Guide to Pacific Northwest Incense

Burning smudgeBurning botanicals for pleasure, ceremony, and medicine is something we humans have performed for millennia. We just really like to light things on fire and the act never fails to bring us a child-like awe and some kind of primal pleasure. Imagine our pyromaniac ancestor’s excited delight in discovering that certain plants smell amazing when lit on fire and the smoke inhaled.  I burn incense on an almost daily basis. I started blending my own loose incenses and making my own smudge wands eight years ago and my passion for knowledge on native plants quickly drove me to research which aromatic botanicals from the Pacific Northwest would be best for incense and smudge. This guide is the result of almost a decade worth of research and hands-on experience.

This short guide is designed for use by those with some wild harvesting knowledge and experience. Please practice ethical harvesting of any of the botanicals mentioned only taking 10% of a plant or colony of plants and 20% of the aerial parts of a plant (leaves, flowers, seeds). Special care should be taken not to harm trees when harvesting resin which should not be confused with tree sap. Resin flows from wounds and is needed by the tree to heal itself – only take the excess drippings around a wound. Many trees can product resins, but the ones listed in this guide are the ones that can be easily found for wild harvesting or for purchasing.


  • Benzoin – Bee Propolis Resin
  • Copal & Frankincense – Douglas Fir or Lodgepole Pine Resins
  • Myrrh – Poplar Buds
  • Palo Santo – Western Hemlock Needles/Resin or Western Red Cedar Wood
  • Red Sandalwood – Fresh or Decayed Western Red Cedar Wood
  • White Sandalwood –  Willow Bark
  • White Sage – Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)

Western Hemlock Harvesting Hemlock for incense Pacific Northwest Incense


To learn more about each botanical I recommend a good local field guide to learn how to identify it, where you you can find it in your area, and the best time to harvest it.

Flowers: elderflowers (Sambucus cerulea and racemosa), rose petals (Rosa nutkana, Rosa gymnocarpa), wild violet flowers and roots, Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Conifers: Alaskan Cypress (Cupressus nootkatensis), Juniper leaves and berries (Juniperus communis and scopulorum), Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta), Mountain Hemlock, Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar

Resins: Bee propolis resin (naturally created by bees from tree resins and beeswax), Bitter Cherry (Prunus emarginata), Black Cottonwood balsam (poplar bud resin), Douglas Fir resin, Lodgepole Pine resin

Herbs: Field Mint (Mentha arvensis), Mountain Sagewort (artemisia artica), Northern Wormwood (Artemisia campestris pacifica),  Suksdorf’s Mugwort (Artemisia suksdorfii), Western Mugwort (Artemisia ludoviciana), Silver Burweed (Ambrosia chamissonis), Sweet Flag root (Acorus calamus americanus), Sweet Gale seed and leaf (Myrica gale), Sweet Grass (Hierochloe odorata), Vanilla Leaf (Achlys triphylla), Yerba Buena (Satureja douglasii).

Wild Sagebrush


When crafting smudge wands, it is best to always do so using fresh botanicals and to make the smudge wands the same day or the day after you harvest the materials. All you need is a pair of garden shears, scissors, and a vegetable fibre string such as cotton, hemp, or flax.

Smudge Wands

There is no right or wrong way to craft smudge wands. Get a nice thick bundle of fresh herbs and tie them at one end with string. Wind the string tightly and evenly around the bundle, tucking in any loose bits as you go. Tie off the string again at the opposite end. Trim any sticky-outy bits with scissors and then allow to dry in a paper bag in a warm, dry place for a few weeks before use. You can light smudge sticks with a lighter, a small blow torch, a burning charcoal, a gas flame, a fire, or even a car cigarette lighter. To extinguish, snuff out in dry sand or dirt until no part is glowing orange or smoking – do not get wet.

Blend red cedar, juniper, western hemlock, or douglas fir tips with white sage leaves or branches of wild sagebrush for a unique spin on the traditional sage smudge wand. Create herbal smudge wands by adding clippings of any of the flowers or herbs listed above under the aromatics section to a bundle of sage or conifer tips. Try wild mint or yerba buena with wild roses, mugwort, and sagebrush. Western hemlock, northern wormwood, and sagebrush would be excellent for attracting benevolent spirits.  Western mugwort, red cedar, juniper, and sagebrush would be good for protection, and yarrow, mugwort, wormwood, and sagebrush would serve you well when burned during divinatory rites.

Rocky Mountain Juniper Smudge Wand

Sweetgrass Braid

If you can get your hands on fresh sweetgrass, gather pieces of the same length, tie at one end and then divide into three bundles. Carefully braid until you run out of even ends. Tie again and then allow to dry for a few weeks before use.

Witch’s Whisk

A traditional smudge wand from the British Isles. Harvest the tips of fresh blackberry vines, snipping off the leaves and shaving off the thorns with a knife. You can alternately keep the thorns on if you wear heavy leather gloves. Bundle many of the vines together until it is one or more inches in diametre and bind it very tightly with string. Allow to dry thoroughly for a month before use. Remove the string, cut the long bundle of vines into smaller ones and tightly bind only one end of each to create the whisk.  Optional – soak in warmed beeswax for 10 minutes and allow to cool. This will cause the witch’s whisk to burn better. Burn to clear a space of evil spirits. Burn to cleanse a person, place, or thing of a witch’s curse. Burn before rituals indoors or outdoors. Burn in and around your home for protection.

Witch's Whisk


There are many different types of incense, but in this guide I will only describe how to craft ambers, compound incenses, and loose incense. I don’t make cone or stick incense myself as I prefer my incense to be more pure and without fillers.

Amber Resin

Amber resin is not referring to the ancient fossilized tree resin we use as beads for jewelry, but to amber incense which is usually crafted from beeswax mixed with solid and liquid benzoin resin and sometimes styrax resin blended with vanilla. All of these ingredients, minus the beeswax, are very exotic (and don’t usually have the most ethical harvesting practices) so I created my own amber resin recipe using plants native to my area. Bee propolis resin is the substitute for benzoin and already contains beeswax so it seemed a natural and delectable choice.

3 parts bee propolis resin, cleaned, dried, and finely powdered
1 part sweet grass, cut, dried, and finely powdered
1/2 part vanilla leaf, dried and finely powdered
local honey

Place the resin in a mixing bowl, put the sweetgrass and vanilla leaf through a seive before adding to it. Blend well. Add a few spoon fulls of local unpasteurized honey. If the mixture sticks together, but is still a bit crumbly, it is ready. If it’s still too powdery and dusty, add more honey.

Line a square or rectangular container with waxed paper and firmly press the amber resin mixture into it. Loosely place another piece of wax paper on top of it and put it somewhere dark, warm, and dry for 1-2 weeks. Remove from mould and wax paper and cut with a serrated knife into smaller burnable chunks.

Propolis Amber Resin

Compound Incense

This type of incense uses plants, tree resins, honey, and liquid mixed together and pressed into shapes or crumbled. It is only semi-dry and thus not powdery like loose incense. One example of a compound incense is an Egyptian kyphi – an ancient recipe method we can use today substituting our favourite aromatics.

Wet Base:

  • Dried berries or fruit that form a sticky paste when ground. currants, gooseberries, elderberries, hawthorn berries, juniper berries, mountain ash berries, and rosehips all work well.
  • Local unpasteurized honey such as clover, dandelion, or fireweed.
  • A fragrant liquid that will evaporate when the incense is cured – local wine or mead, rosewater, and hydrosols are best.

Measuring is done by eye based on how much plant matter you have to work with. To your ground fruit, add a few spoon fulls of honey and glugs of liquid and blend with a metal spoon or your hands until it forms a thick, wet, and sticky paste. Place in an air tight container and alllow to rest for one week

Dry Base:

  • 1 part tree resin(s)
  • 1 part aromatic herb(s)

The dry base is a half and half blend of resins and herbs that can be dried, ground, and powdered. You can use one resin or a blend of many. The herbs can be roots, flowers, leaves, or even aromatic seeds. Powder, blend, and place in an air tight container separate from the wet base and allow to rest for one week to infuse the scents.

After a week is up blend the two bases together adding more honey or liquid if needed. Place back into an airtight container and allow to rest one more week. After this time, remove and form into shapes, or press the entirety of the mixture into a wax paper lined baking sheet. Place another sheet of was paper loosely on top and allow to cure (air dry) for 2-3 weeks. Now you can put your incense into a sealed container and burn it a little bit at a time at your pleasure.

Loose Incense

Loose incense is the easiest method for making incense, easier even than smudge. Simply grind and powder your ingredients until they are all roughly the same size, blend well, and then burn a pinch at a time on charcoal. You can craft loose incense using only resins, only smudging herbs, or a blend of both. The possibilities are endless and up to you. Below are some recipes to play with.

Pine, Poplar, and Propolis resin blend


Ritual Incense

1 part conifer resin
1 part poplar buds

Dry ingredients and grind with a mortar and pestle or a coffee/spice grinder. This is a substitute for the traditional blend of frankincense and myrrh. Burn a pinch to cleanse a space for any ritual or spellwork, or to call, feed, or banish spirits and deities.

Temple Incense

1 part bee propolis resin
1 part conifer resin
1 part poplar buds

Burn for tranquility, for prayer and meditation, or rituals. A substitute for the traditional blend of frankincense, myrrh, and benzoin used in churches.

Purification Incense

1 part sagebrush leaves
1 part red cedar leaves
1 part conifer resin

Burn for cleansing people, places, and objects. Excellent for house cleansing or for purifying people before performing a ceremony or interacting with spirits

Ancestor Incense

1 part conifer resin
1 part poplar buds
1 part white willow bark
1 part northern wormwood
pinch of pacific yew needles
pinch of graveyard dirt

Burn to summon the spirits of the dead. Best used on or near the dark moon.

Good Spirits Incense

1 part western hemlock needles, dried
1 part red cedar leaves, dried
1 part conifer resin

Grind and burn to attract benevolent spirits to your magical rites.

Spirit Food Incense I

1 part bee propolis resin
2 parts red cedar wood, powdered (fresh for animal/plant spirits, decayed for the dead)
2 parts western hemlock needles, dried

Burn to give offering and energy to the spirits of the dead or familiar spirits during rites. Make sure the spirits are the ones you intended to call and work with before feeding them.

Spirit Food Incense II (Kyphi)

Wet Ingredients:

1/2 part yew berries, de-seeded and dried
2 parts mountain ash berries, dried
Local wine or mead
Local unpasteurized honey

Dry Ingredients:

1/2 part fly agaric (amanita muscaria), dried (caps/skin only)*
1 part decayed or fresh red cedar wood
1 part conifer resin
1 part poplar buds
1 part bee propolis resin

Grind berries and mix in wine and honey until it becomes a thick paste. Place in an air tight container and let rest for 3-7 days. Grind dry ingredients and blend, place in an air tight container and let rest for the same 3-7 days. After waiting, blend the wet and dry ingredients together, place into a container again and allow to rest for 1-2 weeks. Form into small balls or bricks and air dry for 1 week or place in a dehydrator.

*fly agaric is psychoactive – be careful when burning indoors.

Spirit Banishing Incense

1 part conifer resin
2 parts wild rose petals, bark, leaves, and thorns
2 parts red cedar leaves
1 part juniper leaves and/or berries

Burn to say a gentle farewell to familiar ancestral or other spirits with kind words or to forcefully send dangerous or uncooperative spirits back to their realm with a sharp tongue and help from your spirits or deities. Removes attachments of spirits to people and the middle realm.

Divination Incense

1 parts conifer resin
1 part bistort (polygonum bistortoides / viviparum)
1 part northern wormwood
1 part western mugwort (or substitute mountain sagewort)

Burn to enhance psychic gifts before divining with your chosen method.

Curse Reversal Incense

1 part fern leaves
1 part tobacco

Burn to remove curses and crossed conditions.

Journeying Incense

2 parts conifer resin
1 part juniper berries*
1 part northern wormwood*
1 part western mugwort (or substitute mountain sagewort)*
1 part yarrow flowers

Grind ingredients to an even consistency and blend. Burn on charcoal or a fire and inhale the smoke. Good for trance work, spirit work, crossing the hedge, seership and divination. *ingredients are mildly psychoactive, use caution.

Sweet Love Incense

1 part bee propolis resin
1/2 part bitter cherry resin
2 parts wild rose petals
2 parts sweetgrass

Burn to sweeten your home and the people in it. Burn to promote happiness and love.

Insect Repellent Loose Smudge

2 parts red cedar leaf
2 part western mugwort
1 part yarrow flowers
1 part sweet gale
1 part vanilla leaf

Burn to keep away unwanted insects (especially mosquitoes and flies). Great for outdoor rituals – throw on the bonfire.



It may seem like a simple thing to some, but many do not know how to burn resins or loose incense. We are so used to stick or cone incense or white sage leaves which burn so easily and steadily. Don’t worry, there is no need for fancy or expensive supplies. The simplest way to burn resins, kyphi incense, amber incense, or loose incense (powdered) is on charcoal.

To make your own incense censer at home all you need is a small plate and an empty and clean cat food/tuna etc can placed on the plate upside down. You can also use any fireproof container and fill it with sand. A large coffee can, a clay flower pot, an iron cauldron or a small brass or copper planter or bowl with feet all work. Thrift stores often have such useful containers for a dollar or two. You can get sand from a dollar store, garden store, a beach, or your kid’s sandbox.

Now you need charcoal. If you have a fire place or a fire pit you can make your own and take a piece of wood charcoal out of a burning fire with tongs and place it in your homemade censer. The most common practice is to use incense or hooka charcoal, also known as self-lighting charcoal. You can buy a roll of the black charcoal disks for a dollar or four at most Middle Eastern shops. The shop two blocks from my house sells three different kinds. Sometimes you can also find them in Chinatown – especially at shops that sell ancestor worship supplies. Failing that, you can buy them on-line from most large herbal retailers like Mountain Rose.

Light the charcoal round with a lighter or match while holding it (if you’re afraid to hold it, use small metal tongs). Wait for it to spark and for a wave of orange-red sparks to start moving through the charcoal. Place in your censer and wait 5 minutes until the entire charcoal disk is glowing red and hot. If it doesn’t light, try again and hold it for a bit longer before placing it in the censer. If your charcoal is crumbly and won’t light it may have been exposed to moisture. Toss it and use a new package.

Once it is happily glowing, add a pinch of pure resin or a loose incense blend. If it burns too fast, place aluminum foil on top of the charcoal and your incense on top of the foil – this works especially well with amber resins and kyphi incense which should be burned slowly. Need charcoal ready to go for a long ritual? Light one, and once it’s completely glowing orange, place one to two more charcoal disks underneath it. The heat from the first one will slowly light the others. You can do this before, or in the middle of the ritual when your first charcoal is half burned out. Dust off ashes and residue with tongs or a metal spoon each time you are going to put more incense on the charcoal.

Other incense burning options include purchasing an electric incense burner or simply placing a piece of aluminum foil on top of your lit cast iron wood stove and placing a piece of resin or a pinch of loose incense on top of the foil (I wish I had a cast iron stove so I could do this). If you are performing a ritual or a healing somewhere with a fireplace or outdoor fire pit, you can throw a large handful of smudging herbs on the fire once or many times as needed.

Article and photos © 2014 Sarah Anne Lawless.

I hereby release this article’s text (but not the photos) under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivs License. Meaning, you can share this article on your blog, tumblr, or website as long as I am properly attributed (with my name as author and a link back to the original article on my website) and you do not alter the article or try to make money from it in any way.

Join the discussion 19 Comments

  • Patricia says:

    What an informative and generous sharing. Thank you!

  • jonquil says:

    While I have had my charcoal spark (so neat to watch the sparks spread through the disk) I have never been able to get it any where near the ‘glowing orange’ stage. Ever.

    • Sarah says:

      Usually the orange glow is hidden under the white ash it produces as it burns. Do you mean you haven’t been able to get a charcoal to stay lit and burn for an hour? If so, the culprit may be moisture and not you! A lot of retailers don’t store their charcoal properly and we witches suffer.

    • Robin Wallace says:

      Jonquil, one thing that helps me keep my charcoal dry is to store it in a container with one of those little desiccant packs that comes with new shoes. Or you could put rice or powdered white clay (or any other desiccant in a piece of cloth or stocking inside your storage container. I have had much better luck when using bamboo charcoal (a non-sparking/self-lighting kind) since I started storing it with a desiccant. Before that, it seemed to take forever to light it.

  • Michael DeMarco says:

    This whole post is exceptionally well done. Thank you for the inspiration.

  • Afshin says:

    Cool post Sarah! I’ve yet to try mugwort and wormwood during my divination sessions! 😉

  • Angel says:

    Excellent recipe list. I discovered the hard way the power of pine resin burned in close quarters. O_O turns out a little goes a long. damn. way.

  • dre says:

    Excellent! Question: were there any resources that were particularly helpful to you in figuring out what is suitable to burn and what isn’t? I’m wondering how to best transpose this information to my local plants. There is some crossover, but not a lot. Just wondering how much was trial and error versus following/experimenting with an already established knowledge.

    • Sarah says:

      It was a combination of burning things and sniffing them as well as research. A local field guide plus Uses & Abuses of Plant-Derived Smoke plus Native American Ethnobotany. Being very well versed in exotic and traditional incenses and smudge also helped A LOT.

      In general, you’re looking for aromatics – botanicals that smell good and are full of tasty volatile oils. Do they smell good as they are? Not until you dry them? When you crush them in your hand? Play with everything you find (unless it’s toxic).

  • Robin Wallace says:

    Hi Sarah, one more quick question for you, but no worries if you don’t have time to answer (I have 2 year old twins, so I know that mamas often fall into the “ain’t nobody got time for that!” category 😉 ) Do you clean, dry and powder your own propolis? Looks like it is rather hard to find already in that state. From what I have read it sounds like freezing is a good way to do both? Thanks again for posting your wondering incense info. Cheers, Robin

    • Sarah says:

      Sorry, I somehow missed your comment earlier! When the propolis is for ingestion (tincture or mead) I’ll clean it, but if it’s for incense it is okay to use it as is (bee parts and all). The smell is still amazing. Yes, a beekeeper taught me to put the propolis in the freezer before grinding as it makes it a LOT easier.

  • Tamara says:

    Thank you for this, Sarah. Do you have any information on common herbs which can be used to smudge? I’ve come across some resources, but would be interested on your input. Thanks!

  • Shy says:

    The Pacific Northwest community is very lucky to have someone such as yourself who is knowledgeable and will to share said knowledge. I wish that there were such guides for the American Southwest. I will try to use your substitutions, but our flora is so entirely different. Our forests are different then the rain forests of the Pac NW (from saguaro forests to pine forests). Maybe I should get plucky and attempt to write a a guide. Anyway, thank you for what you share.

  • Margaret says:

    Beautiful article ! Many thanks <3
    Question~How do you gather your Bee propolis resin/Where do you buy it?

    • Sarah says:

      Some herbal retailers sell it, though it goes out of stock quickly and can be pricey. If you know anyone who is a beekeeper or know of beekeepers near you, you can ask them if they sell propolis or if they’d be willing to install propolis mats in their hives to collect it and sell it. I’ve found it at farmer’s markets and craft fairs where there are beekeepers too.

      Try this in google search: “propolis resin” -extract -tincture -liquid

  • Riezen says:

    Wonderful guide! I think I have found another use for my beloved Hoary Mountain Mint.