Incense Crafting: Messy Experimentation

Hopefully you’ve figured out by now that I’m into incense… it’s a pretty big deal for me. I’m not an aromatherapist; I just know how certain scents can make me feel and I want to share that joy with the world around me.

I used to buy stick incense at head shops, and burn them so my house would smell nice. I admit many of the scents were a bit sharp smelling and often caused me to sneeze. I learned recently that it’s because MANY of the commercial stick incenses you can buy are made with chemical scents and oils rather than the actual herb they are supposed to be imitating. I find that burning my own incense made from ACTUAL herbs and not a bunch of fillers or chemical scents is a completely different experience that often brings out emotions I didn’t expect, or makes me feel more grounded and connected to the earth.

I started delving into making my own incense blends a few years ago, but I really got serious about it when I took a course through the Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. I highly recommend Evan’s courses! While I went into the courses knowing the power of many herbs, those classes helped me dive into a deeper understanding of the herbs I already loved, and discover many more. I also learned some good tricks to boost my crafting skills, and I feel like the herbs themselves are still teaching me every time I work with them.

A loose incense blend, or burning a single plant by itself, is the most intimate form of incense burning one can experience. After lighting a chunk of charcoal and allowing it to burn enough to have formed a thin layer of ash on top, you can begin sprinkling your loose incense on it and inhale the intoxicating aroma of real dried herbs. You have to pay attention to it more closely because the charcoal burns through the herbs fairly quickly, requiring you to sprinkle more onto it to continue creating smoke. This isn’t a bad thing, however, as it makes your mind and senses more aware of the subtleties in the blend. Perhaps a bit more mugwort in this pinch, or that pinch had an abundance of sage. Every scent is different and can evoke a different feeling in your consciousness.

Whenever possible, I work with materials that I have either grown or foraged myself. There are some things that I do have to buy in, such as sandalwood or makko powder, cloves, cinnamon, and my binding powder. But I forage/grow and dry my own sage, white sage, patchouli, mugwort, white pine, cedar, juniper, and many other aromatic plant materials. I often experiment with different scents; more often than not, even the most alluring aromatic plant smells very different when it is slowly burning into ash!

My table becomes a messy work station when I’m crafting

Cone incense and stick incense require the herbs to be ground much more finely in order to stick together properly. A binding agent is added, and then water, and the blend is mixed until it forms a dough.

About to blend this

While I am mixing and kneading this into dough, I project my feelings and intentions into the herbs, asking them as they blend to create those same feelings for the person that ends up burning them. Often, I will have music playing that evokes a certain feeling in me personally, such as relaxation, being soothed, happiness, or excitement. My hope is that the same emotions I am feeling so strongly while I knead get incorporated into the dough, to be expelled later into the person who burns it. For this reason I do not make incense when I’m angry or highly distracted. That means most of my crafting happens when the kids aren’t around.

After adding water and binder

From here, depending on how much time I have, I will either mould this into cones or sticks, or set it back in the bowl and into the refrigerator to allow the herbs to get to know each other a little better for a day or so before I shape them. I have only recently started making dhoop incense, which is basically stick incense without a bamboo skewer inside. Please bear with me if you see me selling incense stick that are less than perfectly straight– I’m an artisan, not an engineer!

If you are interested in seeing more of my process and the things I create, I suggest you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, as I frequently post photos of whatever I am working on.

What kinds of plants do YOU like to burn? Have you ever made incense before?

Favorite Herb This Week: Black Birch!

Black Birch (betula lenta) is definitely one of my Top Ten favorite herbs of all time. And luckily for me, it’s ALL OVER the place here in Northeastern Connecticut!

A young black birch I saw on my walk today

Black birch and it’s brother, White birch (also known as the Paper Birch) can pretty much be used interchangeably medicinally speaking, so I have been trying to only work with black birch trees because the white birch are kind of endangered due to the bronze birch borer and a condition called birch dieback (Source). Birch trees can be tapped in the early spring to collect their sap (a great drink in and of itself) in order to make birch syrup, and the inner bark can be harvested to make a flour substitute, though I would only ever try this on a recently fallen or cut tree.

See the horizontal lines in the bark, along with the light/white patches?

It is never recommended that you harvest bark directly from the trunk of the tree, as doing so could accidentally girdle it and cause it to die. Instead, ask the plant’s permission to harvest a branch or two and simply prune them off if it tells you it’s okay. Always leave an offering for the tree, such as a pinch of tobacco or kinnickkinnick, or a few pieces of your hair in way of thanks. Then take them home and carefully strip the bark off each section of branch, being sure to capture the cambium layer. You can also add the buds to your concoction.

Harvesting and scraping bark is always done in late winter or early spring, hence the ugly sweatshirt

My absolute favorite thing to make with birch bark is an infused oil. Some of my birch oil jars have sat for months before I remembered to strain them, but it always works out as the batch just gets even stronger. Add a few drops of birch essential oil and voila! You have the BEST topical painkiller for muscle and joint aches. I think this year I will try making a small batch of tincture as well, as I hear that is useful internally for joint pain. I’ve had arthritis since my early 20s and farming really hurts my back some days, so every little thing I can find to relieve the pain helps!

Birch buds in January

Black birch twigs are useful as fire starters, and fresh twigs can be chewed by adults as a breath freshener and by toddlers to help relieve teething pain.

What do you think? Do you ever work with birch bark? Remember, I can sell you some of the oil I make if you’d like to experience birch’s magical healing properties!

Life Will Find a Way

As 2020 comes to a close, I want to share a few thoughts.

Looking up into the basement window. It’s BASE-MINT!

This is mint growing INSIDE our basement. This window is up high, so this photo wasn’t easy to take. But right outside this little basement window is my first herb garden, in which I am fighting a yearly battle with spearmint taking over.

A couple days ago, we got solar panels installed on our house. They haven’t been activated just yet, but the guys installing everything trampled the shit out of my herb garden just outside this little window. Outside it’s a rocky, dirty, barren wreck.

But yesterday Nik noticed something green in the window. This little chunk of mint weaseled it’s way either through the cracks in our stone foundation or just under that old, ratty window (this house was built in 1952 and those windows are original) and sprouted up to get what little light it could from the inside. It’s making a life for itself in a very challenging place. Just outside, the whole patch where this came from was dug up, trampled, destroyed.

But this little piece of mint survived.

How you can see it from where you normally stand

I think after the year 2020 has been for many of us, we can learn a lot from this little mint. Instead of seeing it as annoying or invasive, I think I will look at it as inspiring.

No matter how hard 2020 trampled you, your family, or your friends, you can still find a spot of light from inside and grow back again.

Happy New Year, and Blessed Be!

Herbal Experimentation

While I have had some herbalist education, listen to educational podcasts, and look through my herbal healing books on a regular basis, I do not consider myself an expert. I am more knowledgeable than most, and I continue to learn something new about herbs and the way they work every day. Part of this learning process is experimentation.

Remember a few posts back about my herbal steam? That worked GREAT to help clear my stuffy nose, but whatever I had ended up moving into my chest after awhile. So I was coughing, or feeling the urge to cough (unproductively, I might add) for WEEKS. As in I just stopped coughing for the most part within the past few days. The best part is that of course, now my husband has it. Things like this trend to work their way through his system WAY faster than mine, so I’m not too worried.

Anyway, part of what I did over the past few weeks to help us get through this is to make an herbal cough syrup. Have you ever tried Wild Cherry Bark Cough Syrup? That stuff is awesome! It’s the reason old fashioned cough syrup didn’t taste that great… but it works like a dream. Anyway, I had harvested some wild cherry bark back in February of this year and thought I should try working with this wonderful herbal ally. Then I thought: Ooh! Rose hips would add vitamin C! And I harvested some elacampane root this year, that’s an excellent cough remedy… Oh, and I have some dried elderberries, let’s throw some of those in! It kind of kept going like that until I had thrown all together: elderberries, rose hips, wild cherry bark, red sumac berries, astragalus root, elacampane root, fresh ginger, a cinnamon stick, some cloves, black peppercorns, licorice root, and a little white pine bark.

I know, I sound like a kitchen sink herbalist here. And sometimes I am! But I am getting better at realizing that certain herbs not only work well together, but also TASTE great together. So I simmered this concoction in water for a good half hour to an hour. After that, I strained the solids out through a cheese cloth, then returned the resulting liquid back to the pot and turned the burner on low. I was aiming to reduce the liquid a bit, to concentrate the constituents before adding my sweetener.

I have the patience of a gnat, so this didn’t last long. I kept the heat on low for about twenty minutes, and around the end I added about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of raw honey. I actually had some old sage-infused honey in the cupboard so I figured that would be an even better added boost, since sage is known for healing scratchy throats. I didn’t measure jack squat throughout this entire process, so I’m sorry I can’t give you an exact recipe here. The glass pot I use holds about a quart’s worth of water, if that helps. I wanted to keep the heat low so I wouldn’t kill any of the benefits from the raw honey.

Anyhoo, after the honey was well incorporated into the warm decoction, I poured it through the cheesecloth again for good measure and into a glass swing top bottle I had. After pouring it all in, I had a little room left near the top of the bottle. This was perfect, because I really wanted to add some brandy to the jar to help preserve the mixture, mainly because I hadn’t used nearly enough honey to turn it into a real “syrup.” I would guess I added about 1/3 cup of brandy, then I plugged the top with the swing top cork and gave the bottle a shake. I opened it once to burp it, just in case, then closed it up again and stuck it in the door of the refrigerator.

Finished syrup

We are now on our second bottle. I occasionally change up the recipe (am I out of rose hips? Add some orange peels instead… maybe throw some mullein leaves into the pot after the heat has been turned off) and we are going through it like crazy because it works FANTASTIC. The kids like it, we all love the flavor, and it helps stop the coughing for a good couple of hours. Instead of a small medicine cup, we just take about a half shot glass’ worth, maybe a bit more if the coughing is really bad. I gave some to my daughter to help her cough last week and she stopped coughing immediately. I wouldn’t worry about the brandy– it doesn’t really add more alcohol than a regular bottle of commercial medicine would have in it anyhow.

Changing Your Outlook

Changing your behavior or your emotions is really hard, especially for anyone with a strong personality or psychological issues. You could be addicted to some substance and having a hell of a time quitting, you could have Seasonal Affective Disorder over the dark, dreary winter months, you could have lost a loved one and be unable to let go, you could have an Attention Deficit Disorder and not be able to organize your thoughts properly or get yourself to actually DO any of the things that need doing around your house. There are many, many facets to psychology and the human mind. And I’ll say right now: I’m not a psychologist. But I AM a flower essence practitioner, and I know from experience that flower essences can help.

Flower essences are energetic medicine. Just a few drops of essence in your water or cool beverage of choice a few times throughout the day produces the desired effect– your mind will suddenly start thinking in a different way. Your heart or brain fog will clear and the feelings you WISHED to feel will materialize. The words stuck inside your head that you couldn’t manifest with your mouth will suddenly flow freely from the tongue. You’ll finally get up and do the pile of dishes in the sink that have been sitting there for days (Blackberry). You’ll finally tell your significant other that you want to do the thing you’ve been wanting to do, but were afraid to tell them about (Echinacea). You’ll finally be able to stop crying over Grandma’s death (Borage).

St. John’s Wort Flower Essence is a powerful tool against S.A.D.

Flower essences are POWERFUL medicine. But they are also incredibly SAFE to take. Flower essences are not the same as a medicinal tincture; you can be on actual pharmaceutical medicine and still safely take flower essences. However, if your pharmaceutical meds are of a kind that affect behavior in some way (antidepressants or ADHD meds for example,) the flower essence may not work as intended. The flower wants to work with YOU, not the medication you’re on.

Whatever personal goal you are feeling the need to help yourself with, please consider flower essence therapy. If you would like help or suggestions, use the Contact Us form and I will gladly help you choose the best essence (or combination of essences) to help you. Please peruse our Flower Essence Listings (scroll down for more) for yourself or a loved one. If you would like help healing your whole self, body and mind, consider a Consultation. But don’t knock the power of flower essences until you try them!

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