Incense

Incense. Right now it’s riding a crest of popularity. Numerous plant materials have been used as incense because of their fragrances, but two native plants stand out: sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) and white sage (Salvia apiana).

Richo Cech of Horizon Herbs in Williams, Ore., describes the smell of sweetgrass as “vanillalike or new-mown haylike,” and attributes the scent to the plant’s coumarin content. White sage, he says, is penetrating, spicy, camphoraceous — and slightly skunky.

As an incense, white sage is burned to purify people and places, and its use sometimes is accompanied by prayer. Loose leaves often are burned, and a traditional ritual method for smudging the body calls for spreading the smoke by “brushing” it with a feather or bird wing. An alternative is to bind several stems together into a smudge stick. Either way, the leaves smolder, rather than burn with an open flame.

Due to growing demand, commercial development in both plants’ native habitats and improper management of remaining wild stands, white sage and sweetgrass are both in trouble.

“The biggest stands of wild sweetgrass are in Canada where most of the commercial dried braids come from, but wildcrafting is hurting them,” says Craig Dremann, owner of Redwood City Seeds in Redwood City, Calif. “Dried sweetgrass leaves contain very important soil nutrients. The phosphorus and other minerals removed with the harvested leaves are not being replenished, and, I believe, the subsequent diminished soil fertility is causing stands to decline.”

The situation for white sage is bad, too. The plant is native to just a small strip of coastal Southern California, where development is intense. The sustainability of wild populations of white sage may be adversely affected by development, overharvesting and unfavorable weather, although the plant is a tough contender in drylands and in rough, unsettled country.

11/10/2013 11:19:50 AM

Artemisia tridentata - or sagebrush - is used for smudging in many parts of North America. Unlike white sage, it will grow in colder regions. I have some growing in my yard in Toronto and it is thriving.

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