How to use Pine, Spruce and Fir saps for incense and perfume

beautiful-spruce-spring-renewal-may-2013
beautiful-spruce-spring-renewal-may-2013

Collecting the last of this seasons Spruce and Pine saps while the weather is cold,

reminds me that there are some perennial questions that come through this blog from the search engines, inquiring how to use local saps for perfume and incense.  Now is a perfect time to address these questions before the weather warms up and the busyness begins.

  • Many of our local North America evergreen saps can be used as incense in exactly the same way as Frankincense and Myrrh, Mastic and Copal oleoresins.
  •  They provide high quality aromatic material for perfume, incense and medicine.
  •  For perfume applications, These oleoresins are distilled via steam or water to extract their essential oils. They yield a high percent of good quality essential oils, and a much greater proportion of essential oil to raw material than when distilling essential oils from the tree’s needles.  I will get a post and a video up on this blog in the next couple of weeks showing  how to distill your own essential oils from these wonderfully fragrant local tree saps. Promise.
  • An alcohol tincture can also easily be produced for use as a  perfume ingredient. Unlike Frankincense Myrrh and some other traditional fragrant incense resins, these oleoresins contain little or no water-soluble gum. This means a tincture must be made with pure alcohol, without water, as is required in many other tinctures.
  • This tincture can also be used to impregnate “incense papers”, an ancient and cool type of incense one does not often see.
  • Alcohol is used as a solvent for our resinous tree saps, then evaporated, to create a resinoid or an absolute for the making of perfumes and incense
  • As ready to use incense materials, these fragrant saps are burned from fresh or in their aged and crystalized form, they keep for years if stored properly.
  • These tree saps can be used as incense in all the traditional ways-on a hot coal, an electric incense burner, or used as ingredients when making stick, powder and cone incense, as a stand alone fragrance, or combined with other fragrant materials..
  • The sawdust from the trees can be used as a base for making cone, stick or powder incense. A material to give the incense form without detracting too much from the fragrance of its smoke.

    Fresh White Pine sap winter harvest 2014
    Fresh White Pine sap winter harvest 2014

Most cultures around the world and over the many millennia of man’s existence have burned fragrant materials as offerings to gods, spirit entities and deities. Smoke is widely associated with the element of air and considered an agent of communication, in particular communication between realms such as the physical and spirit realms. Traditionally the smoke of burning incense carries one’s prayers to the spirit realm, cleanse homes physically and energetically, to purify and prepare sacred places and participants in religious ceremonies. This seems a universal and genetically hardwired imperative of human cultures as a whole, regardless of time, space and cultural differences.  The use of fragrance and burnt offerings in both our mundane , and our sacred lives, is rooted deeply in our collective consciousness, and is a common thread that binds us all since the beginning of time. Here, in the Americas,  our native cultures traditionally use combinations of White Cedar leaf,  Sage, Tobacco and Sweet grass among other ingredients, as “Smudging” materials, burned in a variety of ceremonies, and their smoke used to purify, prepare and cleanse the ritual space.  Sometimes they are cut, loosely mixed and burnt in a seashell, while a feather is used to fan the smouldering incense and energetically cleanse those attending.

Make your own incense from Spruce, Pine or Fir sap

  •    While all these materials can be burned on their own, they can also be combined as ingredients in different types of solid incense. This is a variation of a recipe I make with children during “Oceans of Potions” both at Under the Willows and in my studio.  These incense balls can be pressed into different shapes, such as pea sized balls, sticks, discs, cubes or cones. When dried, and if stored in tightly closed tins, they will keep for decades. With the addition of “Punk” wood, and/or Saltpeter to the recipe, they could be made to burn on their own, without needing an electric incense burner or charcoal, but for now I will share this simple and easy to make recipe for incense pellets.

    Studio Oceans of Potions and a child making incense
    In the Studio, during  “Oceans of Potions” ,a child makes their own incense

A RECIPE for “SMUDGE BALLS” and INCENSE PELLETS

A simple compound incense recipe using local tree saps and other fragrant materials.

 INGREDIENTS

  • A glob of fresh, sticky Spruce, Fir or Pine sap, as fresh, liquid or pliable as you can find, and cleaned as best you can from bark, twigs and needles. Let’s say 100 grams, as in the packages of fresh sap I sell in the store here.
  • Dry fragrant materials.  to make “Smudge Balls” one would use the same materials found in native North American smudge mixes such as, dried Prairie Sage, Tobacco, White Cedar leaves, Sweet grass, etc. This will smell and function like  a traditional native smudge.
  • To make a more “Oriental style of incense, one would forgo the above 4 dry materials, and incorporate materials such as the resins of  different types of Frankincense, Myrrh, Copal, Dragon’s Blood and Mastic, shavings or  powders of Sandalwood, Oud, (Aloes wood), any other traditional incense ingredient one desires. I am fond of Saffron for instance.
  •  If you like you can keep it local and add some dried, finely chopped or powdered Lavender flowers, Rosemary or Thyme, or any other fragrant herb that inspires you.  You can make an incense that smells quite different by simply using different ingredients. It is up to you.
  • Powdered natural resin incense such as Frankincense, Myrrh, Copal, or Mastic, or any other material that can be powdered and will burn fragrant.   They should be ground at least to the consistency of fine sand in a mortar and pestle. Or if first frozen, a coffee grinder could speed up the process a bit. (See-How to grind Frankincense and Myrrh). If you roll your sticky incense ball in the powder of these resins, it will seal them, keep them from sticking to everything, and will help them harden and cure.
  • Essential oils of your choice. I find Benzoin a classic fragrance addition to any incense blend and helps hold all your ingredients together, especially  if you have inadvertently added too many dry materials for the sap to keep it all together. Essential oils can add great depth and endless fragrance possibilities to your incense blend! You can easily make this same type of incense without the local saps if you like, and replace the Pine, Spruce or Fir saps in the recipe with thick, sticky Benzoin essential oil for a very different fragrance.
Wild Ginger 2012
Wild Ginger-Ontario- 2012. For Perfume, Incense and culinary applications.
Angelica seed head for medicinal, fragrance and culinary purposes
Angelica seed head for medicinal, fragrance and culinary purposes-Apothecary’s Garden Hamilton 2013
Lavender flowers for medicine, incense and essential oils-Apothecary's Garden Hamilton
Lavender flowers for medicine, incense and essential oils-Apothecary’s Garden Hamilton

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Essential oils can be added at the beginning of the process to the semi liquid saps, or worked in to the semi-firm product after the chopped dry material has been added. Note that not all fragrant materials smell good when they are burned! Experiment first, and if you are happy with how an ingredient smells when it is “smoking”, good chance it will add to your mix, not detract from it.

*******

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

INSTRUCTIONS

You will need a bowl large enough to easily mix all your ingredients. A cookie sheet to lay out your incense balls to dry, and a mortar and pestle to powder your resins or dry plant materials if needed..

  •  Clean your fresh sap from twigs and other foreign materials, place saps,(s), in a bowl, if it is too thick to work with, you can warm it up a bit and this should make it more liquid and pliable. If you can place the bowl with the sap in a larger bowl filled halfway with hot water, (or use a double boiler as shown in this recipe for solid mustache wax), this is the safest way to make your sap more pliable.
  • DO NOT heat your sap in a microwave oven! Though it is possible, with great care to do this, these saps are EXTREMELY flammable, and if left unsupervised even briefly in a working microwave, could cause a serious fire or explosion! Best to do things safe and slow.
  • Coarsely grind, or finely chop the fragrant materials you plan to use. Use scissors to finely chop fibrous stems and grasses. Keep them separate in piles or their own containers.
  •  You will need a least one fragrant material that is ground to a fine powder to serve as your final coating and drying material. Make sure you have kept enough of it till the very end of the process, enough of it to coat all your incense  pellets. If you want to stick to local materials and reproduce the fragrance of “Smudging” as closely as possible,Tobacco leaf powders very easily and will work well, but anything else will do just fine.
  • Start adding your dry fragrant incense materials to the sap. You can knead it all together with the back of a spoon or some other tool to keep your hands clean.
  • If you pre-mix all your dry powdered ingredients, you will spend less time kneading your incense to achieve a homogenous distribution of aromatic materiels within it.
  • You can clean everything at the end of the process with olive oil, then warm soapy water, but try to wait till you are finished, DO NOT get olive oil mixed into your incense. It does not smell good at all when burned!
  • If it starts getting too thick and difficult to mix before you have added all the materials you have chosen, you can either put it back on the water bath to warm and soften it, or add some of your essential oils.
  • If you would like to test your ball incense as you go along to better judge proportions of ingredients, you can set up a censer close by, or simply a lit incense charcoal sitting on a safe non flammable material in a non flammable container,(Glass or ceramic for instance). See “How to burn Frankincense as an incense” for instructions on making a censer).
  • When you have added all your incense ingredients and are happy with your formula and consistency,  it is time to shape your incense.
  •  Now take your reserved, powdered incense ingredient, and make a pile of it on your cookie sheet. Powdered frankincense or any other oleoresin work well for this, or Tobacco as mentioned above.You can also use any other incense ingredient you have, as long as it is finely powdered.
  • Pinch off small uniform amounts and form them into whatever shape you like. It could be little balls, (The size of a pea seems to be the ideal quantity for burning in one session, much more than this can often be too much smoke for a small space. Having smaller units of incense allows you to pace the burning and better control the amount of smoke you are generating.
  •  You can shape them into pea sized balls, roll them into sticks no thicker than 1/4″, you could make longer sticks and indent them deeply every 1/4 inch, so when they are dry and hard, small sections can be broken off easily. You can use your imagination, press them out into very thin wafers and press the back of a knife into them to create pie shaped wedges, or roll it thin and slice narrow strips.There are many possibilities.
  •  Lay the shaped incense pieces in the pile of powdered incense material and cover it evenly with the powder so each unit is completely and evenly coated.
  •  As you work the powdered fragrant material into them on he cookie sheet, they will lose their stickiness, get harder and less pliable till they no longer stick to each other or pick up any more powder.
  •  Put them to the side of your cookie sheet and keep your loose powder in one area for rolling and coating the rest of the pieces.
  •  When they are all shaped and coated, check if they have absorbed all the powdered coating already. If so, feel free to sprinkle the rest of the powder on them and let them sit another 1/2 hour to absorb as much as they can.
  • Spread them out evenly and set the cookie sheet on top of the fridge, or in a warm place with good circulation. I find if you can set them in the sun for a few hours it does the trick quite well.
  • Within a couple or few hours, they should be firm and dry to the touch and ready to be packaged.
  •  If they are not yet dry and firm, either leave them longer, or set the cookie tray in an oven on the lowest temperature setting with the door cracked open until they are ready. If you have a food dehydrator it might also be an option. I have not tried this method, but it might be ideal for slow even drying with no risk of burning them. (Please leave me a comment below if you have tried this method successfully!).
  •  Only when they have cooled to room temperature can you test their consistency accurately.
  •  At this point you can put them in a container. Store in a relatively cool place. Your incense will keep for many years.

They can be packaged in attractive tins or some other attractive container, and make unique gifts.

 If you are harvesting your own saps, please, please be considerate of the trees and of Nature!! For the sake of not wanting to write too long a post, I cut out a section on ethical and sustainable harvesting from nature. I may just add it as a separate post. Until then, please  feel free to click on the tag “Wildcrafting” in the sidebar and check out some posts that talk about how to properly harvest from nature. Ethical and sustainable harvesting methods are critical!

Thank you.

Dan

 

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15 Comments

  1. Hi there! I was just wondering of the three genus (spruce, pine, fir), which are the easiest to work with/least sticky at room temperature?

    Thanks,

    Corey

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    1. Hi Corey.
      I have to say they are all comparable in stickiness when fresh, and they are all dryer to the touch when they have aged and their essential oils have evaporated.
      I make sure to always have a small bowl of olive oil close by for cleanup.
      Dan

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  2. Really interested in this! I’ve started making church incense, Orthodox Christian, and have began to get very interested in the various incense techniques. I would love to learn many ways of making incense, in addition I’m wanting to learn to make from native sources and from scratch. I was curious can juniper be harvested? I’ve never seen a juniper resin before personally, I’m going to scour your site for more incense information!

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  3. Hi Dan,
    I collected some pine sap today and froze part of it to grind it into powder for the coating of the pellets. As I don’t have any other ingredients to mix with the oleoresin I tried kneading only the pure pine oleoresin. Unfortunately it kept sticking to my fingers and would not form into chunks. What am I doing wrong? Will adding pine sawdust into the mixture make it more pliable and less sticky? Will the freshly made powder work well as a coating or I need an old frankincense ground powder? Thanks for your help!

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    1. Hi Kaya.
      Yes, you will need to powder a harder oleo resin for coating your pellets. Unfortunately, at room temperature, the pine sap will return to its stickiness. Frankincense, Myrrh, Copal or Benzoin, in their resin form, are hard at room temperature and their powder will absorb the stickiness of the pine sap.
      If you don’t have any other ingredients to mix with the Pine sap then yes, you will have to improvise and finely powdered Spruce or pine sawdust, powdered dry needles, dry powdered Sage or Cedar leaves are some of the many fragrant materials you can use to bind and give shape to your incense pellets. You can experiment and explore many fragrant materials. Even powdered cinnamon or Nutmeg can be used and are traditional ingredients in many ancient incense formulas. Many of our common kitchen spices are laden with fragrant essential oils that can contribute to an excellent incense.
      I hope this was of some help Kaya. Let me know if you have any other questions.
      Dan

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    2. Pine is notoriously difficult to work with being so soft… I’ve not done it, but you could try a frozen tray to try to keep the resin solid

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  4. Hi Dan, I have infused some vodka with ground fir needles for a month and have a very dark and pungent infusion. I am especially interested in making perfume but I am having a hard time finding the next step, what do you suggest?

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    1. Hi Lisa.
      I am going to assume your vodka was 45% alcohol and 55% water. If that is the case, you could filter it and use it directly in a perfume, keeping in mind it will raise the water content in your finished products and add it’s colour.
      The best thing to do with it next, and what I would do, is distill off the alcohol and essential oils. This way you will have a purer and more versatile perfume ingredient. You will lose the colour but keep some of the unique fragrance profile that you gained by starting with an infusion of fresh needles. It should be more complex than a straight essential oil distilled from needles or resins. You would eliminate a lot of the water as well and this will give you a purer form of fragrance to work with. A simple distillation. Either tasting the distillate as it comes over, or using a thermometer in your flask to let you know when you are getting more water than fragrance and need to stop.
      There is a lot of information online with instructions on setting up a simple distillation train, “how to” sites and forums on the subject. If you need any further input, suggestions or links please let me know.
      Dan

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  5. When you shape the balls, do you pinch off with your fingers? I feel like when you roll in the powdered outer coating, it will get all over your fingers and be wasted. Do you have any advice on this?

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    1. Hi Lauren. It does indeed stick to your fingers. The powder and the resins will build up. I usually scrape the accumulated residue from my fingers at the end with a butter knife or something comparable and with a little more powder use this material as well.
      Dan

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      1. Lauren. Another option is rolling out the mixed incense into pencil or finger thick rods, then slicing it with a knife and tossing it around in a bowl or closed bag, (like “shake and bake”), with your powdered coating. After the pieces are coated, you should be able to shape them as you wish with a minimum of material sticking to your fingers.

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    1. Hi. The difference in strength of fragrance between these three is not obvious, however if I was to describe them according to strength, I would say the Spruce family is slightly stronger, often with a certain sharpness of odor, and our Balsam Fir the lightest fragrance, but has an added note of clear almost fruity sweetness. Our Red pine lacks both these distinguishing features, and has a slightly “smokey “mellowness. Very laid back compared to our Spruce and Fir oleoresins.

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