I recently posted about my research on Eastern White Cedar, and I wanted to follow-up that post with information on making smudge sticks, inspired by Eastern White Cedar. Smudge sticks are bundles of herbs that are dried and burned for purification and ceremonial uses. They come out of Native American traditions, but today they are broadly used by many for their purification purposes. I use them as a druid in my ceremonies, to bless and cleanse my house, to cleanse outdoor spaces that are in some kind of energetic funk. But I also use them practically–as a blessing for my garden at the start of the growing season, as a way to remove hostile energies from my chickens who aren’t getting along, or to pass among friends before sharing a meal. They are a great way to bring a bit of ceremony and the sacred into the everyday.
Why make your own smudges? Sustainability, Plant Ally Relationship Building, Intentions
Like many ritual objects, smudges are often created, shipped, and encased in plastic without a clear sense of their origins or whether or not the plants were harvested in a sustainable way. This means, at minimum, that fossil fuels are expended to get them into your hands and waste is created in the packaging and processing. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, with ritual objects and food and everything else, the objects we choose to use reflect the energies of their creation. This means that if the sage was grown and harvested conventionally using chemicals that polluted the land, the sage carries those energies. Do you want to use that for a sacred ceremony honoring the land? I really don’t think this point can be understated, even though its often overlooked.
There’s also the matter of developing close relationships with plants that grow in your bioregion and working with their energies. I have found that if I’m burning traditional smudge plants such as desert sage and incense cedar (plants don’t grow near me in Michigan), I think another kind of disconnection occurs–a disconnection with the local plants that might be grown or used for this purpose. Anyone anywhere can burn desert sage that they purchased at a store–but what makes my region unique is that I can burn mullein or sweet clover in my smudges along with a more traditional sage. I want to honor the plants that grow here; I want to grow plants ceremonially for this purpose, and be involved in every aspect of the creation of an object used for sacred activity. So given the reasons above, I’ve taken to making my own smudge sticks!
If you are crafting your own smudge sticks, you can develop them for specific purposes. A mullein-sage-rosemary smudge for personal clearing would be different than a sage-sweetclover-cedar smudge for typical house cleansing or a juniper-lavender-mugwort smudge for good dreaming. You can craft smudges that can be used for different purposes and craft them with intent.
Determining Energetic Qualities of Plants
I use a combination of readings on magical herbalism from the western tradition, traditional western herbalism, the doctrine of signatures, my own understandings/intuition, and my work with plant allies to decide what plants should go in what smudges. Sometimes I craft smudges by intuition alone, and then have them ready to give a friend or use when I feel led. Other times, I research the plants or put plants together that I know serve a specific purpose (like mugwort for travels or dreams). The process here should be of your own design, and for that reason, I’m not giving you general “use this plant for this” because A) there’s a lot of that out there already; B) the plants don’t like to be put into such boxes; and C) many plants have multiple, varied uses. Sage works for so much more than just purification, for example, but if you look it up, you’ll find it listed time and time again for purification and cleansing. Yes, sage is great at that, but sage has other uses! And furthermore, if you are using wildcrafted and local ingredients, there might *not* be a magical tradition surrounding that plant–but you still may feel led to use it. That’s perfectly fine–you can let the plant spirit and your intuition guide your path.
Finding Local Plants for Your Smudges
In the next section, I’ll be talking about some of the plants that I use to make smudges. These plants are local to my bioregion (zone 6A, South-eastern Michigan) so you may have to adapt this list. If you aren’t sure if the plant in your bioregion would make a nice smudge, simply dry some out and burn it; with one caveat–I never burn noxious or poisonous plants, but plants I know are used for herbalism or food (e.g. do NOT EVER burn poison ivy or poison hemlock). Use some common sense. But if the plant already has uses as a medicinal herb, edible herb, or smoking herb, then its perfectly fine to see if you can use it for a smudge. See how it smells, see how energetically it makes you feel. See if it smolders (smoldering plants, like mullein or sage, are particularly useful for smudges). Pay attention to the conifer trees that grow nearby–chances are many of them burn nicely and smell good.
Plants that Can Go Into Smudges
1) Aromatic Cultivated herbs. Aromatic herbs are one of my biggest categories of plants for crafting smudges–aromatic herbs are herbs that smell strongly when you rub them. Many aromatic herbs make great additions to smudge sticks because they smell great and have good energetic qualities of clearing. Be careful, however–not all aromatic herbs burn the way they smell–make sure you burn a bit before adding them into your smudges or you may be in for a surprise. Mint and lemon balm are a good example of this–mint and lemon balm smell and taste amazing, unfortunately, neither burn with a pleasant smell. Other aromatic herbs, like valerian, are extremely potent when burned (and are extremely potent in general) so you’ll want to use caution. These are the aromatic herbs that I’ve found through incense making and trial and error work well:
- Sage – White sage has the most distinct smell, but many sages smell wonderful. Even garden sage burns with a pleasant aroma, pleasant but different than white sage. I grow many different kinds of sages for my smudges.
- Rosemary – Rosemary is another staple for smudges. Interestingly enough, you can use both the root and the plant of rosemary–and they have different qualities. The rosemary stalks burn wonderfully in a smudge.
- Lavender – I like to include a quite bit of lavender in my smudges for both the pleasant aroma and the energetic qualities–it smells just wonderful when burned and is a powerful plant ally.
- Sweet Grass – This does not grow around me, and thus far, my attempts to get any started from seed have been thwarted. However, if you can grow or obtain some ethically, it is a wonderful addition for a lot of reasons (good smelling, honors the spirits).
- Hyssop – An herb with ancient connections to purification work. Hyssop smells wonderful.
- Eucalyptus – Another herb for clearing work; its smolders nicely. You have to plant this in my region–it doesn’t grow wild, but will grow to a nice size over the summer.
- Valerian – I have used dried valerian flower stalks in my smudges primarily, although I suppose the roots would work as well (the roots would be even more potent). Valerian is extremely potent as both a cleansing herb but also in smell–I would only use a little in a smudge, and that smudge would be typically reserved for clearing really nasty energies or hostile energies out (and I’d burn it with the windows open).
- Bay leaf: I have also had luck with bay leaf as a smouldering herb.
2) Wildharvested Aromatic and Medicinal Herbs: In addition to those you can grow in your garden, I have found that a number of wildharvested herbs are wonderful for smudges. I got most of the ideas for these when I was taking my four season herbalism course and we were talking about smoking blends. If they work in a smoking blend and are safe for that, they can work great in a smudge as well!
- Mugwort – Mugwort has a nice smell when burned (and its used in a lot of herbal smoking blends). Mugwort is specifically tied to dreams and can produce very vivid dreaming. While this is a good thing short term, do keep in mind that vivid dreams over a long period of time can exhaust you–so use mugwort with care, but definitely use it! Mugwort also grows beautifully straight and tall, and really does do well in smudges. A lot of people cultivate mugwort, but I find it wild growing everywhere around here. I really love this plant.
- Sweet Clover – This is my solution to the lack of sweet grass–sweet clover does not burn as sweetly, but energetically, it has similar qualities and a similar smell. And it grows wild around here (and my bees adore it).
- Mullein – Mullein leaves have a nice “smoldering” quality–they smolder in the same way that sage smolders. They don’t smell nearly as nice, but the smoke itself does have a beneficial impact on the lungs and can, medicinally, be used for “clearing” out the lungs of toxins. Follow me here–in Buddhist practice, the lungs are said to house grief. I think, for a personal smudge stick where I was working to clear out some deep emotions and emotional recovery, I would most definitely put mullein in it
- Yarrow: Yarrow is another herb I like to use a lot in my smudges for its energetic qualities; it smells a lot like itself when it burns due to the high volatile oil content.
2) Trees. Traditionally, cedars (like incense cedar or red cedar) were used for smudges out west. In my bioregion, I look primarily to the conifer for smudging possibilities (you can cut these and use them fresh):
- Eastern Red Cedar/Juniper (Juniperus virginiana): This is a wonderfully aromatic plant with berries that also are used medicinally. I love using juniper in my smudges–but it has little prickly bits, so use it carefully so that you don’t get stabbed.
- Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidantalis): Eastern White Cedar crackles and pops when it is freshly dry due to its high amount of volatile oils. If you use the cedar branches when they are first dried, they smell wonderful but literally crackle and pop when you burn them due to all of the volatile oils—which is a bit of a fire hazard, but also can kind of be fun. However, if you hang the cedar in your house for a few months and let it dry out, the oils slowly dry out of the cedar and then you can make your smudge sticks. The sticks at this point will smoke beautifully.
- White Pine (Pinus Strobus): I’m still experimenting with this as a smudge tree, but so far, I’m happy with the results and it burns with an almost vanilla-like smell. Wonderful!
- Staghorn sumac: You can make smudges with small clusters of berries and or collect and use the leaves after they have gone red in the fall. Staghorn sumac has a very calming effect (I use it as an herbal smoke for my bees) and smolders nicely–plus, it is a beautiful red color that provides visual beauty in your smudge. It has a fairly pleasant smoke (not very aromatic).
3) Flowers. There is also a visual component to making a nice smudge stick, and I think this is where various wild flowers can lend a hand. Most of the flowers don’t have a particularly strong smell when burned, but a bit of purple or yellow or white in your smudge can look absolutely beautiful (and add energetically to your smudge). A visit to any flower field in the height of the summer will certainly give you much to work with. You can also cultivate flowers like statice or baby’s breath which hold their beautify for long periods of time for your smudges (I would not buy these commercially as they are almost always sprayed with something you don’t want to make airborne). I like using goldenrod, yarrow, and lavender in the later part of the season for this.
Step-by-Step Instructions for Making your Smudge
Now that we have some sense of what ingredients can be used in a smudge, the next step is gathering them and actually making the smudge!
Step 1: Gather Materials. Go out and gather your materials–bring in your fresh conifer branches, your dried yarrow stalks, etc. I have found that plants can be gathered and used fresh or dried, but the fresh ones take longer to dry out (and you want to make sure its not humid so that the inner ones don’t mold). I typically make smudges in late fall after the frost has wilted the plants a bit and semi-dried them out (its a way to use up the last herbs of the season).
In addition to the herbs/plants, you’ll also need some cotton string (don’t use anything synthetic since you will be burning it) and some scissors. If there is a kitten in the home you might want to keep her out of the room, as otherwise she will attack the herbs and strings as you try to make your smudges :).
Step 2: Set intentions. I like to create a sacred space for magical crafting prior to starting any such endeavor. Different traditions would do this in different ways, of course, and you might just do something simple to setup your space. For my tradition, I open up a grove and then work in that grove.
Step 3: Start with some conifers. I like to wrap conifers around the outside of the smudge (this is personal preference) and so I’ll lay out a bed of conifers first. In the photo below, I’ve started this smudge with juniper (freshly cut that morning) and lavender (also cut that morning from outside in early December).
Step 4: Add additional ingredients, layering them. To this smudge I’ve added some semi-dried out thyme from outside and some semi-dried out garden sage.
Step 5: Gather your ingredients up in one hand and loosely bunch them. Cut a long piece of the string and begin wrapping your ingredients.
Step 6: Continue to wrap the ingredients. If you wrap them too tight, the smudge may not burn (depending on what’s in it) so experiment with your herbs/plants and tightness. I like to take my cotton string up and down the smudge twice, which helps hold it together a bit better than only one trip up and down. The photos below show different parts of the wrapping process.
Step 7: Tie your smudge off so that its secure.
Step 8: Once you’ve wrapped your smudge, you can trim it up a bit. I trim both the ends and the little bits that stick out (they will have trouble burning).
Step 9: Allow your smudge to dry out 4-8 weeks (depending on what’s inside and how wet it was when you put it in there). I like to use a wooden drying rack (I use this for a lot of of my herb drying); the rack was $3 at a yard sale!
I hope that you found the above information useful–if there are other plants I should add to my lists above, or plants that work well in your bioregion, please leave a comment! Thank you, as always, for reading!