How to burn Frankincense as an incense

There are many questions about Frankincense that show up regularly through the search engines.  They make excellent material for posts, and since we are getting close to the “Holiday” season, with Frankincense and Myrrh such traditional symbols in holiday lore and practice, it`s a perfect time to address them. One important question often asked is,

How do I burn Frankincense, Myrrh and other oleoresins as incense?

Myrrh tree oleo-resin Ethiopia. Ermias Dagne

Myrrh tree  in the wild of Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of my friend Ermias Dagne

Raw oleoresins, the sapfrom trees and plants, are enjoyed for their aromatic and medicinal qualities in many ways. As  incense, they are burned, alone or in combination with other fragrant natural materials such as powdered barks, flowers and essential oils. In ancient times, hot embers from the fire were used to burn incense resins. Today most cultures around the world use manufactured charcoal pucks, made from compressed powdered, partly burnt wood, (willow wood is considered one of the best for this purpose). Often these are impregnated with Saltpeter so they burn evenly. In countries where burning oleoresins is a daily tradition, one will find simple and ornate electric burners in most homes. However, charcoal pucks are by far the most commonly used way to enjoy resin incense, and a great place to start your exploration of natural resin incense.

A selection of various natural fragrant materials for incense making, and a few traditional incense products.

A  small selection of  natural fragrant materials commonly used for medicine, perfume and incense, and a few traditional incense products. Note the charcoal puck in the raised brass censer.

Churches and temples of most religions, practice some form of ceremonial burning of incense, whether as an offering to the god or gods, to purify the area, or to create a receptive atmosphere for supplicants. Studies have shown that oleoresins such as Frankincense Papyrifera contain psychoactive ingredients that affect our brain chemistry through their smoke.

Incense is burned in many countries on a daily basis before meditating, after cooking, to purify and cleanse the home physically and energetically,  for magic, ritual, and for healing. It has been shown that our bodies can absorb the medicinal, healing properties of oleoresins such as Frankincense through the smoke released while burning.  For instance, Incensole and Incensole acetate are two such chemical compounds found in Frankincense Papyrifera that can induce feelings of heightened spirituality and well-being , reduce feelings of depression and anxiety, and in studies have been shown to reduce inflammations in the brain,    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19814859?dopt=Abstract. Each country, culture, and often different provinces or villages have their unique recipes for the traditional incense type associated with their culture.

Raw resin incense is burned by placing small, pea sized pieces, or a small scoop of powdered resins, see post ( How to grind Frankincense and Myrrh), on a smoldering charcoal puck. The heated oleoresin melts and burns, releasing its essential oils first, (the oleo part), then the resins which require a higher temperature follow suit, producing aromatic smoke with a fragrance unique to each specific oleoresin.
Today, in most North American cities, we can find these foil wrapped charcoal pucks in corner stores, head shops, Asian and Mediterranean food stores. Often wherever Hookahs and Nargillas are sold. A pack of charcoal pucks ranges in price from $1.00 to $5.00 depending on where they are sold.

A wide variety of odoriferous natural materials such as tree and plant saps, (Oleoresins), powdered fragrant woods and barks, flowers and essential oils are common ingredients in traditional and modern incense products.  Many types of incense are available commercially, pre-mixed and preformed as cones, discs, sticks, ropes, papers and powders.  Often their base material is finely ground Sandalwood powder, some types use natural gums as an adhesive to hold their shape, and some contain saltpeter to keep them burning consistently. NagChampa is an example of a compound incense recipe, familiar to many of us in our western culture.

Unfortunately, to increase profit margins, artificial fragrances are often used as  inexpensive replacements for essential oils, and artificial colours are sometimes used to make the products more visually appealing. I suspect the cheaper, “dollar store” varieties of cone and stick incense fall into this category. Knowing this, makes the option of using whole oleoresins and natural fragrant materials even more appealing. One can simply burn small amounts of a single oleoresin, such as Frankincense, Myrrh or Mastic, or one can create a unique incense product by powdering and blending ingredients. It is an easy, and very gratifying process that requires no great skill, financial outlay or expensive tools.

A simple way to experiment with incense making, and enhance your enjoyment of resin incense, is by adding a drop or two of your favourite essential oils to the resin, while or before burning.

 Using a censer to burn oleoresins as incense

After you have some charcoal, you will need something to burn your incense in.  A censer.
Censers can be purchased made from different materials and in many styles. They can be found in brass, silver, steel or ceramic, from the simplest of designs to the most elaborate and bejewelled,  open to the air, or with ventilated lids. Practically any non flammable container, dish or bowl found in the average home can be used as a censer. A fully functional censer can be as simple as a glass or ceramic plate or bowl layered with kitty litter, fine gravel or sand. This non flammable, insulating layer keeps the hot coal from coming close to, or in contact with the censer. Otherwise it could heat up and burn fingers, whatever it is sitting on, and if the censer is glass or ceramic, it could crack or break from the direct heat of the hot coal.

Many hosehold items can be used as censers. This is a collection of possible candidates for censership,(haha), found at a glance in my study.

Many household items can be used as censers This is a collection of possible candidates for censership, found at a glance in my study.

From the top Candleholder, Silver chalice, various metal bowls, closed and ventilated brass boxes, a ceramic container which can be used with the lid removed, (putting the lid on is a way to extinguish the charcoal.). On the bottom level-A brass stand with a `watch glass`made from `Pyrex`, (Note, it must be made from borosilicate ie., stamped with the trade name Pyrex or Kimax etc.glass which will not crack or shatter with a drastic change in temperature!), a porcelain mortar and a seashell which is a traditional native censer for aboriginal smudge mixes.

 How to burn Frankincense resin on a charcoal puck

Light an edge of the puck with a lighter. (Hold it on the opposite side!). When it starts to sparkle a bit, or make a slight crackling, hissing sound, then the Saltpeter has been activated and the coal is igniting.
Place your coal on the sand or litter and give it at least one minute to sit. Pass your hand over it, if you feel it is emitting heat then all is good.
I usually wait till I can see a bit of white ash showing which tells me it is well-lit, and the melting resins will not smother it and put it out.
Take a small piece of frankincense or other resin, ( the size of small pea or a lentil), and place it in the middle of the coal. It will shortly release its fragrance and smoke, and there you have it. Pure, natural incense. Never leave lit charcoal unattended, or close to flammable materials.

Making incense from local oleoresins and other natural aromatic materials

If you live in North America, it is likely there are natural fragrant materials perfectly suited for use as incense found in nature all around you. Pine, Spruce and Fir trees all have wonderfully fragrant oleoresins, or saps. Cedar leaves, White sage, and tobacco are ingredients in Native American Smudge, or incense mixes. Always be respectful of plants if you do harvest some for your own use. If you like, have a look at some of my posts tagged “Wildcrafting” for some thoughts around how to nurture a mutually respectful relationship with Nature and the plant kingdom. This is ,very important!!  I can’t stress this point enough here.
Collect some Pine, Fir or Spruce sap, without damaging the tree, preferably after you have given the tree something, a symbolic gesture is fine, whether a few supportive words, an acknowledgement of your gratitude for their gifts, leave something personal or something that has meaning to you.  Sometimes our Pine trees exude their sap due to an injury caused by an insect called a borer. If you come across a single one eighth of an inch hole under the sap you have scraped off, a stiff piece of metal wire poked deep into the hole will put an end to the creature who has damaged your tree, and will make sure it does no further harm. This is a clear  and practical act of caring and giving , an act of stewardship. For this reason I always carry a wire with me. I also try to do all my sap harvesting in the cold weather while trees and bugs are dormant.

These local oleoresins are lovely burned as incense. For easy cleanup of hands tools and containers from the sticky sap, use a little olive oil or vegetable oil followed by warm water and soap. The oil and saps will leave your hands feeling soft and supple. There are many valuable healing Phytochemicals in these oleoresins whose main function is to protect and heal the “skin” of the tree.

It  is difficult to find really fresh imported oleoresins such as the different types of Frankincense and Myrrh on the market.  Most of the material I have used over the past 40 years has been decades old, passed many hands, warehouses and middlemen. This is simply what has been available to us all here til now, and more the norm than the exception unfortunately.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I received an unusually fresh shipment of Frankincense and Myrrh oleoresins from Ethiopia.
The oleoresins you will find in this website’s store, (Apothecary Shop), are these same pure, fresh, oleoresins  from three types of Ethiopian Frankincense, ( Boswellia Papyrifera, B. Rivae and B. Neglecta), and Myrrh trees and can be enjoyed straight on the coal, tinctured, extracted, used in personal care products or mixed with other ingredients in your own personal incense blend. Though they do keep their aromatic and medicinal qualities intact for decades, there is nothing quite as gratifying as working with fresh, fragrant aromatic material.

If you decide to pursue the art of incense making, and create your own incense blends and products,

remember, to always take notes!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Your future  self will thank you!!

Have a fragrant holiday season.

Dan

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