Sacred Plants & Sustainability: A Witch’s Guide
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Ask A Wtich

Ask A Witch: The Truth About Smudging & Sustainability

How to cleanse yourself and your spaces while conserving native plants.

by Napaquetzalli Martinez
Originally Published: 

This is Ask A Witch, NYLON’s column with Indigenous healer and herbalist Napaquetzalli Martinez that answers your questions on the esoteric, the spiritual, and so much more.

Amongst the myriad of spiritual trends taking hold worldwide, the act of “smudging,” or cleansing, with plant smoke is one of the most recognizable. It’s easy to imagine a lit bundle of white sage waving around a person's body or home to clear negative energy.

While working with smoke to cleanse energy is a practice that exists in cultures all over the world, Native American practices are actively erased by western culture and subsumed by the wellness industry. The spike in demand for popular smudging tools like white sage and palo santo have endangered these sacred plants, putting them at risk for overharvesting for ultimately nothing more than another self-care product available for purchase.

White sage (salvia apiana) is a specific species of sage that is only native to southern California and Northern Baja California. This limited bio region has led to poachers illegally overharvesting the plant, as well as habitat destruction in some areas. It’s been put on the watch-list of United Plant Savers, an organization that promotes the conservation of native plants and their habitats. Many California Native groups have also asked that the plant be used mindfully, either grown from ethical sources or to find local plants to substitute.

Palo Santo (Bursera graveolens) is another trendy incense. Harvested from the inner heartwood of trees native to different regions of South America, this wood has been used by indigenous shamans in Ecuador and Peru for centuries. Typically the trees have to be aged for long periods of time to produce the rich sweet scent associated with Palo Santo. The huge surge in popularity from wellness influencers and brands has also caused this tree's habitat to be decimated at a quick rate.

White sage and Palo Santo have been used by indigenous people for centuries, harvested with reverence and typically gifted in ritual settings; their unethical overconsumption is another side effect of an individualistic wellness industry that truly does not value nature and interconnectedness, which are core values of indigenous spiritual practices. When considering connecting to such practices, consider: What plants were considered sacred amongst your ancestors and cultural communities? What plants are native to the lands you occupy?

Consider it an opportunity to think about what plants might have been used by your own relatives or past ancestors for energetic purification. Instead of white sage, literally any other species from the sage family can be used like desert sage, sagebrush, and even culinary sage. Many aromatic trees have been used as sacred incense all over the world; look for ones that are native to your area like pine, cedar, cypress, and juniper. Even common kitchen herbs, like bay leaf and rosemary, are powerful purification herbs and sustainable substitutes.

Ultimately, cleanse yourself and your spaces with intention. It’s an extremely grounding practice that instantly removes stagnation and negative energy, and calls in the magic and medicine of these plants to heal and align us. But remember to be mindful of the powerful plant allies you are consuming and how our use of them impacts the greater ecosystem, in the present moment and for future generations.

For more information on sustainable plants and the trends that harm the, read on for an interview with Mauricio Garcia, a perfumer dedicated to renewability through his brand Herbcraft Perfumery and as a founder of the Coalition of Sustainable Perfumery.

How do you define sustainability, in relation to using plant materials?

A sustainable approach to working with plants generally means guaranteeing a supply of them into the future for economic purposes. I believe we are at a point where the understanding that sustainability and regeneration need to encompass “new” approaches to our relationship with the planet, and by new I mean old — indigenous people are at the forefront of protecting the planet’s biodiversity, reminding us in the western world that we are a part of the planet, and that plants are our kin.

What are sustainable sources and ways to engage? How can you verify what a sustainable source is?

The most sustainable approach to working with aromatic plants would be to grow protective and cleansing herbs and fragrant flowers native to your region, nourishing local wildlife while cultivating your magic — or nurture them in the wild or locally in some way. Finding local growers and distillers of aromatic plants in your bioregion is its own kind of magic. It is possible to find suppliers of plants and their extractions that utilize designations like ecocert, FairWild Foundation certified and from various other organizations. The larger a brand or company is, the more resources they have to invest in their supply chain, sources, and third-party certifications. It is also important to ask ourselves how we have cultivated a relationship with a plant. Are we engaging the phantasm of this being that was once alive, a spirit? Or are we burning matter into smoke?

What would you consider the most impacted of the “sacred” plants and what does their at-risk status mean for the future?

This is a tough question, as each plant is threatened by unique circumstances, although the source of the threat is ultimately overconsumption. Plants indigenous to the southern regions of North America, who have relationships with the humans of that region, are currently very popular and thus more vulnerable. What are they doing in Urban Outfitters? In Europe? Plants that are prominent spirits in the world’s major religions are also under threat — myrrh, legendary sandalwood, divine oud, and frankincense. 50 tons of frankincense resin is burned for Christmas mass every year, and hundreds of millions of dollars are made off its oil, with the least amount being given to harvesters. The numbers of these plants are dwindling, protected by people dedicated to their preservation, but their ability to produce future ancestors is being made increasingly difficult by human consumption and climate change. This means the people who have real, inherited relationships with these plants spanning generations are increasingly denied access to them.

How can we hold companies and corporations accountable for sustainable sourcing?

I think that, first and foremost, we must remember that these plants are beings. We can ask ourselves in what way is this plant being represented and respected? Is the company offering reputable certifications to back up their claims? Do the claims being made feel exaggerated or like greenwashing? We can recognize that the procurement of these allies is a sacred process when we cannot encounter them in our ecosystem, and take the time to cultivate sources that are responsible and considerate of our world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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