A new year calls to mind new goals, new traditions, fresh starts. Maybe you’ve given your 2019 resolutions a new-age twist and have made it your goal to clean out bad energies, to meditate more, or to set intentions. Or maybe you just want you home to smell better. Any goal akin to these could inspire you to learn about the aromatic plants praised for their ability to do things like cleanse and ground. Many of these are burned as loose incense atop a hot coal or bound together to be burnt freely.

Please Burn Respectfully

There are many traditions that involve scent and smoke released through the burning of dried plants. Most of these traditions are much older than any of us, and belong to cultures and peoples with whom most of us have no relations. With that in mind, we can acknowledge that in trying to copy these traditions or claim to know them intimately we are at risk of cultural appropriation.

But that is not to say that there’s anything disrespectful in connecting with scent personally in whatever way is meaningful for you. The key is to avoid any action that intends to take ownership over the traditions. Claiming knowledge or connection that you don’t actually have, even in something as casual as dropping a term like “smudging,” is what can be seen as disrespectful.

Burn your herbs in a way that makes the experience a tradition of your own. Find the scents, the oils, and the herbs that feel right for you. You could even make an entire ritual out of foraging for your own local cedar or sweet grass to dry and burn as an incense.

There are lots of plants that you can find at stores or in nature that will release lovely, natural smells when burnt. Here are some that have become popular ingredients in loose incense blends. Try these out as you seek to build your own scented ritual for the new year.


Lavender is applauded for its ability to promote relaxation. If part of your goals for 2019 is to let go of stress, using a lavender essential oil or burning dried lavender buds on hot charcoal could be a valuable ritual.


Lots of sources have said that mugwort—a name used for several different plant species in the genus Artemisia—can cause vivid dreaming. You’ll find mugwort in many teas marketed as dream teas. Mugwort can be bought in dried bundles, as well, and burned just as you would with sage. Such an aromatic experience could make for a good evening routine, or would be fit for any use that resonates with the individual.

Palo Santo

This delightful wood comes from trees in the same family as the aromatic resins frankincense and myrrh. But palo santo has a sweeter smell to it, with nutty, almost tropical undertones. The heavy, sweet smoke—so long as you find it agreeable—creates a nice space for any purpose, whether you’re getting set to do yoga, write, read, or host a dinner party. You’ll find palo santo sticks in most places that sell incense, but if you want more you can grab some essential oil or look for a perfume that highlights this note.

Sweet Grass

When sweet grass is burning, it gives off a sweet, vanilla-like scent. This aromatic option is one that you might even be able to forage responsibly in your own neck of the woods, especially if you live in the northwest or northeast states, near the Rocky Mountains, or in southern Canada. You can buy braided sweet grass that’s intended to burn for its sweet scent, but you’ll also find use of the essential oil in mosquito repellents and in perfumes. Sweet grass contains a chemical compound called Coumarin, which is known as the scent of fresh-cut hay, and is used in all kinds of perfumes and scented products.

Burning aromatic plants is certainly not the simplest method of enjoying smells, nor is it at all mobile. But the intentions that have to go into safely burning the dried leaves of your favorite plant are what makes this process a nice supplement to a new routine.


Katrina Eresman

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