The History of Herbal Medicine and Incense

History of Herbal Medicine So you are interested in learning more about folk medicine. What does that mean to you? The definition according to Mirriam Webster is “treatment of disease or injury based on tradition, especially on oral tradition, rather than on modern scientific practice, and often utilizing indigenous plants as remedies.”
Folk medicine is what we learned, sometimes unknowingly, from our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and other amazing women in our life. It may have been when you scraped a knee and your mom put some plantain on it or the chamomile tea your grandmother made you when you were restless and couldn’t sleep away from home.
Folk Medicine has been around since the beginning of time. There is talk about it in the Bible and many other old tablet as well as the tombs of Egypt. This depiction is of Thoth who is thought to be one of the early healers in Egypt.

Photo credit: The British Museum
When the white man came to the Americas, it is no secret that if it wasn’t for the help of the Native Americans, we wouldn’t have survived. In the early days, very few physicians were available in the new colonies. Native American healers would be called upon when there were illnesses in the colonies. They knew what plants were available to them in which seasons and what methods were needed to utilize them properly.
Additionally, many of the women of the colonies had brought with them the knowledge (and a few seeds) from their early days in Europe. These traditions coupled with the knowledge learned from the Native Americans, got many families through the hard times.

Photo Credit: Ancient
During the Revolutionary war, physicians were still scarce and many times, those fighting were far from care. Many times plants found in fields an forests, were used in place of modern medicine or to treat until a soldier could be brought back to a camp for treatment. An example of such medicine is Canadian Fleabane which was used as a blood coagulant. This plant is most often used infused in an oil and applied to the injured tissue. In modern times, fleabane can also be used in an infusion to treat a cough with mucous discharge.

Fleabane. Photo Credit:
Many of these plants were discovered and tested using the Doctrine of Signatures. Information, which has influenced common names of plants and still continues to influence many herbalists today.

Doctrine of Signatures The Doctrine of Signatures is a way of identifying the uses of plants that was used by many of our ancestors. Today we have more modern ways of testing plants and knowing what constituents are beneficial to treat different ailments and diseases. But in a time when these types of testing were not invented or scarce, many new colonists, resorted to this means of identification.
The Doctrine of Signatures was created in Greece in the 1500’s by a man by the name of Paracelsus who believed that every plant grew in a way “according to its curative benefit.” Meaning you could tell just by the shape of a leaf or the color of a bloom what it was to be used for.
An example of this is the common flower, Calendula. This bloom has a yellow/orange color to it and is a wonderful herb to aid digestion and help with stomach related issues. The yellow/orange color is also associated with bile, or stomach acids. This is where the connection is made as to it’s uses. Another example is Eyebright. The picture below shows the resemblance of the flower to the eye. This was used for hundreds of years for problems with eyesight.

Photo Credit: Wellcome Library, London
The reality of this way of thinking is that, unless a large amount of plant knowledge is already possessed, it can and has lead to exacerbation of symptoms or even death.
In modern day the Doctrine of Signatures is used more as a way of remembering plants rather than a means of identification.
Here are some basic examples.
Plants with yellow flowers (representing bile and urine) are good for your liver, urinary tract and tend to be diuretic.

Dandelion. Photo Credit: Jennifer Galbraith
Plants that are prickly or thorny in nature tend to help with sharp pains in the body and are natural tonics.

Stinging Nettles. Photo Credit: Jennifer Galbraith
Plants with thin or thread like roots or leaves are said to be good for your skin, which also is thin and has thread like veins.

Plantain. Photo Credit: Jennifer Galbraith
You may find as you begin or continue your herbal journey that you use some of these signs to help you remember what an herb is good for. It is important to do your research on each plant before using it medicinally. We now know that the Doctrine of Signatures, while a great tool, is not always the best way to identify the use of a plant. Please do your research thoroughly.

Incense burning and smudging
Why am I talk about something like smudging? I thought this was about herbal medicine. Well, guess what burning incense is… Medicine! Burning herbal bundles in your home has been known to eliminate 94% of toxins in the air. I refer to it as my all natural Lysol! In the early months of the year, we are all stuck inside more than we would like to be with cold and flu germs running rampant. Did you know that the cold virus can live up to 7 days in your house? It’s time to start cleaning them out!!
In the early days of folk medicine, it was believed in some religions that evil spirits were coming to your home and making you sick. When smudging ceremonies were done, it cleansed your home of these “spirits.” Little did they know at the times, but those “spirits” were actually germs and viruses.
Another reason to smudge is grounding and connecting. It is so important if you are going to start (or continue) a journey with herbal medicine, that you know how to cleanse, ground and connect.
Some signs that you may not be as connected to the earth include:

  • Getting distracted easily
  • Constantly overthinking things
  • Always worrying
  • Have an obsession with material things
  • Have an obsession with your image

No matter your spiritual background, most religions believe that someone or something has created our amazing planet and given us this gift of plant medicine. Additionally, they believe that a connection with the earth and your spiritual deity can help you with the above problem. The first step is to connect. And the first step of connecting is through the burning of herbs and incense.
Giving thanks through the burning of herbs is a tradition seen throughout the ages. In the Buddist and Shinto religions, burning incense is a way of cleansing your surroundings to allow the gods to come to you. Even in the Bible (beginning in Exodus 25) when speaking about building the Tabernacle, God tells Moses to have a place to burn incense.

Photo Credit:
Smudging still continues today in many religions including the burning of frankincense in the Catholic church, and the burning of incense in Buddhist temples.
In Buddhism, people will sometimes burn three sticks or cones of incense at once signifying the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. The same principal could be applied to the Christian, Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is mostly used before prayer or meditation to purify the space and create a tranquil mood.
Creating your own smudge sticks or incense, allows you the freedom to put in them, what you enjoy. Relaxation through aroma therapy, is a very personal thing. Scents invoke memories, good and bad. Scents can either connect you, or send you thinking about a bad past relationship or traumatic time in your childhood.
You will also find some herbs will burn better than others. So, combining herbs that are slow burning with fast burning herbs will help you create a good balance. Below is a list of commonly used herbs to help you create your own blends.
Slow Burning Herbs

  • Lemongrass
  • Blue Spruce
  • Cedar
  • Palo Santo
  • Bay Leaf
  • Lavendar
  • Pine

Fast Burning Herbs

  • Aspen
  • Rosemary
  • Eucalyptus
  • Thyme
  • Mint
  • Dandelion
  • Calendula
  • Mugwort

Most of these herbs can be wrapped into a smudge stick as demonstrated in the video. Some can even be purchased from your local grocery store. Always buy organic when available or wash well as any pesticides may become toxic when burned.
\ Photo Credit: Jennifer Galbraith
Another option is to make your own incense powder or cones. Loose powders can be made by grinding up whole dried herbs. Once your desired mixture is ground up (using a mortar and pestle or food processor) you can put it on hot coals or in an already lit fire like a woodstove or camp fire.
Cones are made by grinding your desired herb(s) and adding makko powder (which can be purchased on amazon here ) at a ratio of 1/3 makko powder to 2/3 ground herbs. After they have been combined thoroughly ( stir for several minutes) begin adding water several drops at a time until desired consistency. You will need it to be wet enough to hold together but not too wet as to lost shape. Take a small amount in your fingers and shape into a small cone. Allow to dry for several days before attempting to light.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Galbraith
By choosing your own herbs, you will begin to reconnect with the earth. Other ways that you can reconnect include:

  • Shopping at your local farmers market or co-op and eat local, seasonal foods
  • Take a walk on your local nature trail or at a state park
  • Go barefoot!! Letting your bare feet feel the grass, dirt or sand between your toes
  • Go swimming in a lake or ocean (weather permitting of course…)
  • If you just can’t find time to get outside, consider getting an earthmat like the ones found here from

In the video below, I will talk about the herbs that I use. As well as demonstrate how you can make your own smudge stick. I can’t wait to see what you all come up with for your combinations.

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