The power of herbal smoke cleanses spaces, facilitates ritual, and even heals physical ailments. It can also be a transcendental medium to alter mood and allow us to engage in shadow and dream work. It’s no wonder then that the burning of herbs has become so popular. However when anything becomes mainstream, we must always remember to look at where these traditions actually come from so that we may use them in a respectful and sustainable way.

An herbal smoke wand made of pine and cedar for smoke cleansing

Smudging vs. Smoke Cleansing

The controversy surrounding smudging has been abuzz in the herbal world. Not only is smudging an infringement upon certain cultures, but many traditional herbs are starting to fade from the landscape as they become more popular in the herbal trade. I believe everyone should have the right to benefit from the powerful medicine that is herbal smoke. We just need to be clear on what is and what is not respectful and sustainable in our practice.


The burning of herbs has taken place all over the world for centuries. Unfortunately, the main form of herbal smoke known today is appropriated from the Native American tradition of smudging. The burning of indigenous herbs, specifically white sage, acted as a tool for invocation performed by specific members of the tribe. They didn’t use the herbal smoke to cleanse a space, rather it was a sacred element to the rituals they performed. It was necessary that the members who led the smudging had experience navigating the spirit realm. If done incorrectly, this could anger the spirits and cause negative effects. Therefore smudging is a symbol of their culture, faith, and heritage.

Smoke Cleansing

Smoke cleansing on the other hand is a much more interpretive practice that can be performed by anyone. These smoke cleansing rituals include spells, crystals, incantations, tarot, and any other number of modifications one desires. Because it is not tied to a specific rite or culture, creativity is a key component to these rituals. Although smudging and smoke cleansing can look visually similar, the meaning and purpose behind them is starkly different.

Some argue that the plants don’t know borders or cultures. They just want to heal and commune with people. While this is true, we simply can not ignore the wishes of people who have endured so much trauma and damage to their culture because of colonization.

Therefore the best way to avoid appropriation is to steer clear of using sacred herbs that are not specific to your heritage. There are many powerful plants that want to connect with us in that way. The appropriate offerings lie beyond what the mainstream herbal industry offers.

Smoke Cleansing Across Cultures

Now let’s zoom out and look at the burning of herbs through a more global lens. For example, early European peasant cultures burned herbs in a more utilitarian way to clear insects from domestic animals and to cover the smells that life would entail. While not very romantic, these herbs gave their gifts so that the peasants could make do with what they were given.


In France, rosemary and thyme were burned in hospitals as purification. They believed these herbs prevented the spread of contagious diseases, which is probably true to some extent because of their anti-microbial properties. These herbs along with other blends were also used medicinally when rolled into a cigarette to alleviate respiratory issues.

The Scottish practiced a more spiritual purification through an animistic craft called “saining”. This revolves around the belief that everything has a spirit. These spirits were called upon to purify a person, animal, or entire community of negative energies. Juniper and rowan were the main plants used for these practices, though other elements such as water and fire were used as well.


Across the world, incense played a major role in Egyptian culture. They imported a wide range of exotic plants to burn in honor of specific gods and ceremonies. It is said that they burned frankincense in the morning, myrrh at midday, and Kyphi in the evening. They would ground these herbs and throw them on hot coals to burn or combine them with dried fruit to be formed into pellets and burned.

Finally, we round out this world tour with a stop in Asia where incense also played a major role in culture and everyday life. The earliest record of any incense was in ancient China. A blend of herbs including cinnamon and sandalwood acted as catalysts for worship and prayer. Buildings were erected solely for the purpose of burning incense all the way until the 12th century. In Japan, samurai warriors would sometimes perfume their helmets with incense as a gesture towards those who may decapitate them in battle.

This is of course just a taste of how herbal smoke was used throughout the world. Different forms of burning herbs have traveled through India, Arabia, the Mediterranean, and many other walks of life.

Different Ways to Burn Herbs for Ritual

Smoke Wand

This versatile form of herbal smoke is easily transported and burns for a long time. To make your own, gather herbs from the garden or wild and bundle tightly with natural twine. Hang them to dry or put them in a dehydrator for a five to six hours on low. In addition, elaborate smudge wands are also available that include a wide variety of aromatic herbs, flowers, and scents.

Loose Herbs

Burn ground herbs by lighting a charcoal pellet in a small cast iron container and place the loose herbs or resin on top. The smoke will journey out of the container. Waft this smoke in a desired direction with a feather or let it flow freely. Abalone shells are also a great container for the loose herbs. The shell represents the water element to compliment the fire within the smoke, and the air within the feather. Place a thin layer of sand in the shell before adding the herbs to represent the earth element. This also protects the shell during the burning.

Herbal Cigarette

To combine ritual with the medicinal, consider a rolled herbal cigarette. Try using these little herbal sticks in dream work as well by including plants such as blue lotus, mugwort, damiana, etc. The secret is to only take a puff or two at a time instead of smoking the entire cigarette in one sitting. Moderation helps us to fully savor and connect with each plant we inhale.


Incense sticks are incredibly versatile. Besides incense for ritual, I have found great success in using incense sticks that contain lemongrass, citronella, and peppermint to ward off bugs outside. Place them in a protective barrier around the sitting area and replace them every hour or so. Additionally, dhoop cones are another form of incense in which raw incense is shaped into a cone. These are useful in creating a more intense effect that can fill larger spaces.


Perhaps the most ancient of herbal smoke, humans have been summoning campfires for hundreds of purposes and rituals throughout time. Today, campfires are perfect for big groups and celebrations. Once the fire is lit, throw herbs directly on the fire to invoke protection, gratitude, the banishing of old habits, and any other number of intentions.

Sustainable Herbs for Smoke Cleansing

What herbs should we use to avoid appropriating from indigenous cultures and depleting delicate ecosystems? There are many common herbs that offer their cleansing gifts to us. This list covers just a few that create beautiful herbal smoke.

  • Rosemary
  • Mugwort
  • Juniper
  • Pine
  • Thyme
  • Lavender
  • Spruce
  • Cedar
  • Fir
  • Garden sage
  • Bay
  • Rose
  • Catnip
  • Peppermint
  • Lemongrass
  • Aspen
  • Lilac

All of these herbs bundle well in smoke wands or ground as a loose incense. They also all have their own specific symbolism and uses. I highly recommend checking out The Master Book of Herbalism by Paul Beyerl to learn their medicinal and magickal uses.

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Val Elkhorn

Val Elkhorn is an herbalist and forest farmer living in northern Michigan. She runs a small herb business that specializes in digestive bitters called Woodspell Apothecary. Exploring how the magic of creativity can assist us in becoming better stewards of the land and our bodies is what she is most passionate about (besides her two calico cats and Stevie Nicks of course). You can learn more about her and her business at

  1. Smudging is an English word , not from any of the many indigenous languages. How is that cultural appropriation? Smudging, smoking. Both are appropriate English words.

  2. Because the article is in English? Each language will have its own word for it. The act of smudging, and the reasons behind it, are deeply routed in Native American history. There is very little history between England specifically and the practise of smoke cleansing/smudging. To say that Smudging is an English word, thereby smudging it isn’t cultural appropriation, is incomprehensibly stupid.

  3. Thank you for this comprehensive article. It’s so important for more and more people to talk about this and be respectful. FYI, you wrote smudge wands in the paragraph about smoke wands. I know what you meant, but it may be confusing because it contradicts the previous section about saying smoke cleansing instead of smudging.

  4. I’m from Europe and we have used smudging/smoking (räuchern) with herbs for so long no one even knows how many hundreds of years if not thousands all over Europe. This is not appropriation, it is a way of being one with spirit. Every single country in the world could talk about wars and loosing everything culturally at one point or another, but does that really help? Diffferent countries use different names for what they smolder and fan with a device that resembles a sort of fan whether made of leaves, feathers, woven willow and or otherwise. I find it childish to call cultural appropriation while they now live in western made houses. We are all one with the Universe first and foremost, to say one culture is inferior over another is laughable. You bleed, I bleed, you’re spirit in a human shell, guess what so am I. How about we all get along for a change instead of insisting that we are all seperate when we are not! Cultures have come and gone millions of times since the earth became a dwelling place for humans.

  5. Appreciating another culture is actually doing some homework and learning about the other culture or their rituals to get a deeper understanding of why they do what they do..

    Appropriation is when you just cherry pick 2 things out of that culture coz they look cute on Insta and do it while having no clue why a particular herb or oil is used or how to use it.

    I am from India and we have been burning dhoop (incense) forever.. or lighting diyas (oil lamps). Unless you know what type of dhoop or what type of oil you should be using in your diya for what ritual.. unless you have studied the symbolism behind using ghee or mustard oil or coconut oil as the burning element… yes they all have different meanings to be used depending on what your intentions are.. Unless you tried to dive deep and research this before lighting them, you appropriated it. Whether you think it is appropriation or not, doesn’t matter. It simply is. Just like wearing a Native American headdress or an Indian Saree with the red bindi on the forehead for Halloween.. it is wrong because you have no idea what it signifies. To you, it is a costume. To us, it is our everyday clothing and has meaning in our culture.

    Palo Santo is a holy wood for the Native tribes. They have a very specific ritual when they use Sage.. you don’t just light it up and waft it around and think Ooohh my home is so cleared and blessed now. If you are doing that, then you are insulting that culture. I’m sure most people don’t mean to do that, they want to just appreciate it. However, most people don’t want to do the work to really understand. They just want to order sage from Anthropologie and West Elm and post it on tik tok. The problem is real. Their holy plants are endangered because of their popularity with the “I’m so woke I sage everyday generation”.

    Every culture and religion have their own versions of smoking and smudging. Find yours. Make it your own. Make it more meaningful to you. It will be so much powerful for you then. 🙏🏼

  6. Does dirt work instead of sand in an Abalone shell. Also I thought the use of the shell and feather were also indigenous

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