Smudging 101: Plants Used in Smudging

Smudging 101: Plants Used in Smudging

This is post three in a four part series on smudging. To start from the beginning, see the first post here:

Plants in Smudging

               Plants are my favorite. I am fortunate to call several trees and herbs my first teachers, and as I realized others did not have these relationships and had forgotten how to hear the voices of the plants, working with plant spirits and showing others how to do this themselves has become a huge staple of my holistic practice (I have an office and do healing work full time in Pittsburgh). When you work with plants, it is always best to either grow them yourself or to adopt stands of the wild plants out in the natural world near you. If you are taking from a wild source, never take more than 10% of a stand, and always make offerings. Visit the plants often in both cases, talking to them, singing to them, feeding and/or watering them, removing things that might get tangled on them and the like. Partnership is key.

As far as which plants to use, you may find ones from your ancestral lines more powerful for you. You may be drawn to particular plants. All of this is beautiful. I encourage you to learn about plant culture from your ancestry, at least get things from the same area as your genetics if you do not know your birth family, and look through them. Though the new age concept of ‘the plants will tell you which ones to use’ is true and valid, these plant systems such as the ogham and the sacred plant teachings from around the world teach you much more than just working with a plant spirit when done properly. These are a method of healing for all levels of being (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and soul level) which also connects you to gods and goddesses who care for the plants when people don’t. Practicing these can lead to deeper insights about cultural issues in your blood, ancestral problems that need healing, and can lead to revelations about the plants themselves. I encourage you not to forsake the wisdom of your ancestral lines simply because a watered-down new age teaching is easier and requires less discipline. You will get from these teachings what you put into them.

There are multiple beautiful plant teachings as far as smudging is concerned around the world. Here is a small selection of these:

Sage: Sage is used in Europe as the most common base of all blends or smudges (if the person is allergic to sage, the replacement was usually basil or rosemary for physical ails or mugwort for spiritual and emotional ails). White sage is used in traditions from North America because it grows here and is the most cleansing of the sage varieties. White sage is so cleansing to the body that studies have found the five cups of the tea a day will discontinue body odor for many people, that is how strong it is. Common garden sage has the same effects, simply not as potently. Common garden sage, however, mixes better with other plants if you are combining them as white sage can sometimes overpower the other plants. If you use white sage, please be conscious about your sourcing. The plant has become endangered and irresponsible harvesting practices here in the US to supply the recent pop culture interest in smudging is causing damage to First Nations cultures and to the earth here in the States. I have used online handmade marketplaces and the wonders of social media to connect with people on reservations who are willing to sell me their surplus (since my system seems to be most empowered using white sage in smudging and I am often highly reactive to other plants). This is a good way to help people who can treat your plants right and help those who do not have the financial opportunities that people living outside of traditional cultures have access to at the same time.

Sweetgrass: This is often thought of as a Native American plant, but it was also used extensively in Europe and was one of the most common plants used during times of sickness and in the winter. One Native healer from Canada told me her people would burn it in the fire places and think of the summer. My European ancestors would put it over their bare floors in the winter, and burn it in the same way with the same purpose. This plant actually contains mild hallucinogenic properties, which may account for some of the ease of ‘visioning the warm seasons’ that these cultures speak of. I will caution you that for white Americans descendant from immigrants, it is not uncommon for intense emotions and even hallucinations and a desire to ‘go home’ or intense feelings about missing homes and missing families to come up. For this reason, I like to use it combined with frankincense to create healing on these issues as it brings them to the foreground quickly so they can be healed. I also like to use these as gifts to the ancestors, to tell them that I remember them, their ways, and the trials they faced as they faced coming to a new country without their families, land, culture or community. This is one plant that is very good for healing the ancestral wounds carried in this part of our nation’s populace.

Rosemary: There’s an old axiom “rosemary for remembrance,” and science has found that the essential oil diffused or using the herb in food or tea does in fact boost brain power and improve memory. This plant has a long smudging tradition in Europe where it was used in sick rooms. It was also used in ancestral fires in Britain and Ireland. It also has antiviral and antibacterial properties (as do the first two on this list). In European traditions, this was one of the most common smudge plants (the most common being garden sage and second place being a toss-up between rosemary and mugwort). A note on rosemary versus mugwort- mugwort seems to have been used for more spiritual and emotional ails, whereas rosemary seems to be used for more physical sicknesses. I have used these this way and can speak to the power of it.

Palo Santo: Palo santo simply means ‘sacred wood,’ and thus can describe just about anything. When I go to Peru for my training, there is a specific type of ‘palo santo’ we use, and we only burn what we pick up off the ground around the trees. This is another plant that has suffered from the pop culture increase of smudging, so please again, be mindful of your sourcing. I am including this plant as a hat tip to my South American teachers, as well as because I have found that it is as powerful as white sage, but seems to be more powerful than white sage when working on men specifically. I have noticed that women’s fields seem to respond very powerfully to the sage plants, but the men in my community get more benefit from palo santo. Also, for people who ‘just don’t feel good’ around sages, they often tell me how much they love the smoke of palo santo. In my case, I do best with white sage, and sometimes find myself feeling sick and congested around palo santo smoke, and thus am the exact opposite, lending further evidence to this idea of energetic preferences (at least in my opinion). If you are using palo santo, Bursera graveolens seems to be the easiest variety to get in the States, and asking about the scientific name of the source often helps ensure you’re actually ordering palo santo and not just a random wood the person is marketing as palo santo. As a personal request, if you’re going to use the essential oil of the plant, please triple check your sources. The oil requires damage to the tree, where picking up pieces of wood for smudging does not.

Mugwort: This is one of my very favorite plants, and we use it often in my office for people overcoming trauma, having sleep problems, having troubling dreams or night terrors, or who are cold inside all the time, especially if the coldness is due to emotional struggles. For these uses, I usually make a blend of this plant and the appropriate sage for the individual’s situation, and have them smudge the room before they go to sleep. It helps a person sleep, aids in dreaming, and relaxes the person. I have also had reports from clients who were concerned that it would make their night time breathing problems worse (it is smoke after all!) tell me it actually improved these problems, though I have not experienced this first hand as I do not have night time respiratory problems. If you want to use the plant and are concerned about breathing struggles, the tea is also effective. Mugwort is possibly the most common smudge plant in the British and Irish traditions, where it is still used extensively. There is also lore connecting Woden and this plant. I knew the plant long before I knew the god and am thus unfamiliar with whether he in fact gave this knowledge to the people, but admit that he blesses me often and that I have a strong affinity to this plant from childhood up, so it may be true, who knows? This plant is also one of the Anglo Saxon’s nine sacred plants. In one Native American healing center in Canada, we were able to exchange favorite healing herbs between our two cultures, and the assistants there have since told me multiple times how much they love and are using this plant now. It warms my heart to share our deep wisdoms together. Both our people benefit from this and it is so beautiful.

Thyme: The word “thyme” actually comes from the Greek word that means “fumigate,” that is, ‘smudge.’ This was a very common plant for this purpose in this area and was also used extensively in Europe and the British and Irish islands. Mediterranean traditions used this for bravery, nightmares, and to increase male energetic power (in both sexes). I have found it useful in increasing the properties of male energy in myself and in clients, which is an interesting teaching in itself because the nature of the plant is more feminine. This shows us how the encouragement, comfort and support of the feminine empowers the masculine in both sexes (as each sex has both genders of energy, we must respect them both in all people). Thyme was also burned in Egypt in rites of passage ceremonies, which globally are historically brutal and require much courage. The Scottish tradition that I am more familiar with used it both as a smudge and as a tea to increase heat in the heart- that is, to activate the energy of the heart and improve bravery and courage. The tea was also used for nightmares. This is also another of the nine sacred herbs used by the Anglo-Saxons.

Motherwort: I wanted to give you seven plants today, but had trouble deciding between motherwort, angelica (there is a Sami tradition there!), chamomile (the teacher of fortitude), nettle (the fighter and nourisher) and fennel (the feeder of the children and comforter of the mothers). To go deeper after this article, check out those other three, or check out some of my online plant spirit classes where we cover these. I chose motherwort in the end because it has a very specific use that we need in our land that is not covered very many other ways. This plant is called such because it is used for troubles of the mother as relates to her children. This is my go to when a mother comes to me after her child has died. When my niece, whom I had an energetic connection to that was more like a mother-daughter relationship, was killed, this plant gave me solace years later when I still could not seem to recover completely and I first learned of it. Those of us who experience the death of our children are members of an invisible secret club here in society, but it is still a large club to belong to. I usually give mothers the tincture form of this plant, but personally I found the smudge to be effective for me (possibly because I am intensely sensitive and tinctures are often too strong unless I’m sick). I have had wonderful success with this plant and it has helped many a mother with pain around their children whether the child has died, is missing, or is injured or sick in a very serious way. One client came to me on behalf of her mother who had recently been hospitalized for a heart condition and was expected to die. I thought she wanted a plant for the heart and I went for hawthorn, then she said “no, no, you don’t understand. My brother died in a car accident seven years ago, and since then my mother’s smile has been hollow. I was hoping you could give me something that would help her smile like she used to. It’s okay if it’s her time, but I would like to see her really smile again.” I gave her the dried plant, and the mother loved it as a tea (this is significant because the tea is horrible- she must have really needed it!). The woman came back to me in tears telling me how much better her mother was, that she felt like she “finally had her mother back,” and also had the blessed news that her mother’s heart problem seemed to have reversed and she was now out of the hospital. Was it a broken heart? I am not a doctor and am not making a claim here, but this is an experience that happened. The challenges of raising a child are vast and not something you can understand until you have to go through them, but I have found this plant to be very helpful for parents struggling with painful emotions around challenges with their children. I have thus far never had a situation in which a father came to me with the same problem, so I do not know if it works the same for men. Praise if I never have to find out, as losing a child is a destruction I don’t wish on anyone.

For me, seven is a sacred number of completion, so I have given you seven plants to try. We could go on and on about plants used in smudges from around the world for days even if you only limited the conversation to herbs, or dried flowers, or trees (I didn’t even get to the resins yet let alone wood, leaf or root comparisons!), but this set of seven is sufficient for a post like this. Let’s get to the vessel you use in smudging.

This is part three of a four part series. For the final post, “The Vessel,” click here: