Desert Incense

June 2, 2009

The desert is a fragrant place, since many of its shrubs contain aromatic oils.  Some of these plants have medicinal properties and are usable for incense.  Here are a couple of my favorites:

BRITTLEBUSH or INCIENSO – Encelia farinosa

Brittlebush

Brittlebush

A very common small shrub among the saguaros, with triangular leaves that are covered in dense white fuzz.  The pale stems are woody but very fragile.  They exude beads of sticky golden resin that are a bit tedious to collect, but the wonderful incense is light, airy, and well suited to indoor use.  Good for daytime purification work, and even the cats like it.  It invokes the clean, arid brightness of the desert morning.

Brittlebush Gum

Brittlebush Gum

Along with creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and seepwillow (several Baccharis species), brittlebush is one of the characteristic unforgettable scents of the Sonoran Desert after a rain.  The yellow daisylike flowers bloom in spring, giving way to fuzzy seedheads in high summer.  The plants drop their leaves during the dry months and may freeze to the ground in winter, but they sprout new leaves and branches very quickly after a rain.  Brittlebush is easy to grow and is popular for xeriscapes.  Individual plants usually live for fewer than ten years, but the seeds sprout easily, and a single plant can populate an entire hillside with tidy, rounded gray shrubs within five years.  When the dried leafy branches are burned, they give off a creeping smoke that is an excellent mosquito repellent.  Tea made from the leaves is good for colds – it is a mild analgesic and decongestant, gently calming but not a sedative. 

COPAL, TOROTE, or ELEPHANT TREE – Bursera microphylla

Bursera microphylla

Bursera microphylla

Bursera is a genus of aromatic Mexican trees that are the source for copal resin, which is sold for incense, perfume, and medicine.  There are several species, but all Bursera trees have unusually thick, pale, gnarled trunks, which is why they have been nicknamed “elephant trees”.  B. microphylla is the only species that is cold-tolerant enough to grow wild in the U.S., where it is restricted to south-facing slopes in a few widely scattered and remote desert mountain ranges in southern Arizona and California.  The U.S. plants like the one in the photo are typically large, multi-trunked shrubs, and rarely reach tree size.  Young twigs are dark red, older branches have a red and gray netlike pattern, and the stout trunks have pale, papery outer bark that peels or shreds away to reveal the smooth green inner bark.  Bright green feathery leaves appear with the summer rains.  The entire tree emits an exotic tropical fragrance, and the beads of resing are collected from wounds in the bark.  Its scent is strong and complex, but not irritating.  Bursera gum is an astringent with many medicinal uses.

 When using incense for purification or healing, I employ a primitive form of “smoke divination” during the work.  I burn the incense in a tiny forged iron bowl and carefully watch the smoke color and quantity, the direction it moves, any flames that are present, and how easily the incense burns.

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