Smudging is the act of burning an herb or resin for the purpose of spiritual or energetic cleansing or clearing. It's a practice that people have employed for eons.
However, it's always important to look at the impact our actions have on our planet, and it's important to check the facts! Spirituality inherently is connected to the wonder and magic of nature, and of our planet. It is our responsibility, therefore, to care for our planet. New Age folk frequently use lots of disposable items (like candles, herbs, oils, etc) in their daily spiritual practice as well as in their spell work. I would say, though, that while these items are largely unnecessary, it's completely acceptable to add them to your practice, so long as they are environmentally responsible. Any herbs or candles you use should be biodegradable, vegan, and gathered in a sustainable manner.
The human population is growing and new age practices are becoming more and more popular. With more people every year buying the same herbs we've always used, we need to be more aware of the impact of that demand to the plant population. In this article we'll go over just a couple of the most popular herbs used for smudging. Please check the citations for more information.
The most common substance used for smudging is white sage (Salvia apiana). It may also be called ceremonial white sage. The shrub is indigenous to southern California and you can find it in just about any witchy store tied into tight bundles. You simply light an end of one of these bundles, blow out the flame, and thick smoke will billow from the embers. The scent smells like a campfire; deep, woody, with a almost medicinal twist.
It was widely shared on new age blogs and websites a few years ago that white sage is critically endangered, and that any store that carries it is certainly evil and should be avoided. This is actually a myth I believed until I sat down to write this article! White sage is not listed on the Conservation Status scale (x), and any perceived scarcity has more to do with forest fires in the area than it does with overuse by humans. That being said, many people use white sage because they think it's the only thing they can use to smudge. This isn't true! I highly encourage you to try other herbs and, more importantly, look for something that grows locally that smells nice when burned (also that isn't poisonous obviously).
Sweet Grass is another common herb used to smudge. There are two types grown in the North America that may be used as incense (Hierochloe odorata or Anthoxanthum nitens), and neither one has any conservation concerns to worry about. Sweet grass is typically sold in a braid and can be burned as is (like a white sage bundle, a smudge stick) or you can put a few pieces of the grass on a lit charcoal round. The fresh grass smalls like hay with a hint of vanilla, while the dried grass smells spicy when it burns.
Palo Santo (Bulnesia sarmientoi) is another common smudging material. Small sticks of the fragrant wood are sold all over the place, and to use it you light the end of the stick, and then blow out the flame when it catches. The embers will burn for a minute or two and will release a piercing smoke. Palo Santo (holy wood) smells amazing and is a wonderful smudge to use. However, it's worth knowing that the tree is actually categorized as "conservation dependent." While the tree is at a low risk for becoming endangered, the risk definitely exists and you should purchase palo santo (wood and oil) sparingly (x).
Sandalwood (Santalum album) and Red Sandalwood (Pterocarpus indicus) are two woods that were once used very frequently as a ritual incense. Sandalwood has always been one of my favorite aromas and is truly unique among woody oils. However, both trees are categorized as vulnerable (x, x) and, while it may seem impossible to do so, we should all buy as little sandalwood (the wood and essential oil) as we can. This includes buying goods made from sandalwood, such as malas and other religious carvings. The demand for the aromatic wood as far outpaced the ability for the trees to replenish themselves, and instead of seeking out potentially illegal sources of it (exporting sandalwood timber from India is illegal), we should really give it a rest. Try some other burnables instead!
Finally, let's talk about resins. Resins are essentially hardened sap that has been gathered from trees much in the same way maple syrup is drawn from maple trees. The four most popular resins are Frankincense (Boswellia sacra), Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), Copal (Shorea javanica), and Opopanax (Commiphora guidottii). These resins are placed onto a burning charcoal cake and release very aromatic smoke as they burn. Frankincense and copal have bright, almost lemony aromas, while myrrh and opopanax are darker and earthier. Frankincense and myrrh compliment each other beautifully and work well as an all-purpose smudge.
I couldn't find any evidence that myrrh or copal were experiencing any conservation issues. Frankincense and Opopanax, however, are both categorized as "near threatened" (x, x). Again, go easy on these two resins.
As I've said before, you don't actually need to burn anything to cleanse a space or an object. However, if you would like to, for whatever reason, incorporate smudging into your practice, please pick your smudging material thoughtfully and avoid plant material that is endangered or threatened. You can use any plant to smudge, and even if it doesn't smell as amazing as sandalwood, it'll still work.
Please visit the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species to search for any plant material you want to use. The search works best when you search by scientific name, at least using the genus (the first part of the name. For example, Lavandula is the genus of common lavender, Lavandula angustifolia). A lot of companies use many different species of plants under one common name, which is why it's a good idea to investigate the companies you choose to shop from and find out what plants are actually being sold. It's true that it takes a little more effort than simply trusting the shop or what's printed on the package, but environmental stewardship needs to exist in our spirituality. Our Earth and its ecosystems are all we have in this life, at least, and to take care of it is to worship it.