Connection to Earth & Ancestry Through Herbal Smoke Cleansing

This post originally appeared on the Full Circle Yoga & Healing Arts Blog on August 7, 2020.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in the garden. Whether watering my recent succulent transplants or pruning back overgrown herbs, I like to spend at least a little time each day communing with the plants and letting their energy nourish my spirit. As I was cutting back my abundant yarrow patch, overflowing with feathery green leaves, I began pondering what to do with it all. I’d already made plenty of fresh yarrow tincture, infused it into coconut oil for making salve (my own personal “Neosporin”), and dried much more for later use. Then I remembered a recent post from Rosalee de la Forêt about making your own herbal “smudge sticks” and wondered about using my excess yarrow for smoke cleansing.

Smudging & Smoke Cleansing

You may have heard of smudging or smoke cleansing before. Many use the term smudging to refer to the ancient cultural practice of many Indigenous peoples of the United States using white sage (Salvia apiana). Smudging with white sage by non-native people is considered unethical; though it may not necessarily be cultural appropriation (there is debate on this), at the very least it is disrespectful to Indigenous peoples AND has resulted in the commercialization, overharvesting, and endangerment of white sage as a species.

For this reason, many herbalists and bloggers have begun to call attention to the fact that smoke cleansing—the use of herbal smoke (from burning dried plants or incense) for aromatic, cleansing, meditative, and spiritual benefits—is not a practice unique to Native American cultures, but has been practiced around the globe and throughout history. Many are familiar with the use of frankincense smoke in religious practices, which date as far back as 6000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia (unfortunately continued use and overuse of frankincense has resulted in commercialization and overexploitation that has threatened many species).

As this article points out, there are many reasons why you might want to consider the benefits of smoke cleansing yourself. Having been introduced to smudging with white sage by Latinx friends, I have grown fond of the spiritual and ritual aspects of this practice. Yet I have long felt conflicted about the ethical implications of buying sage or practicing a ritual not native to my ancestors.

Herbs to Use

Thanks to that article by Rosalee, however, I decided not to let my desire to avoid the cultural act of smudging stop me from practicing smoke cleansing myself. As I am often reminded when it comes to herbalism, there are so many plants to choose from, and when one might not be available (or should be avoided for ethical reasons), a variety of others will probably work just as well.

For smoke cleansing, many herbs common to western herbalism and culinary use make good alternatives to sage. And if you’re not sure what herbs to go for, a quick search of the plants native to and popular in the cultures of your ancestors is a great place to start. Some herbs to consider: lavender, rosemary, thyme, mullein, mugwort, cedar, and yarrow. So, after harvesting a large bunch of yarrow leaves, I decided to put together my own homemade “smudge sticks.” Not wanting to limit myself to only yarrow, I looked around my yard at the other herbs I had in abundance; a little research about the herbs common to my ancestors in northern Europe helped me narrow my additions to oregano, thyme, and culinary sage (Salvia officinalis).

Time Well Spent

That quiet Monday morning, I spent a couple of hours harvesting, bundling, and tying together the herbs using Rosalee’s method and hanging them to dry. Though it may seem like a lot of effort to some, that project was actually an important gift to myself… time spent in mindful connection with the earth’s gifts, with the spirits of plants, and honoring the spirits of my ancestors without needing to further steal from Indigenous peoples or their land.