Incense is composed of aromatic plant materials that are high in essential oils. It can contain resin, bark, branches, leaves, or flowers. Herbs in the conifer or mint families are popular choices. Humans have used incense for medicine, fumigation/ an anti-septic, worship, ceremony, deodorizing, to kill or repel insects/vermin, aromatherapy, keeping time and to support meditation. It is used in many cultures, going back in history to the most ancient ones and possibly the earliest uses of fire.
Indirect burning incense is usually a resin placed on a burning substance like a lit charcoal tablet. Direct burning incense is lit by a flame source, blown/fanned out and left to smolder ,releasing smoke over a period of time. Forms can be a paste, made from powder, that is smeared on a stick or compressed into a cone. Loose, dried plant material that is coarse or a powder. Bundled dried material that is that is made from the tops of plants. Any manner of coils, infused paper, or ropes. Smoke is commonly used to bless, harmonize and “let go” . I burn of incense to force movement when the energy in my environment feels stagnant, dense or negative.
The Chinese use Moxa/Artemisia vulgaris as the dried and “powdered” herb in moxibustion. When burned close to the skin, its healing properties are inhaled or absorbed. Very slow burning, moxa can be placed on the end of a needle or put loosely in a large box. As a “cigar” it can smolder less than an inch away from the skin over points. The “heat” is used to move stagnant blood and energy. Once flowing smoothly health is restored. I prefer to make my own incense without the added binders, perfumes or chemicals. I burn bundles or cigars. I like loose dried herbs/powders in a chiminea. My favorite herbs to burn are dried juniper, mugwort, sage or lavender leaves. If I will be burning something for more than a few minutes, I do it outside. There have been many studies showing that the inhalation of too much incense smoke may lead to cancer.
Did you know that juniper tea was used to disinfect surgical equipment in the past? During epidemics the smoke was used to purify homes and buildings. Juniper is burned all over the world to protect and create sacred space . Growing up in New Mexico I associate the smell of burning cedar, juniper or pinon with winter. It brings to mind walks during cold, crisp nights. I can’t help but think of Christmas shopping in Sante Fe, and many other childhood memories. I do not burn candles or processed incense but lately I have been using a lot of juniper and other dried herbs. I feel comforted knowing the healing properties in the smoke may be killing germs and purifying my environment. I believe that its energy is protecting my family and I feel less stressed due to the associations the smell brings to mind.
Juniper grows all over the world. You can find it in the wild and as a common (often unwanted) bush for landscaping. There were two large ones at the end of my driveway during my childhood in the 1970’s. They made excellent forts, a good choice for hide n seek, left an uncomfortable rash, and required “grooming” with hedge clippers on a regular basis. For years my husband and I talked about removing the ones on either side of the back porch. They are not very attractive and provide the ideal place for leaves, spider webs and rodents, and bumble bee nests to collect. Little did I know until I started researching the traditional medicine of Mexico and the Southwest that I had a treasure in my yard.
Juniper is an evergreen, perennial shrub that grows 2-10 feet tall. It is densely branched. Wild varieties can be quite low to the ground. There are many cultivars and varieties, a few look a likes. I prefer to harvest it from the wild as it make better medicine and prevents misidentification. This plant can have sharp/prickly needle like leaves, especially as a juvenile. Some older plants have leaves made of tiny overlapping scales. Some plants have both types of leaves at the same time. Depending on variety, leaves can be jointed or merge smoothly with branches and “stems”. Some cultivated varieties are variegated in color, the native types more thorn like. It has chocolate brown bark. When cut the branches can “bleed red” and have a heart shaped core. Juniper is a gymnosperm, so it produces no true flowers or fruit. The berry like fruit is actually a cone. This is green the first year, transitioning to purple/blue the next.
Historically the berries are used in cooking for flavor. In healing they are considered a digestive to help with gas, cramping, and stimulating the appetite. Under the care of an expert the berries can be use internally as a diuretic for gout, urinary/water retention. Historically this herb has also been used to treat stomach infections, the flu, kidney stones, lumbar pain, arthritis, and rheumatism. Externally is has been used as a wash for hair loss, eczema, acne, yeast infections and skin problems.
It can be used in steams for bronchitis and lung infections.
In a liniment it may help with rheumatism, cellulite, or problems with the bones and joints.
The oil from the berries can cause blisters and irritation.
One of my favorite uses of juniper is as an incense. It burns fast, hot, and produces lots of fragrant smoke.
I hope this post inspires you to look at that “ugly” juniper bush in a new way. One never knows what beauty and use lied hidden beneath the surface.
Plant Family: Cupressaceae/Cypress
Parts used: Berries (for medicine) tops (for incense or liniments)
Energetics: Spicy, sweet, warm, dry
Spiritual/Emotional uses: To encourage self love and confidence. Reduces the tendency towards arrogance and judgement. To develop self awareness, purpose and strenght so that we can let go of fantasy and addictions. Seeing ourselves with clarity and in real relationship to others and our environment. Burn to purify and protect.
Contraindications: Use in pregnancy. Prolonged therapeutic use can irritate the urinary system. Avoid use with “weak kidneys”