I love incense. I’ve been fascinated with it since I was a young child and discovered that my parents had two boxes of cone incense. One was sandalwood and had an image of the Taj Mahal on it. I don’t remember the scent of the other, but it had an abstract image of a blue-green wave or curl of smoke on it. I’m sure if I smelled it again I’d recognize it instantly — because that deep ability of scent transport one into Proustian reveries is one of the truly great things about it. When my sister began a tradition of collecting Christmas nutcrackers from Erzgebirge, my response was to collect incense burning Räuchermänner from the same region. my first girlfriend was also an incense fan, although she was also a frequented of Renaissance Faires who favored charcoal incense and blends with names like “Dragon Cloud.” By contrast, I’ve always favored the more traditional sort, the sort that are used in kōdō (香道), one of the traditional arts of Japanese court culture and a sort of game of “name that scent.” When I operated the Brightwell men’s shop (2011-2013) I sold Japanese incense because I believe that gentlemen should be able, at the very least, to appreciate scents.
The English word, “incense” is derived from the Latin, “incendere,” meaning “to burn” and refers to any aromatic biotic material that releases fragrant smoke when burned. Incense is burned for a variety of reasons, including for pleasure, as an insectifuge, for religious ceremony, as a meditation aid, and as a deodorant.
In much of the world, incense was a luxury good and incense traders concocted stories to protect their stock-in-trade. Ancient Nabataean and Sabean incense traders claimed that Frankincense groves were protected by fierce, flying serpents. Myrrh was said to coat the golden eggs of the fiery phoenix and had to be retrieved from nests filled with cinnamon. Cassia was said to be guarded by bats that attacked the eyes of those who would attempt to harvest it.
To this day, many modern incense peddlers aren’t above telling tall tales about their products — although the claims are usually of the pseudoscientific than cryptozoological variety. Incense is claimed by New Age practitioners to have all sorts of unverified benefits to the soul, mindfulness, circulation, &c. I’m not arguing that incense has no benefit other than aesthetic, mind you, but in reality, burning incense produces all sorts of irritants and pollution — including particulate matter, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, various volatile organic compounds, aldehydes, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. When burned, in other words, it should be burned with the knowledge that it has both benefits and costs — and should be done so sparingly and in well-ventilated spaces.
Incense burning has been widespread since ancient times. Incense burners manufactured by the Indus Civilization (3300 BCE–1300 BCE) were used to burn incense varieties made from plants such as cypress, frankincense, and sarsaparilla. As early as 2500 BCE, Egyptians burned incense to appease gods, deter demons, and to obscure unpleasant scents such as those that come from mummies. Incense use spread to China around 2000 BCE. There, incense made from cassia, cinnamon, sandalwood, and styrax was burned primarily in religious ceremonies — but also to tell time using incense clocks. When Jesus of Nazareth was born, the magi reputedly gave him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Incense use was widespread in the Americas, too, and the “smoking ceremony” of Australia suggests to me that there’s much more to the story of incense in the ancient world than has thus far been written.
In Japan, incense appreciation was elevated to an art form. According to legend, the Japanese first encountered incense when a bit of aloeswood is said to have drifted to Awaji Island, where it was burned and thereupon discovered to have a pleasant scent. In reality, incense was likely introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks from Korea around the 6th century CE. It was in Japan, however, around the 8th century that the art of incense appreciation, Kōdō (literally “the way of fragrance”), took its place alongside flower arrangement and the tea ceremony as one of the three arts of refinement. By the 14th century, samurai even lined their armor with incense.
For much of American history, incense burning was limited primarily to Christian worship services. In some denominations, a priest, deacon, or acolyte still fills a church or cathedral sanctuary with smoke by swinging a thurible containing burning incense (usually a mixture of benzoin, copal, frankincense, myrrh, and styrax). In the 1960s, hippies seem to have fallen for Nag Champa (a blend of plumeria, sandalwood, and other aromatics), which I assume they burned to disguise the distinct odor of burning cannabis and out of a vogue for Indian things — such as both the incense and drug. Los Angeles sunshine pop band Strawberry Alarm Clock had an uncharacteristically psychedelic number one hit with “Incense and Peppermints” in 1967. In 1968, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band released “The Smell of Incense” to less commercial interest. Incense was also celebrated in song by The 13th Floor Elevators, The Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, The Temptations, and naturally, in the musical Hair. Incense remains popular. It can be purchased at convenience stores, street fairs, and on transit rail cars where it is sold with names like Purple Kush, Kamasutra, Sexual Chocolate, or Mystic Forest. The ingredients and sources, I presume, are still usually secret.
What follows is my attempt to create a comprehensive guide to popular incense ingredients and types. It has been published, despite being a work in progress. Additions and corrections, as always, are welcome.
Agarwood (also known as aloeswood, gharuwood, jinko, oodh, and oud) is a dark resinous wood used in incense, perfume, and small carvings. The resin forms in the heartwood of aquilaria trees infected with a type of mold, Phialophora parasitica. The formation of agarwood is a response on the part of the tree to the infection. Prior to the infection, the heartwood is mostly odorless and lighter in color.
The scent of agarwood led to its being prized since ancient times — it was described in the Sanskrit Vedas as early as 1400 BCE. The ancient Greeks later used it as a breath freshener and in various folk remedies. Of the seventeen species of evergreen aquilaria — all of which are native to Southeast Asia — nine are known to produce agarwood. Due to its increasing popularity, however, the primary source of agarwood, Aquilaria malaccensis, is now threatened with extinction.
Ambergris is a solid, waxy, flammable substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales. The substance is formed from a secretion of the bile duct in the sperm whale’s intestines and, although usually passed through the whale’s anus, is also speculated to sometimes be expelled through the mouth, providing its reputation as whale vomit. In Ancient China it was described as “dragon’s spittle.” Historically, it was scooped from the surface of the sea and harvested from coastlines.
The odor of freshly-produced ambergris is sometimes described both as “marine” and “fecal.” However, as it ages, it acquires a sweet, earthy musk that long made it popular with perfumers. Most perfumes today, however, rely on synthetically produced ambroxide — one of the key chemical constituents responsible for the odor of ambergris.
Ambergris was burned in incense in Ancient Egypt and has also been used to flavor cigarettes in modern times. During the Black Death, many Europeans believed that carrying a pouch of ambergris could prevent the contraction of the disease. It has also been used in cooking and is believed by some to be an aphrodisiac as well as folk remedy for various ailments.
Due to the dwindling number of sperm whales — thanks mainly to hunting and other human activities — ambergris is rarer today and incenses marketed as “amber” are nearly always derived from labdanum, a species of rockrose, which is sometimes blended with vanilla or other botanicals that in combination suggest somewhat the odor of ambergris.
BALSAM OF TOLU and BALSAM OF PERU
Balsam of Tolu and Balsam of Peru are two products derived from a plant sometimes referred to as opobalsamum although, in fact, both names refer to the only-distantly-related Myroxylon balsamum. The word “Myroxylon” is Greek for “fragrant wood.” The fragrance is sweet and reminiscent of both benzoin and vanilla. Balsam of Tolu and Balsam of Peru, both derived from the same source, differ from one another in their means of production.
Bdellium (also known as bdellion), is a semi-transparent oleo-gum-resin extracted from either Commiphora wightii or Commiphora africana, two trees native to the Horn of Africa. It is used in perfumery, incense, and traditional medicine. The oldest known written mention was made by Theophrastus, who mentioned it in reference to and expedition of Alexander the Great. Its scent is often compared to that of myrrh, and being less expensive, it is sometimes used as an adulterant. In the Book of Numbers (בְּמִדְבַּר), the manna eaten by the Israelites is said to have been “the color of bdellium.”
Benzoin (also known as gum benzoin, Benjamin, and storax) is a balsamic resin obtained from the bark of several species of trees in the genus Styrax. It is used in perfumery, candle-making, cooking, folk medicine, and incense. Its aroma is sometimes compared to that of vanilla. It is a major component of incense burned in some Christian churches. It is also used in the production of scented wood chips called “bakhoor” (بخور ). The most common varieties are benzoin Siam (obtained from Styrax tonkinensis) and benzoin Sumatra (obtained from Styrax benzoin). The latter, also known in Arabic as “لبان” is native to the forests of Sumatra, where it is known as kemenyan.
The Bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia) is a fragrant citrus fruit that is most likely a hybrid of Citrus limon and Citrus aurantium. The name is derived from the Italian “bergamotto,” which is itself of Turkish origin: derived either from “bey armudu” or “bey armut” (literally “prince’s pear” or “prince of pears”). The tree mostly grows in the coastal areas along the Ionian Sea. Its fruit has long been consumed and its extract used to scent and flavor food, perfume, and cosmetics. It is particularly popular as a flavor of marmalade and gives Earl Grey tea its distinct taste. Its essential oil is one of the most common ingredients in both men’s and women’s perfumes.
Borneo Camphor (Dryobalanops aromatica) (also commonly known as camphor tree, Kapur, Malay camphor, or Sumatran camphor) is a species of the family Dipterocarpaceae. Its natural range is in Sumatra, Malaysia, and Borneo. The “aromatica” of the name refers to the tree’s resin, which was sought by Arab traders who valued it more than gold for its use in perfumes and incense. The incense is especially prized in Japan.
Calamus (Acorus calamus), is a fragrant, semi-evergreen perennial that grows in wetlands. It is mentioned in recipes for ancient Egyptian Kyphi and the holy anointing oil mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. It is also used in folk medicine. In its powdered form, it was traditionally mixed with lavender and pennyroyal — a concoction that was believed to repel vermin.
Cardamom (also spelled “cardamon” and “cardamum”) refers to the spice made from seeds of several species of plants in the genera Elettaria and Amomum — both of which are native to India and Indonesia. It’s widely used as a cooking ingredient throughout much of Asia and in the Nordic countries, especially in winter. It’s also prized for its scent, which is cool and minty yet also distinctly smoky.
Chamomile (or camomile) is the common name for several daisy-like plants of the family Asteraceae. One species, Matricaria chamomilla, is also referred to as “German chamomile” or “Water of Youth.” The other, Chamaemelum nobile, is also referred to as Roman, English, or garden chamomile. C. nobile Treneague is often used to create chamomile lawns. Those species are commonly used to make tisanes and herbal infusions for traditional medicine. It was also historically used in the production of beer. The scent of the flower and essential oil has a warm, sweet, herbaceous, and fruity fragrance not unlike that of an apple. The word “chamomile” is derived from the Greek χαμαί (“on the ground”) and μῆλον (“apple”).
Cedar wood refers to several different families of trees, including Pinaceae (e.g. Lebanon, Deodar, and Atlas) Cupressaceae (e.g. Iranian, Japanese, New Zealand), Meliaceae (e.g. Spanish, Cigar-box, Australian), and others. The Calocedrus is colloquially known as the “incense cedar” but most (probably all, in fact) cedars have pleasing scents and many types of cedar are used to make cedar incense.
A cherry blossom is the flower of any of several trees of genus Prunus, particularly the Japanese cherry, Prunus serrulata (桜 or 櫻; さくら). The northward movement of the cherry blossom front is closely followed in Japan, where the cherry blossom is the center of great attention and appreciation. In Japan, there are more than 200 cultivars of cherry blossoms — many of which do not produce fruit. The blossoms themselves are sometimes incorporated into several Japanese desserts and beverages.
Cinnamon is the pungent spice obtained from several tree species of the genus Cinnamomum — most often Cinnamomum verum (also known as “true cinnamon”) and Cinnamomum cassia (also known simply as “cassia”). It is mainly used as a flavoring additive and aromatic condiment. The aroma derives primarily from its essential oil and principal component, cinnamaldehyde.
The English word “cinnamon” is derived from the Greek “κιννάμωμον” which was a word borrowed from Phoenician. It is attested in English since the 15th century. “Cassia,” on the other hand, is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “to strip off bark.” Early Modern English also used the names canel and canella, both of which derive from the diminutive Latin form of “canna,” meaning “tube” — a reference to the shape formed by harvested cinnamon.
True cinnamon is native to Bangladesh, Burma, India, and Sri Lanka. Related species, commonly sold as cinnamon today, are mostly grown in Indonesia, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Cinnamon was imported to Egypt as early as 2000 BCE, where it was used in the embalming of mummies and burned as incense.
Citronella refers to several plant varieties, including Pelargonium citrosum, a geranium, the genus Citronella, and Cymbopogon, the genus which includes lemongrasses, and which produces oil and plant material used to make citronella scented soap, candles perfumery, flavors, and incense. Incense made from citronella is often burned as an insectifuge — often, traditionally, by Zen Buddhists whose mediations might otherwise be disrupted by mosquitos.
Cloves are the aromatic flower buds of the Syzygium aromaticum tree. The evergreen tree, a member of the Myrtaceae family, is native to the Maluku Islands. The Malukus were formerly known to Europeans as the Spice Islands because it was there that cloves, mace, and nutmeg were endemic. Clove essential oil is used as an analgesic, in aromatherapy, and as an insect repellent.
In the third century BCE, a Han emperor required those who addressed him to freshen their breath with cloves. By the 1st century CE, cloves were known in Roman where they were described by Pliny the Elder. Cloves widely are used as a culinary seasoning in many cuisines of Africa and Asia. Cloves are also used to flavor Indonesian cigarettes, called “kreteks.” In the West, they’re typically known as “clove cigarettes” or simply “cloves” and are associated with beatnik, hippie, goth, and other subcultures.
The term “copal” is used, generally, to refer to resinous substances in an intermediate stage of polymerization. More particularly, “copal” refers to the resin of the copal tree (Protium copal). Copal incense has long been used by indigenous Mesoamericans for various ceremonies including those involving sweat lodges and psychedelic mushrooms. The term itself is derived from the Nahuatl word, “copalli,” meaning “incense.” Its scent is often described as clean, sweet, and piney.
Dammar (also known as dammar gum, or damar gum) is a resin obtained from the Dipterocarpaceae tree, which grows in India and East Asia. Dammar is most often derived from trees in the genera Shorea or Hopea. It is obtained from both tapping the trees and from collecting the fossilized form from the ground. In addition to incense, it’s used in cooking, as a glaze for paint, to caulk ships, and for a variety of other purposes. Its scent is variously described as light, airy, lemony, and clean.
Dragon’s Blood is a resin, so named for its bright red color. It’s obtained from various distinct genera, including Calamus rotang, Croton, Dracaena, Daemonorops, and Pterocarpus although, historically, little distinction was apparently made by its ancient Chinese manufacturers. As it’s derived from different sources, often blended, color is the only thing consistent about it — and Dragon’s Blood is used for its color in dyes and varnishes.
Forest Sandalwood (Santalum freycinetianum) is in the European mistletoe family but is endemic to Hawaiʻi, where it is known as ʻIliahi. It’s also known as Freycinet sandalwood, named after 19th-century French explorer Henri Louis Claude de Saulces de Freycinet. It is used in Hawaiʻi in folk medicine and in perfume. It was also harvested to China, beginning in 1791, to be used in the construction of furniture and for the manufacture of incense. By the 1840s, it was over-harvested and today it is still at risk of extinction.
Formosan Cypress (Chamaecyparis formosensis) is a species of large conifer endemic Taiwan that grows in the central mountains at altitudes of 1000-2900 meters. It is closely related to the Taiwan cypress (Chamaecyparis taiwanensis), Japenese cypress, or Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa), and Sawara cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) — none of which are true cypress trees and all of which are thus sometimes referred to as false cypress. The strongly scented wood — the scent is similar to that of hinoki — was valued in traditional Taiwanese buildings — particularly temples and shrines. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, Formosan cypress was so excessively harvested that today it remains endangered.
Galbanum is an aromatic gum resin derived from several species of umbelliferous plants, chiefly Ferula gummosa (synonym F. galbaniflua) and Ferula rubricaulis. The plants primarily grow in the mountains of northern Iran. Galbanum is mentioned in the Book of Exodus as an ingredient in Ketoret, the consecrated incense of the Hebrew people. Hippocrates and Pliny ascribed medicinal uses to it. The scent is often described as acrid, bitter, musky, spicy, woody, and green. Galbanum was prized by the ancient Egyptians and may’ve been an ingredient in “green” incense. Its scent is sometimes compared to the scents of pine, balsam, bamboo, pepper, parsley, and green apples. Today it is occasionally used as an ingredient in perfumes, including Balmain‘s Vent Vert, Cartier‘s Must, Chanel‘s No. 19, and Guerlain‘s Vol de Nuit.
Gardenia is a genus of flowering evergreen in the family Rubiaceae, the coffee family. Gardenias are native to the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Its English name is derived from Scottish–American naturalist Alexander Garden (1730-1791). Gardenias flower from mid-spring to mid-autumn and their blossoms are prized for their beauty and intense, sweet scent. In France and the US, the gardenia blossom was traditionally worn with evening dress as a boutonnière. The gardenia’s fruit is used to create yellow dye and, as food in Korea, and in Chinese medicine.
Golden incense (also known as Sudanese frankincense) is obtained from the Boswellia papyrifera, a tree native to Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan. The incense resin, when burned, has a scent often compared to lemon and pine.
Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub more commonly known as the tea plant — is native to a region that encompasses parts of Assam, Burma, Tibet, and Yunnan. Tea is most often used to make the beverage, also known as tea. It’s also, though, used to create a variety of other products, including tea oil (not to be confused with tea tree oil) and a pleasant-smelling incense especially popular in Japan, where it was introduced by Buddhist monks returning from China in the 9th century.
Boswellia serrata is used to produce Indian frankincense (also known as oli-banum, Salai guggul, and Sallaki). The plant is native to much of India and the Punjab region of that country and Pakistan. It has long been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. The scent of Indian frankincense is sometimes described as balsamic and woody.
Japanese anise (Illicium anisatum) is also known as Japanese star anise and Aniseed tree. In Japan, where it is native, it is known as シキミ (shikimi). The branches, which retain freshness after pruning, are considered sacred by Buddhists. The fruit is highly toxic to humans but the seeds are used topically for various folk medicines. The leaves are used to make incense, the scent of which is often compared to that of cardamom.
Japanese cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) is known in Japanese as 檜, 桧, or “hinoki,” a name by which it is also commonly known in English. The tree is native to central Japan and usually grows to a height of about 35 meters. The hinoki cypress is closely related to the Taiwan cypress and has a similar scent. Its fragrant and rot-resistant timber is prized as a building material and is widely used in the construction of baths, palaces, shrines, table tennis blades, masu, noh theaters, and temples. The scent is sometimes described as light, earthy, and lemony.
Jasmine refers to a genus of shrubs and vines in the olive family (Oleaceae). There are hundreds of species of jasmine which grow throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of Europe, Asia, and Oceania. Today jasmine is cultivated for beyond its natural range, though, for the characteristic fragrance of its flowers — variously described as sweet, rich, green, musky, and medicinal. In China and Ryūkyū, it is also used frequently to flavor green tea.
Junipers are coniferous plants in the genus Juniperus of the cypress family Cupressaceae. Juniper berries are used in a wide variety of culinary dishes and are especially well known for providing the primary flavor of gin. Juniper berries are also distilled to produce essential oil. Juniper was also historically used to make incense by both Native Americans and Tibetans.
The Kusum tree (Schleichera oleosa) is an evergreen in the soapberry family, Sapindaceae. It is also known as Ceylon oak, lac tree, and Macassar oiltree. It is native to the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka, and China — although it has been naturalized to parts of Southeast Asia. Kusum oil, which has an odor somewhat similar to that of the bitter almond, is obtained from the seeds. The fragrant flowers are sometimes used in the production of incense.
Kyphi is a compound incense that was historically used for a variety of purposes in Egypt. The name in English is derived from the Greek, “κυ̑φι,” which is itself derived from the Ancient Egyptian word for incense. Recipes for the incense varied and some recorded ingredients remain obscure such as “aspalthus” — something described by Romans as a thorny shrub. Cassia, cinnamon, and mastic, appear in numerous recorded recipes. Individual recipes include bdellium, bitumen, calamus, cardamom, cicely, cyperus, henna, honey, juniper, mimosa, mint, myrrh, raisins, rush, saffron, sorrel, spikenard, turpentine, and wine.
Labdanum is a resin obtained from the Cistus ladanifer, a species of rockrose native to the eastern Mediterranean. Historically it was valued for its purported medicinal properties, in perfumery, and in incense making. The Book of Genesis makes two mentions of labdanum which, in ancient times, was collected by combing the fur of goats and sheep that grazed amongst rockrose. In Crete, the labdanum-gathering comb was known as an “ergastiri.” Its odor is variously described as animalic, leathery, musky, sweet, and woody. The scent of labdanum is also often compared to ambergris and is often marketed as “amber” in perfumery and incense making.
Lakawood (or laka wood) refers to several species of trees of the genus Dalbergia, the wood of which is traditionally used to make dye, in folk medicine, and for other purposes in China, India, and Southeast Asia. Dalbergia parviflora was imported from the Malay peninsula at least since the 10th century. Its native name in Malay is “kayu laka” (literally “laka wood”). It is said to be able to ward off “evil vapors.” Lakawood is an aromatic heartwood and has been used as incense at least since the Song Dynasty, when it found particular favor with Taoists.
Lavender (Lavandula) is a genus of flowering plants in the mint family, Lamiacae. There are 47 known species of lavender, the natural range of which covers much of Africa, Europe, and Asia. Lavender has long been cultivated as an ornamental plant and for its essential oil. The most widely cultivated species is L. angustifolia (so-called “English Lavender“). L. stoechas and L. dentata are both often referred to as “French Lavender” — although both of those, as well as L. lanata, are also referred to as “Spanish Lavender.”
In English, “lavender” additionally refers to the purple shade of the plants’ flowers. The word is generally believed to be derived from the Old French “lavandre,” meaning “to wash” — believed to be a reference to the oil’s popularity as a scent in bath products and cosmetics. Lavender has been cultivated for the manufacture of balms, perfumes, salves, and topical applications. Its scent — somewhat reminiscent of rosemary with clean, lemony notes — has made it popular for incense too.
The lemon (Citrus limon) is a species of small evergreen tree in the family Rutaceae. It is native to Assam, Burma, and Tibet. The tree’s yellow fruit is used throughout the world primarily for its juice, which is used for both culinary and cleaning purposes. The pulp and rind are also used in baking and cooking. It is occasionally, but not commonly, used in the manufacture of incense.
Liquidambar (also known as American storax, gum, redgum, satin-walnut, star gum, and sweetgum) is the only genus in the flowering plant family Altingiaceae. There are fifteen known species of liquidambar. Attractive deciduous trees, they are primarily cultivated for ornamental purposes. The sap from the trees is also sometimes used in folk medicine, in soap-making, and for other purposes. Its resin is sometimes referred to as Storax balsam, which should not be confused with benzoin, a similar resin derived from the Styracaceae plant family and also referred to as storax. The species, Liquidambar orientalis, is sometimes used to make incense. Its scent has been compared to balsam, frankincense, leather, and lilac.
Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) is an aquatic plant in the family Nelumbonaceae. It is also known as Indian lotus, sacred lotus, bean of India, Egyptian bean, and colloquially but incorrectly, “water lily.” Its large native distribution spreads across several regions of Asia. The rhizomes are used for culinary purposes and tisanes. The flower petal — which have a heady, sweet, and fruity scent — are also used to make tisanes and incense.
Magnolia is a large genus of about 210 species of trees in the family Magnoliaceae. It is named after French botanist Pierre Magnol. The Magnolia is an ancient tree. It is believed to have appeared before bees and thus relied on large beetles for pollination. It’s theorized that it developed tough leaves and carpels to avoid damage from larger pollinators.
The petals of the M. grandiflora are used to make a spicy condiment in England. In parts of Asia, Magnolia buds are used to flavor rice and tea. In Japan, the young leaves and flower buds of M. hypoleuca are broiled and leaves are used to make a seasoning. It’s also in Japan that the leaves of of M. obovata are used for wrapping food and cooking dishes. The essential oil of magnolia is also used to manufacture a sweet, pungent incense.
Mastic (Pistacia lentiscus) is a bush that grows throughout dry, rocky areas of the Mediterranean and is cultivated for its aromatic, ivory-colored resin — mainly on the Greek island of Chios. It has a piney, cedar-like scent. At various times and by cultures, it has been chewed like gum, used as a breath freshener, and used in folk medicine. It was used by the Ancient Egyptians in the embalming process because the scent was believed to please the gods. It is still used in the production of various beverages and for culinary purposes and burned as incense, especially in North Africa.
Myrrh is a natural gum or resin extracted from a number of small, thorny species of tree in the genus Commiphora (notably Commiphora myrrha). Myrrh is used in perfume, medicine, food, and incense. Waxy myrrh gum is a resin that penetrates the tree’s bark into the sapwood. After harvest, the resin coagulates and becomes hard and glossy. C. myrrha is native to the Horn of Africa and southern parts of the Arabian peninsula. It is sometimes referred to as “bitter myrrh” to differentiate it from C. guidottii (or “sweet myrrh”). In medicine, myrrh has been used in mouthwashes, toothpastes, healing salves, and in folk medicine. Myrrh’s scent is sometimes described as figgy, piney, pungent, rich, sweet, warm, and woody.
Nag Champa is a fragrance blend of Indian or Nepalese origin that is based primarily on a blend of sandalwood and either magnolia (Magnolia champaca) or plumeria — although when made with plumeria, it’s sometimes referred to simply as “Champa.” It’s used in the manufacture of candles, perfume, toiletries, and incense. Its scent is sweet, woody, and usually very pungent.
Today, it’s probably the most popular incense blend in the world but despite or because of its mainstream popularity maintains its associations with the underground counterculture. It was popularized in the West along with other South Asian imports like the sitar, yoga, and transcendental meditation. It was burned on stage at musical performances by Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead and referenced in the lyrics of a song by Fleetwood Mac.
Myoporum sandwicense (commonly known as naio, bastard sandalwood, or false sandalwood) is a species of flowering shrub in the figwort family, Scrophulariaceae. It is endemic to Hawaiʻi and it is known in Hawaiian as “ʻaʻaka.” Hawaiians used the wood in the construction of boats, houses, and torches. Due to its similar scent, it was shipped to China in the 19th century to be burnt as incense after the over harvesting of ʻIliahi (Santalum freycinetianum).
Onycha/Shecheleth (Greek: ονυξ, Hebrew: שחלת) is an unidentified incense. In the Torah book of Exodus, it’s named (along with frankincense, galbanum, and stacte) as an ingredient in the consecrated incense of Solomon’s Temple and was forbidden from non-sacred use. No one has determined what onycha was, however, with certainty. The original Hebrew term, rather enigmatically, refers to the characteristic of a lion’s roar. Proposed contenders for the identity of onycha/shecheleth include benzoin, labdanum, operculum, benzoin mixed with labdanum, amber, bdellium, clove, cuttlefish bone, gum tragacanth, or spikenard.
Operculum (Latin: “little lid”) refers to an anatomical structure present in many snails and some other gastropods. The opercula of certain gastropods, especially those found in the Red Sea, were historically used in Jewish and Arab incenses. It is also known in China and Japan, where it is known, respectively, as 貝香 (“sea shell fragrance”). The opercula are treated with alcohol, vinegar, and water to remove the fishy odor, and the scent of the treated material, once burned, is described as both musky and sometimes reminiscent of burnt hair.
Opoponax is a gum resin derived from several sources of plants, including Opopanax chironium, Opopanax hispidus, Commiphora erythraea var. glabrescens, and Commiphora opoponax. . The word is derived from Ancient Greek ὀπός (vegetable juice) and πάναξ (panacea). It is believed by some historians to have been the primary ingredient of stacte. In modern perfumery, “opopanax” usually refers to a Somali product known as “habak hadi” (obtained from Commiphora guidottii) and is sometimes referred to as “sweet myrrh.” The resin of Commiphora kataf (synonym: Commiphora erythraea) is also sometimes labeled opoponax.
The orange blossom is the fragrant flower of the orange tree (Citrus sinensis). It has long been used in the manufacture of perfume, in cuisine, tisane, and occasionally, incense. The orange tree is native to China and the earliest known written mention of the sweet orange occurs in a Chinese text from 314 BCE. It is not a wild fruit, having arisen in domestication from cross-breeding mandarins (Citrus reticulata) and pomelos (Citrus maxima). Today it is the most cultivated fruit tree in the world.
Osmanthus is a genus of about thirty species of flowering plants in the family Oleaceae. Most of the species are native to East Asia with a few also found in Caucasia, the South Pacific, and North America. The plants range in size from shrubs to small trees that range in height from roughly two to twelve meters in height. Osmanthus fragrans (commonly known as sweet osmanthus, sweet olive, fragrant olive, and tea olive) is native to a range that includes parts of Central, East, and Southeast Asia. The scent of the flower is sometimes compared to that of apricots or peaches. It is used to make a floral, fruity, and sweet-smelling incense, primarily in Japan.
Palo santo (Bursera graveolens) is Spanish for “holy stick.” It belongs to the family, Burseraceae, along with frankincense and myrrh. The tree’s native range stretches from the Yucatán Peninsula in the north to the Gran Chaco region in the south. In folk medicine, it’s used to treat stomach aches and rheumatism. It’s also used to make essential oils and incense. Palo santo oil was used by the Inca for purification purposes and today, especially in Ecuador and Peru, it’s burned to dispel “bad energy” in much the same way sage is. Its scent is often described as woody, piney, and lemony.
Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) is a bushy herb in the mint family native to the tropics of South Asia. The plant reaches a height of about 75 centimeters and bears small, pale pink flowers. The English name is derived from the Tamil பச்சை இலை (literally “green leaf”). Various varieties are cultivated for their essential oil, which is widely used in perfumery and incense making. Decadent author Joris-Karl Huysmans memorably compared its scent to mold and rust in his 1884 novel, À rebours. Both patchouli oil and incense became widely popular in the West when their popularity surged with hippies.
Peppermint (Mentha × piperita) is a hybrid of spearmint and watermint. It’s indigenous to Europe and the Middle East but is now cultivated throughout the world. It is used as a plant source of menthol and menthone and has long been used for both culinary and medicinal purposes. The dried leaves are used, either alone or in combination with other herbs, to make tisanes and, especially in the Maghreb, to flavor tea. The cool, sweet, and mildly spicy flavor is also used as a flavoring in toothpaste, candy, and other products. It is used, less often, to make incense.
Pine refers to all conifers in the genus Pinus. Pinus is the sole genus in the subfamily Pinoideae. There are currently 126 recognized species of pine, nearly all of which are native to most regions of the Northern Hemisphere (the Southern is home to the Sumatran Pine). Some etymologists trace the term to the Indo-European base, *pīt-, meaning “resin.” However, prior to the 19th century, pines were often referred to as firs, from the Old Norse fura. Pines are long-lived and currently, a 4,600-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine in California‘s White Mountains is one of the world’s oldest living lifeforms. The scent of pine is popular with deodorizers, candles, cleaning products, and incense.
There are hundreds of cultivars of the Prunus mume tree, an Asian tree species sometimes referred to as the Chinese plum or the Japanese apricot. Although it is more closely related to the apricot (and a distinct species) in English, the flower is nearly always referred to as a plum blossom. In China, Japan, and Korea, its fruit is valued in the preparation of alcohol, juices, pickles, and sauces. The flowering, which takes place in late winter and early spring, holds cultural significance in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Prized, too, for its fragrance, the tree is also a popular incense.
Plumeria is a genus of flowering plants in the family Apocynaceae. Most species are endemic to the Caribbean. For the Maya, historically, the plumeria was associated with female sexuality and gods representing life and fertility. During the height of the Aztec Empire, they were planted in the gardens of nobles. The plumeria, however, was been naturalized in Southeast Asia for centuries, having arrived from the Americas by unknown means. In several Southeast Asian countries, its intense, sweet scent is associated with cemeteries, death, and evil spirits. In India, it is one of the two primary ingredients of Nag Champa. In Europe, it’s known as Frangipani after a 16th-century Italian marquis who falsely claimed to have invented plumeria perfume.
The pomegranate (Punica granatum) is a fruit-bearing deciduous shrub that originated in Central and South Asia and has been cultivated since ancient times both there and throughout the Mediterranean. It was introduced to the Americas by the Spanish in the 16th century. It is valued mostly for its fruits, which are used in cooking and production of various beverages as well as folk medicines. It is occasionally used in the production of incense, primarily in Japan.
The rose is a woody perennial of the genus Rosa, in the family Rosaceae. There are over three hundred species and thousands of cultivars of rose. Roses are widely valued for their scent and flavor and are used to make rose water, tisanes, marmalades, syrups, creams, and more. Rose’s distinct scent has made it the most common ingredient in women’s perfumes, used in an estimated 75% of women’s scents. Roses are also used by herbalists and practitioners of folk medicine. Roses are also used to make incense in India, Japan, and elsewhere.
Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the “saffron crocus.” It’s widely believed to have originated in Iran. The threadlike, crimson colored stigma and styles are dried and used as a seasoning and coloring agent in cooking. Its popularity makes it the costliest spice by weight. It’s hay-like fragrance was used by perfumers and for folk medicine purposes in Ancient Egypt, Minoa, the Levant, and Greece. Saffron incense is more often produced, today, in South Asia.
Sage refers to a variety of distantly-related plants, including but not limited to those of the genus Salvia. Although not true sages, plants in the genera Artemisia, Eriogonum, Krascheninnikovia, Leucophyllum, Phlomis, and Tetradymia are also commonly referred to as sages, with common names including “black sage,” “Jerusalem sage,” “sagebrush,” “Texas sage,” “white sage,” &c. Artemisia californica is also sometimes referred to as “Cowboy Cologne.”
Some sages, including S. fruticosa and S. officinalis are prized by cooks for their distinct, peppery flavor. Both are also used to produce essential oils and incenses, especially in Palestine. S. apiana is common in the western portions of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. The Chumash and ʔívil̃uqaletem historically used it in cooking and burned it for religious purposes. In recent years, it’s become tremendously popular with New Agers.
Sandalwood is a class of woods from a medium-sized, slow-growing tree genus, Santalum. Unlike many kinds of wood, sandalwood retains its distinct fragrance for decades, making it highly prized. Its scent is described as creamy, milky, smooth, soft, and warm. Both the wood and its essential oil of Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) and Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum) have been used for the production of perfumes and incense. Due to its popularity, in fact, Indian sandalwood is threatened with extinction.
Sandarac (or sandarach) is a resin obtained from the tree, Sandarac gum tree (Tetraclinis articulata), native to Mediterranean Africa, Spain, and the island of Malta, where it is the national tree despite only a small relic population remaining there. The translucent, yellow resin solidifies upon exposure to air. It is mostly cultivated in Morocco and historically was used to make varnish. The scent of sandarac incense is often described as light and balsamic and compared to that of frankincense.
Smilax is a genus of hundreds of species of woody and/or thorny, climbing, flowering plants found in the tropics and subtropics throughout the planet. Common names include catbriers, greenbriers, prickly-ivys, and sarsaparilla. The name, Smilax, comes from the name of a nymph in the Greek myth of Crocus, who was said to have been transformed into a brambly vine.
Spikenard (also called nard, nardin, and muskroot) is derived from Nardostachys jatamansi, a flowering plant of the valerian family that naturally grows in the Himalayas. The essential oil has for centuries been used in perfume, folk medicine, and religious ceremonies in Asia and Europe. In ancient Rome, it was used in cooking and was also the main ingredient of the perfume nardinum. I was also used by the Hebrews to make the consecrated incense, ketoret. It was later used to flavor a medieval spiced wine known as “hypocras” as well as the 16th-century strong beer, “stingo.”
Stacte (Greek: στακτή, Hebrew: נָטָף), is a component of the Solomon’s Temple incense, Ketoret, which hasn’t been conclusively identified. The Hebrew name translated to “drop.” The most commonly accepted contender proposed for stacte’s is an extract of myrrh (specificly Commiphora myrrha). Other proposed contenders include balsam, benzoin, myrrh mixed with benzoin, storax, myrrh mixed with storax, a type of specific myrrh (Commiphora opobalsamum), liquidambar, opoponax, balsam of Tolu, Balsam of Peru, mastic, cinnamon, myrrh mixed with cinnamon, labdanum, or myrrh mixed with labdanum. It also seems reasonable that it could’ve been used by different sources to refer to similar but different products.
Sweet Acacia (Vachellia farnesiana) — also commonly known as huisache, mimosa, and needle bush — is a mostly deciduous shrub in the family Fabaceae. The flowers are used in both the production of perfume, known in India as Cassie, which is in turn used in the production of ointments. The sweet, floral scent is also used to make incense, usually marketed as “mimosa,” not to be confused with the clade, Mimosoideae.
Sweet hoof (Unguis odoratus) — also known as “blattes de Byzance” is made from the shell (specifically the opercula) of a marine gastropod that lives in the Red Sea and was mentioned as an incense in ancient Babylonian texts. The incense was historically important to seafaring people of the Mediterranean, coastal China, and Japan.
Sweet myrrh, like all myrrhs, is a member of the Commiphora genus of flowering plants. The resin derived from Commiphora guidottii is often commonly referred to as “sweet myrrh” to differentiate it from true myrrh, or “bitter myrrh.” In Hindi, it is known as Bisabol or bissa bol. In Somali, it is variously written as habak hadi, hebbakhade, or habaghadi.
Juniper is the name of any of the numerous species of coniferous plants in the genus Juniperus. Juniper berries are used for a variety of culinary purposes, most famously to flavor gin. The highest-known juniper forest occurs at an altitude of 4,900 meters in southeastern Tibet and the northern Himalayas. The wood of the Tibetan juniper is currently considered to have a conservation status of vulnerable — not surprising since it is one of the only trees found at such a high altitude and is thus tasked with providing material for construction, fuel, and incense.
Tolu balsam (Myroxylon toluifera) is an evergreen balsam that is native to Central and South America. The common name refers to the Tolú, a people whose homelands are in the lowlands of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. In Argentina, where it’s also common, it’s known as “quina quina.” Its warm, mellow scent is sometimes compared to both cinnamon and vanilla. In addition to its use as an incense, Tolu balsam is a key ingredient in several perfumes, including Ormonde Jayne Perfumery‘s Tolu and Esteba‘s Baume Tolu.
Vanilla is derived from any of several orchids in the genus Vanilla — primarily Vanilla planifolia (syn. V. fragrans), Vanilla tahitensis, and Vanilla pompona. The name, vanilla, is from the Spanish, “vanilla,” which means “little pod” and is itself derived from the word “vagina,” Latin for “sheath.” It is native to Mesoamerica where it was known by various names, including the Nahuatl word, “tlīlxochitl,” and used primarily to flavor beverages. It was introduced to Spain by conquistador Hernán Cortés in the 1520s. It is hugely prized for its warm and woody scent and is widely used in cooking, perfumery, and incense making.
Yuzu (Citrus junos) derives its name from the Japanese “ユズ.” The Japanese name and Korean “유자” are derived from the Chinese “柚子,” although in China that refers to the pomelo, not the yuzu tree (which in China is known as “香橙”). The Yuzu is native to China and Tibet and was introduced to Korea and Japan during the Tang Dynasty (618–907). The scent is citrusy and green.
Zanzibar copal (Hymenaea verrucosa), also commonly known as East African copal, is a flowering plant in the Fabaceae family and native to the tropics of East Asia. Resin from the plant is used to make incense with a warm aroma well, formerly, as an ingredient in wood varnish. It’s now widely cultivated in other tropical regions of the world.
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2 thoughts on “The Brightwell Guide to Incense”
Hi Eric—a little editing issue—paragraph about “The Americas” repeats.
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Thanks for catching that!