Burning incense, particularly the burning of tree resins has been known throughout the millennia as a sacred activity. Incenses are offered to the spirits, the land, the gods, the ancestors as a way of seeking communion and blessing. Today, most people who are interested in “natural” incense gravitate towards resin incense for its lasting effect, delightful smells, and natural origins. Resin incenses are typically the dried sap from trees: trees may be scored or drip naturally and the sap hardens, creating the resin (like Frankincense, Myrrh, Benzoin, Copal). Others might be dried liquid from trees or fruit (like Dragon’s blood). When you burn the resin on a charcoal block, you get billows of incredible, sweet-smelling smoke. Tree resins have an extensive history in certain parts of the world and are often highly revered by the cultures that produce them. For example, when I was in Oman in April (for a professional/work trip), I was amazed to see the frankincense trees and experience the fresh frankincense firsthand. The Omani people see frankincense as a symbol of their culture–it is burned in many public places; ground up and drank in water, and much more! I’ve already listed some of the most common incenses you can purchase–and, like most things, they come from considerable distances and far away places.
It is sad, I think, that we don’t do more to honor or local trees that produce incredible resin incense here in North America, particularly in the Eastern part of the US. While it is little known, we actually have a large variety of fantastic ingredients for incense making! They are not commercially available or discussed, but they are present and available in the landscape. It is possible that this knowledge has been lost because the native peoples of these lands, those who had the knowledge, were driven off to other lands and/or killed as part of this colonization. I believe that we can relearn and integrate ourselves into our lands more fully–and part of that is the sacred tree knowledge that we hold.
Given this, for a good number of years, I have been working to develop local incense sources and locally-based spiritual supplies (see my post on making your own smudge sticks, for example). And so, in today’s post, I’m going to explore tree resins local to the Eastern USA, particularly the midwest/north-east/mid-atlantic regions, and share how to find these resins, how to harvest them, what they smell like, and how to craft basic incenses.
What is resin and what tree resins work best?
Tree resins are the sticky and dried sap of trees. In my area, this primarily refers to the sticky and dried sap balls and drips you find on conifers. Conifer resins are not hard to find and are often abundant. Pines, in particular, produce really nice amounts of resin (especially if they have a limb removed/broken and/or are damaged in some way) and most of their resins have a piney/lemony smell. Spruces also produce nice resins that are typically easy to harvest; the spruce resins are muskier than the pine resins. If you can find it (and this is by no means an easy task). Norway spruce produces a resin that is particularly delightful called “Burgandy Resin” and it is incredible. Eastern Hemlock produces the most amazing resin (however, in my visits to thousands of hemlock trees, I’ve only really been able to collect or find resin from two of them). Tamarak has a beautifully light-smelling incense, as does Dawn Redwood!
There are a few non-conifer trees that also produce resin. Black Cherry produces a resin that hardens and appears a possible candidate However, I have tried burning this and it doesn’t burn and doesn’t really smell good. But I suspect that some other trees or plants may produce a nice-smelling and nice-burning resin. If any readers know of other plants that produce a nice resin you can harvest–please share and I can update my list.
When and where do you harvest resin?
You can harvest conifer resin anytime of the year. Tree sap flows most abundantly in the spring, and it will often be dried a bit by the fall. I actually like to do a lot of my resin harvesting in the late fall months when I’m starting to look for Chaga mushrooms–whatever resin flows happened that year, they are likely dried out a bit by then and the cold can sometimes make it easier to break off the resin. Although when everything freezes, it’s hard to harvest the incense in many cases. But most months of the year you can look for it and harvest it.
In terms of finding conifers to harvest from, you don’t need to go into the deep woods. In fact, some trees that are at local parks or along the street produce really good resin because they are often trimmed or damaged. These damaged trees will ooze from a wound. The spruce in the photo to the right is along my street and I go past it on my walk to work–that’s how easy it can be to find. You can also find large patches of conifers in local parks or in forests, and those are well worth your look. Really, if you just keep your eyes open as you are out and about, you will find abundant supplies of resin. Just be prepared to harvest it!
How do you harvest resin?
Tree resins start out in a fresh form–they are extremely sticky, gooey, and delightful. Whatever you get them on, they will stay on (so if you harvest with a knife, that knife will likely have resin on it forever). You can use the resin either in its fresh form, or you can wait for it to dry and crystallize. I have harvested both and both have their uses (see recipes, below).
I typically have a special knife (ok, it is an old butter knife) I use to harvest resin and usually harvest it into plastic cups, small glass jars, or plastic bags. The knife is pretty much used just for resin–resin is really hard to get off and clean of anything else (requires alcohol, not water). The plastic bags or jars keep it from sticking. If you end up having to clean your tools, you will need to use high-proof alcohol to do so (even rubbing alcohol can work); conifer resins do not clean up or extract in water. If you are harvesting fresh resin and put it in a plastic bag, it will never evaporate and turn crystallized; so if you want the crystal stuff, let it crystallize on a tree and/or harvest it into a cup and let it sit somewhere in the sun for a long time.
You will need to be patient with the dried form of resin–if you see a tree freshly oozing, its probably necessary to come back in six months, a year, or more, and check it to see if it’s dry (how long it takes depends on the kind of tree). Usually, finding other trees around will allow you to harvest a bountiful amount of incense.
When harvesting, remember that tree resin is created when the tree is damaged: the resin essentially “seals” the wound of the tree. Because of this, when you harvest resin, you want to only harvest from around and/or below the wound of the tree, not the wound itself. For example, if a tree has had a limb removed, some trees (pines especially) will produce a mountain of resin to seal off the wound. I would not remove this resin, as it is protecting the inner part of the tree. However, the tree could have produced so much resin that there is excess dripping down the side of the tree. This is what I would harvest in abundance, as that is not actively sealing off a wound on the tree. I hope this makes sense: we harvest carefully, and delicately, to ensure our tree brethren are not damaged in the process.
Some trees will also drip resin to the forest floor, which you can then scrape off of roots, lift off of the pine needles on the floor, or even pick up crystallized chunks.
Trees Producing Abundant Resin – List and Scent Descriptions
Here are some of the tree resins that I have harvested and my description of their smell. All of these trees are easy to find and abundant throughout the Eastern US and parts of Canada:
- White Pine – White pine, the chief of standing people, produces the most amazing incense. It can be found typically whenever the tree has been cut or broken (like limbs removed). It is a very sticky resin till it dries–and it can take a very long time to dry out (I have some that I have been drying out for 4 years now…it is still partially gooey). The smell itself when burning is really divine: light, piney, with a hint of vanilla scent; when it burns it almost reminds me of how some whipped cream frosting smells. I think this is one of my favorite of all conifer incenses and is well worth your time to harvest.
- Jack Pine – Jackpine resin is a light colored, quickly crystallizing, extremely abundant resin (I have a photo of it at the opening of this article). I had a spot in Michigan where tons of little jack pines were growing and I could easily collect a pint of it in about a half hour–it just crystallized all over the tree very quickly, was rarely sticky, and quite easy to harvest. In terms of smell, it has a very light aroma, piney with hints of lemon-orange, very clean, and excellent burning.
- Red pine – Red Pine produces a lot less intense than some other trees, but it is well worth gathering. Most of the time, I find small chunks of it on the trunk of certain trees because a little bug has burrowed in deep and the tree has responded by producing a chunk of incense (some of which can be removed or will removed itself by flaking and some of which should stay to protect the tree). The incense itself burns with a piney smell that includes almost an orange/cherry undertone. It is very light and refreshing.
- Blue Spruce – Blue spruce resin can be harder to find, but it is well worth the effort. It is usually found in the places where the tree is damaged (from being cut or trimmed, etc). And when it is found, it is found in abundance. It is an intense incense–it has a very skunky/musky, almost animalistic smell. Some people really like it and others do not–but I’d say, find some, harvest it and see what you think!
- Norway Spruce – Norway Spruce is another tree that produces a good amount of incense. Norway Spruce has a really delightful resin incense that smells wonderful and is called “Burgandy Resin” in Norway. I highly recommend seeking this resin out!
- Tamarack – Tamarack produces small amounts of resin and you can often find it on larger branches or damaged bits. Tamarack has a very light and sweet-smelling resin, very similar to White Pine. It is well worth finding!
Trees that Produce Little Resin
The above trees are my staples for tree resin incense, but I also want to share a few additional trees. These are trees that only produce a tiny amount of resin, but it is worth keeping your eyes open for:
- Eastern Hemlock Resin – As my blog readers know, I very much adore and love the Eastern Hemlock Tree. Of the thousands of hemlocks I have visited, I have found harvestable resin on only two of the trees. One had a huge gash from logging and had produced some dried resin that I could harvest without damaging; the other had a gash from debris along a riverbed. The broken branches do not produce any resin, nor do cut stumps. So, if you can find it, it is well worth your time, but it is incredibly elusive! The incense itself is extremely light and refreshing with a hint of lemon; it has a very clean smell and smells awesome. It is comparable to white pine resin, but with more of a lemon/citrus smell.
- Eastern White Cedar: Thuja Occidentalis does not like producing much resin at all, but if you can find it, it is really nice. I have found tiny little beads of resin sometimes on older trees’ trunks and larger branches. The beads burn well and smell very cedar-like, which you would expect. Because of the lack of abundance of resin, I often burn the needles of this tree (which pop and crackle for quite some time).
- Juniper / Eastern Red Cedar: thus far, I have not found a juniper tree with any amount of incense to harvest (although I am keeping my eye out!). However, I burn the berries of this (they smell really wonderful, a strong piney/floral scent) and they also smolder nicely. So they have some resinous qualities themselves.
Resins Not Recommended
I want to mention one other tree that produces resin, but that you don’t want to use–and that is Wild/Black Cherry. Cherries do produce a resin that crystallizes and dries. However, it doesn’t burn like a typical conifer resin (which smolders nicely, producing billows of smoke as it boils and burns on the charcoal block); rather, it crackles and pops, it doesn’t want to burn, and when it burns, it kind of just smells like something is burning (dark, earthy smell). You might be able to grind it up and use it with some other tree incenses, but I’m not sure I’d use it on its own. I’m still experimenting with it.
Making Incense from Fresh Resin: Incense Balls
You can make really nice incense from fresh resin in the form of incense balls. Note that if you harvest resin sticky, and then you put it in a bag, it will remain sticky pretty much indefinitely because it is not exposed to air. If you don’t want it sticky, best to let it dry out on the tree for some months and/or years. Trust me.
But if you harvest it sticky, and you have a nice clump of it, you can make some great incense balls. Collect the fresh resin itself (I usually do this in an old bowl). Then, I add any other ingredients I would like that are dried and/or finely powdered to the resin: sage, rosemary, mugwort, and so on (you can see a list of my common ingredients that are local and useful in my smudge stick post for some ideas). Eventually, you will work enough plant matter in that the incense takes form. You can test out small amounts until you get a good smell (my favorite is fresh white pine resin with rosemary and sage powder). Form your balls (with your hands or gloves; your hands will need a very good cleaning afterward–use alcohol). Then, give them a final “roll” in some kind of powder to avoid stickiness. You can also wrap them up individually in a bit of wax paper. But what I like to do, is let them sit out for a while (a month or so) and then the outsides will eventually dry out.
To use them, simply burn them on a charcoal block. Different mixes obviously will make different blends–try testing out a few different combinations and seeing which ones you like the smell of best!
Making Incense from Dried/Crystallized Resin
The other way to work with the tree resins as incense is to harvest it after it has dried out. Sometimes, you can find really nice dried piece of resin. Most dried resins flake easily off of the tree and into your bag/jar. I like to keep these incenses in a jar somewhere handy–they are beautiful and easy to use. You might find that before burning them, you want to take a hammer and put them in a bag and mash them up a bit–otherwise, the chunks may be too large to be serviceable.
The easiest way to use this resin is simply to burn small chunks of it on a charcoal block in whatever amount you’d like. Test a small amount first to see how much smoke you get.
The other way you can use it is to grind it up into a powder and add other ingredients (tree powders, powdered or finely chopped dried herbs, and the like). You can see my incense on incense making for more information. Any of the dried resins can be used in place of more traditional resin ingredients (frankincense, myrrh, etc). As with all resins, they are not self-combustible, so you would be making again an incense to burn on a charcoal block. If you used a LOT of woody matter and plant matter, and a tiny bit of resin, you might manage to make a combustible (self-burning) incense, but that’s a bit hard to get the balance right. Some incense books (like Cunningham’s) use Saltpeter to get things to burn on their own–it is carcinogenic. Use the charcoal block (non-self lighting).
If you have access to really high proof alcohol (and by this I mean 95%/ 190 proof) another fun thing you can do is to extract the resin in the alcohol and make incense papers, which can be burned. Essentially only alcohol will extract resins.
Grind up your resin (dried) or add your fresh (I find dried works better for this). Cover it with your 190-proof alcohol (or as close to that as you can get). Shake it every day or so, and let it sit for at least two months.
The alcohol will extract the components of the resin and produce a resin tincture.
Then, you can drop a bit of this onto a sheet of paper (like Japanese rice paper or standard copy paper) and let the alcohol evaporate. Then, burn the paper to get some of the scents! I am only starting to experiment with this, but the results are promising (I will probably post more on this in a future post, but wanted to share some initial thoughts here).
Energy and Tree Incense
One question you might have is: what spiritual or energetic qualities do these incenses hold? For this, you need to go back and look at the specific tree. Here’s a basic list:
- Pines: Considered a “tree of peace” by some Native American tribes, it also represents longevity, life, and immortality. It can be burned for purification, healing work, and divination. I see it as our “frankincense” and use it in pretty much the same way.
- Spruces: Considered a versatile tree that survives well in northern, cold environments; it can represent constancy, versatility, and determination. I like to burn spruce for getting things going and keeping them going.
- I have already covered Eastern Hemlock and Eastern White Cedar extensively already (and some of the other trees in this post will get the same extensive treatment).
I hope that you’ve found this post on making tree incenses helpful! I am also working on a post on local, natural incenses, but I suspect it will be some more time until I can present that to you! I would love to hear from you about trees to add to this list. We don’t have many wild firs growing around here–would love to know what they smell like as well! Blessings on this Lughanssadh weekend!