Using the smoke of cleansing herbs has long been in my practice. Physically, the smell helps bring me into the mental space I need to be to do spiritual work. Smell has strong links to memory, as the information from smells go from the thalamus to the hippocampus and amygdala, key brain regions involved in learning and memory. It’s certainly a fascinating, underappreciated sense! The herbs also interact with the vibes of the area. Most plants used in clearing work have a fiery nature.
I was recently reading the work of author Josephine McCarthy who suggested that there is a connection with these cleansing herbs and the area that they grow. She mentions that she doesn’t have a lot of luck with white sage (Salvia apiana), an herb commonly used in energetic clearing, because she lives in England. White sage is endemic to the warmer, drier areas of the states and has a long history being used by various Native tribes in ceremony. She prefers using frankincense, which does not grow on the British Isles, but has a long history there via the Church.
I’ve read articles about people calling out the overuse of white sage in cleansing as disrespectful and culturally appropriative. I believe it to be situational. It would be cultural appropriation if used in a quasi Native American ceremonial way without correct context, cultural connection, and cultural permission. Used as an herbal agent that works in a certain way seems to me to be working with the land. As a white man in an area that white sage does not grow, you can take my thoughts on that as you’d like.
In my practice, I’m fond of Palo Santo (Bursera graveolens). It’s wood from a tree that grows in South America. The name means “holy stick” and I am sadly unaware of its history beyond that. It’s commonly used in energetic clearing, and has a pleasant smell. It does the work, and does not offend the noses of those who dislike the smell of white sage.
Following the idea that plants that have a connection (historical or ecological) to the area you are cleansing are more effective, I wanted to mention some plants that I’ve used in this work that you can grow or harvest in northern Vermont. I will be using some of these in my work in the future, but not all the time. As they carry some of the skunkier notes that make people dislike white sage, they may not be for everyone.
The type of cedar that grows around here is white cedar (Thuja occidentalis). It has a very fiery nature, its astrology being Jupiter in Sagittarius. They are commonly found in graveyards due to a symbolism of eternal life. Interestingly, cedars seem to have a history in different cultures in dealing with death and purification. It might have something to the compound called thujone in it, which acts as an insect repellent, a wormer, and a mild neurotoxin (not one to repeatedly take internally in large doses, especially in essential oil form). That also protects the wood from rotting quickly. Our bodies deal with it just fine in small amounts, which is why it’s perfect for a cleansing smoke. It smells great, and has been used in conjunction with white sage for a very long time.
Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina)
This was a plant introduced to me last year. While it does have a sweet scent, it is not an actual fern. It is a deciduous bush that has history of being used as a medicinal plant. I have yet to personally explore that aspect of the plant, but the claims range from an expectorant, to treating ringworm, to covering a host of other ailments. What I do know about it is that a teacher suggested using it to clear space. She felt that it worked better than white sage. I don’t know if part of it is its connection to the land, but that is part of my theory. There is one drawback… when burnt, it really smells like pot. If you’re using it in a situation where that doesn’t matter, it’s great. It’s probably not appropriate for a lot of client situations, though. Depends on the space and the client, I guess. That being said, it works very well. I use it in a mix when I’m doing ceremony for myself.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
This herb can be found growing beside roads pretty much everywhere up here. It also has a rich and varied history in the magic and medicine of China, Japan, Korea, medieval Europe, and beyond. Plants in the Artemisia family seem to have that in general. Its astrology is Venus in Cancer, and it is another fiery plant. It is used medicinally for menstrual and digestive issues. Magically, it has a history of use in works of protection and awakening psychic powers. I like to make a tea out of it with lemon balm before I work with clients to help me with compassionate insight. As a tea, it is also used to encourage dreaming. Chinese medicine has long used burning mugwort in a process called moxibustion, where a stick of mugwort is burnt over certain pressure points to restore proper flow. Burnt in a ceremonial sense, it can clear a space and open your third eye a little. My husband uses it to clear his space for readings. This one also has a pot-like smell, but not as strong as sweet fern.
Common Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Yes! You can totally use culinary sage! I had a teacher who said that it worked way better for her than white sage (again, that possible connection between the plant and where you use it). It has a lot of history in medicine and food. Yet another fiery herb, its astrology is Jupiter in Taurus. I have yet to try out home grown sage in this work. I live right at the edge of where you can grow sage, so I haven’t tried until last year. I’m still waiting to see if the plant made it through the winter. If not, I have to try and create a better microclimate for it. I will get it, someday.
So, there you have it. Four herbs to try out in cleansing space that you can forage or grow up here. Feel free to comment here on the website, or on the Facebook page as to whether you’ve worked with any of these. I’d love to hear about your experience.
Until next week
-The Green Mountain Mage