When I first decided that I wanted to learn how to make my own incense with herbs several years ago, I searched online and in books for information about how to make it but didn’t really find much. While incense has been an integral part of many (if not all) cultures and traditions throughout the ages, the process of making it is kind of mysterious and not widely known. I started making loose incense with herbs I’d grown or wildharvested and, until recently, that was the only kind of incense I knew how to make.
However, I’ve spent the past few weeks learning how to make other kinds of incense – including incense cones, a powdered incense with a granola-like consistency, and two kinds of stick incense – from a skilled teacher who has spent many years studying how incense is made, the plants traditionally used to make it, the cultures in which incense is used, and how people have traditionally worked with it throughout time.
One of the things that has long concerned me about commercially available incense is that it is usually made with endangered or at-risk plant species. That’s why I initially set out to try to make my own. So many of the plants that have long been an integral part of traditional incense-making really shouldn’t be used right now – we need to responsibly steward those plants in their native environments so their populations can recover from the vast consumer-driven over-harvesting we’ve seen in recent decades. Once we learn how to make incense, though, we empower ourselves to make more sustainable choices and work with plants that aren’t at risk and that can even be grown or harvested in our local bioregions.
Some of the at-risk and endangered plants commonly used in commercial incense products include:
- Agarwood (sometimes called aloeswood) [source]
- Cedarwood (certain species) [source 1, source 2 and source 3]
- Copal / copal oro (certain species) [source 1, source 2]
- Costus (certain species) [source]
- Dammar gum (gathered from such species as Agathis, Shorea, and Hopea, several of which are threatened or endangered) [source 1, source 2, source 3]
- Dragon’s blood (certain species) [source]
- Elemi [source]
- Frankincense [source]
- Myrrh and myrrh relatives, including gum guggul [source]
- Nag champa (a mixture of several plants, usually including sandalwood – see listing below)
- Opoponax [source]
- Palo Santo [source 1, source 2]
- Sandalwood (certain species and sources; though there are plantations cultivating sandalwood in Australia, it is not yet known if their work can sustain the increasing industry demand for sandalwood products long-term; if you must work with Sandalwood, do so with great respect and intention and choose your source mindfully) [source 1, source 2, source 3, source 4]
- Tonka (not enough data is available about its status yet, but the population is decreasing) [source]
- Vanilla [source 1, source 2]
- White sage [source]
While it wouldn’t be sustainable for us to make incense with many of these plants right now, there are hundreds of other aromatic plants we can work with! As our community learns the techniques and skills needed to make beautiful incense blends, we can then choose to work with less traditional incense plants to create new, unique, creative blends with sustainable plant materials and really pioneer a new category of sustainable incense. I know I’ve enjoyed practicing incense crafting with my own homegrown and locally harvested herbs these past few weeks!
If you’re feeling inspired to learn to make your own incense cones, sticks, or loose blends, or even to start a sustainable incense crafting business, I’m going to introduce you to my teacher at the end of this post (after the recipe below). He’s teaching a free video series that starts today (it’s such a great resource if you’re wanting to learn how to make incense) and during the series, he’ll walk you through the process of making your own incense cones so you can jump-start your learning.
My Homegrown Loose Incense Recipe - Ingredients
- 3 parts white sage leaves, dried (homegrown or organically cultivated)
- 2 parts rosemary leaves, dried
- 1 part fragrant rose petals, dried
- 1 part lavender buds, dried
- 1 part chamomile flowers, dried
- 1-2 parts pine pitch (I wildharvested mine. Look for the hardest little balls of it rather than the soft, fresh, sticky pitch. The harder, older pieces will be a lot easier to work with for incense. Save the fresher pitch for pine resin salves.)
Aside from the pine resin, I grow all of the other plants in my garden. Maybe someday when we own our own property, I can gather pine resin from our own trees! =)
To make the incense, chop the dried herbs finely and mix them together well. Use a mortar and pestle (I use a molcajete) to break the resin into small pieces (about the size of the yellow ball on the end of a sewing pin) before stirring in the resin.
Store your loose incense in an airtight glass jar. When you want to burn it, sprinkle a tiny bit of it on a hot incense charcoal (I use small incense bricks made of bamboo charcoal). Continue adding more incense to the charcoal as it burns.
When you’re choosing incense charcoals, look specifically for the ones that do not have any chemicals or flame accelerants added to them. I burn loose incense in a little cast iron, heat-safe, footed bowl; I place the charcoal on some white ash. As the aromatic herbs smolder on top of the charcoal, their aroma wafts throughout the room and makes the house smell quite pleasant. Burning herbs also has some therapeutic benefits – burning antimicrobial herbs, for instance, has long been a technique used to help purify the air in sick rooms. In many cultures, burning herbs is also done for ceremonial purposes.
Remember to never leave burning incense unattended.
Want to Learn How to Make Other Kinds of Incense?
If you’re interested in learning more about how to make other kinds of incense, including incense cones, sticks, and powders, I’d highly recommend looking up Evan Sylliaasin of the Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. He has created an online program through which you can learn all about different incense-crafting techniques (I recently took the class myself; I’ll post a full review for you sometime next week). Today, Evan is starting a free online video series through which you can learn more about making incense and even learn how to create your own incense cones! The video series is free to watch, but time sensitive. You can get access to the first video in the series by visiting this link. All of the other videos will be automatically delivered to your email inbox throughout the next couple of weeks. By the time the series ends, you’ll be able to make your own incense cones and know a lot more about the art of crafting your own incense.
I hope you’ll have a go at making your own sustainable incense blends and that you’ll enjoy the video series! I know I’ve learned a lot from Evan and I’m confident that you will too. He’s an excellent teacher.
Have you ever tried to make your own incense blends? Tell me about your favorite kind of incense in the comments below.