Vitex and All Her Mysteries
Vitex agnus-castus, also called ChasteTree is a shrub in the Verbena family and is native to the Mediterranean area of the world. It loves growing in wet places, along river beds, and other wet areas, but has been cultivated throughout Europe and used medicinally worldwide. I can attest to its desire for water as I have been growing one in a pot for a couple of years. The Northeastern climate in the United States is not conducive to garden cultivation of Mediterranean plants so I move it back and forth from my porch to my living room seasonally. It definitely requires daily watering or the leaves will wilt. The dried fruits are the part that is used medicinally and they look like dark purple pepper seeds when dried. The seeds can also be used a spice and have a slight peppery, warming flavor. Another common name for Vitex is ‘hemp tree’, I’m assuming this is because its leaves resemble cannabis leaves being palmate with five separate leaves connected at the center.
The word Agnus is derived from the Greek word Agnos, Ἄγνος for chaste or pure and may also come from a-gonos meaning seedless or childless. Castus from Latin, also meaning chaste. The Greeks also called it Lygos a word also used to describe Willows that looked similar to Vitex and had similar uses with their bendable twigs. The first word Vitex is derived from the Latin vitilis meaning plaited or interwoven indicating the use of its branches to make plaited fences and also a description that was used for Willow. When reading through the ancient history of Vitex it is sometimes referred to as “willow’ because they grew in similar conditions and had similar utilitarian uses.
Vitex is acrid, spicy or pungent ,warm, a bit bitter, aromatic and astringent with the power of motion and movement or what might be called diffusive. It has a warming and stimulating action but is said to decrease excess heat and libido probably because of its normalizing function. It has also been called “monks pepper” and was famed throughout history to decrease the libido of monks who had taken vows of chastity. It is also quite possible that its association with monks stems from its ancient use as a sacred plant. Many of the indigenous ritual and practices of Europe were re-threaded into Christian traditions so it is no wonder that Vitex was sanctified by priests and monks. It was recorded as a ritual plant in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. Vitex was said to be the plant under which Hera, the Greek sky goddess and Queen of Heaven was born on the island of Sami. “The Samians themselves hold that the goddess [Hera] was born in the island by the side of the river Imbrasos under the willow that even in my time grew in the Heraion (temple of Hera)." Pausanias, Description of Greece 7. 4. 4 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) Here it is referenced as “willow” and also in this quote from Pliny the Elder the Roman philosopher and naturalist:
“Not much unlike the willow, for the use that is made of it in wicker-work, is the vitex, which also resembles it in the leaves and general appearance, though the smell of it is more agreeable. The Greeks call it "lygos," or "agnos," from the fact that the matrons of Athens, during the Thesmophoria, a period when the strictest chastity is observed, are in the habit of strewing their beds with the leaves of this tree.” Pliny the Elder, The Natural History ,John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed.
Pliny also mentions that it was used to adorn priestesses during the yearly festival celebrating Demeter the goddess of fertility and agriculture. Dioscorides, the Turkish born physician and botanist who worked with the army of Roman Empire recorded the use of Vitex during ceremonial sacrifices to Ceres the Roman goddess of agriculture. He also indicated its use as birth control, to increase milk supply or “bring down milk”, and for menstrual cramps he describes as “inflammation around the womb”. These were times when the sacred and profane were not compartmentalized as separate facets of life but were united, and humans were still connected to the spiritual qualities of the Earth, land, flora and fauna. Their gods were alive and dwelled among them and within them being still perceived and interpreted by senses and intuition. These skills had not yet been dulled and deteriorated from lack of use and over-focus on the linear and mundane. In this medium it is clear that Vitex was resonant with reproduction, fertility, and the vital force of procreation and these attributes have carried on into its modern day uses.
Vitex has also been touted as an aphrodisiac although this use is not commonly known and I’ve been a bit confused about it in the past. I had been taught over the years that it decreases libido in men, or at least in monks, and increases libido in women and as Susun Weed says in her book “Menopausal Years”, “Whether it makes him droop or you horny, vitex does have a powerful effect on the endocrine glands.”
According to Peter Holmes’ monograph of Vitex:
“Chastetree was seen as a regulator of sexuality, depending on the condition and constitution of the person taking it. In Chines medical terms, we would say that the remedy harmonizes the chong and ren extra meridians in their capacity of regulating menstrual and reproductive events. Hence its use for bothe uterus blodd and Qi deficiency (or arguably uterus cold) presenting either amenorrhea, sexual disinterest or overstimulations. “
Vitex was once thought to merely increase progesterone in the second half of the cycle during the luteal phase and somewhere along the line I had learned that it contained progesterone. Currently we have a lot more information, and although its exact mechanism of action is not known, it is now shown to balance and regulate hormones throughout the entire cycle. Vitex is used in Western Herbalism to alleviate PMS symptoms, infertility, menorrhagia, amenorrhea, fibrosa, polycystic ovarian syndrome, menopausal complaints and any irregularity of the menstrual cycle. It has become a somewhat of a catch-all/go to herb for women’s health.
Wise Women and Men and folk herbalists world over have been using Vitex for centuries with great success for women’s issues but without a scientific understanding of its physiological mechanism of action. Even now with a wider breadth of methodological research it is still not completely understood; not that I ever have the expectation of science being able to fully understand the complex synergistic effect of any plant on the human body. Directly observable, anecdotal, intuitive, decades upon decades of experience with this plant has found it a powerful ally for women’s issues. My own clinical experience with my clients and myself has shown me that it is immensely helpful for PMS, irregular periods, to regulate periods during withdrawal from birth control pills, peri-menopausal symptoms, infertility, low progesterone, hot flashes and any hormonally related reproductive condition. Vitex can be used alone for simple menstrual irregularities and in a formula for more complex situations and sometimes, even then, I’ll make a separate formulation and have the client take the Vitex alone to assure proper dosage. It is indicated when there appears to be low progesterone, estrogen dominance, a shortened second half of the cycle, or a short cycle all together.
My favorite way to use it is alone as a single tincture at a dose of ½ teaspoon two times a day or an infusion of 1tsp. of berries in one cup of water also two times a day. I usually don’t expect to see much change for at least a month and it can take up to three months. If you are going to make your own tincture the ratio is 1:5 with 60% alcohol and you have to grind the berries in the blender after you have mixed them in the alcohol solution as they are very hard, dry seeds that need to be broke open the release the medicine.
So why did Vitex become so famous for women’s health and why was it believed to increase progesterone? We are learning more and more about its true nature, and what science has provided is evidence that Vitex acts not on the ovaries to increase progesterone, but on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Gonadal feedback loop by affecting the anterior pituitary gland to reduce excessive secretion of prolactin. Prolactin is the hormone responsible for milk production after childbirth and, in this instance, Vitex has been used to increase milk production. It does this again using its normalizing function, but there is a caution here; if you’re breastfeeding you can still get pregnant and Vitex will increase your chances. I usually use other herbs for increasing breast milk. Excessive prolactin secretion, or hyperprolactemia, is thought to interfere with the complete development of the corpus luteum by suppression of luteinizing hormone released by the pituitary during the second half of the cycle. The corpus luteum is responsible for progesterone secretion and so Vitex does indirectly increase progesterone. It does this in a couple of ways one of which is by creating a dopaminergic effect because it binds dopamine-2 receptors.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter we all know a love because it is known as the “pleasure molecule” and contributes to our ability to feel happy, motivated, focused and helps with the relief of pain. A deficit of dopamine is thought to be one cause of depression and an integral component of addiction physiology. Nicotine, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol and let’s not forget chocolate, are among the addictive substances thought to interfere with the natural stimulation and release of dopamine acting as dopamine agonists. This means that these substances compete with endogenous dopamine to bind dopamine receptors leaving more free circulating dopamine in the neural synapse and therefore creating a rush of good feelings and euphoria. Dopamine also inhibits prolactin secretion in the pituitary and so its deficit may result in excess prolactin which, again, inhibits progesterone.
The other activity of Vitex is that it reduces thyrotropin releasing hormone(TRH), a hormone responsible for the release of prolactin thereby, again, inhibiting prolactin. TRH is released in the hypothalamus and regulates the release of TSH and prolactin when it travels to the pituitary. TSH also signals the thyroid and stimulates T4 production. An excess can cause hyperthyroidism making Vitex a possible ally for this also.
Both the dopaminergic action and the TRH inhibition beg even deeper questions. We can give someone Vitex to mitigate these problems but the underlying causes may go unattended. If we decide to use Vitex as a first line treatment for menstrual disorders we must continue to identify and resolve what may be primary causes that can lead to further longterm conditions. There can be nutritional deficiencies, immune system problems and emotional issues that shouldn’t be ignored. According to Paul Bergner, “Magnesium, B-6, Zinc, essential fatty acids, vitamin C, and iron” are all necessary for proper hormone regulation not to mention the function of all other bodily systems. I think it’s also important to mention here that there is now research that is making us aware that dopamine deficiency is sometimes developed by a genetic predisposition. Some of these studies have been pioneered in research to uncover the cause of schizophrenia where an excess of dopamine is the problem. This, of course, doesn’t mean all is lost and you can’t change it because it’s genetic. We have also learned from the study of epigenetics that we can and do change our genetic expression through a variety of avenues particularly nutrition and lifestyle.
I would also like to share my personal opinion and philosophy about the emotional and spiritual implications of living with less than optimal dopamine. It has been, not just my belief, but my direct experience in my own life and the lives of many I have known that the medicine lies within the wound or, at very least, the wound is an opening that allows in the necessary, albeit often uncomfortable at first, light that guides us to our greatest gifts. In this case, when we have low dopamine we don’t feel good. Dopamine makes us happy and motivated and focused. Without it we are without those qualities and so we are driven to find them elsewhere and this, obviously, lends itself to addiction, but also can initiate an individual to seek the source of happiness and peace either deeper in themselves or from a higher power. This can be a path to self-discovery and greater connection with what we may discover to be our strengths as no one is without their own special medicine that will not only enlighten also those with which they share and offer their gifts. If we were contented and perfectly awash in good, yummy dopamine some of us may be inclined to just sit there. This is not to say that this type of work is easy or without complications. It’s also important to recognize how a plant like Vitex can support the growth and exploration of the soul on a physical level. If we are a mess with hormonal symptoms, health issues and the related emotional effects it may be difficult to stabilize enough to see our circumstances, gifts and all, through a clear lens. Although Vitex may not address the underlying causes it can stabilize the person enough to begin that deeper journey.
Vitex has been also long thought to increase Luteinizing hormone(LH) and inhibit Follicle-stimulating hormone(FSH) but I haven’t found any research to support this. If this is true it would make sense because LH is another necessary hormone in the development of the corpus luteum. The increase in LH would also balance the progesterone/estrogen ratio. Vitex contains volatile oils, iridoid glycosides, rotundifuran and vitexilatone, both deterpenes, terpenes and flavonoids all working synergistically with our body chemistry so it would seem, as with all whole plant medicines, that the scientific method would be hard pressed to conclusively determine the exact ratio of integration and outcome of such from so many chemical relationships. This circles back around to the importance of cultivating our capacity to observe, witness and discern the effects of this plant or any other.
Based on all of the research and all of the historical and present day use of Vitex it is an excellent choice for PMS especially with anxiety, food cravings and irritability as these indicate luteal phase defects, infertility, excessive bleeding, lack of menstruation and even ovarian cysts and fibroids. Vitex tones the reproductive system by regulating hormones and the hormonal feedback loop. It regulates libido with its normalizing ability creating healthy flux and flow of hormones. It is very supportive in depression, fibromayalgia, rhematism and addictions when there seems to be a hormonal component indicating a dopamine deficiency. It is contraindicated in pregnancy and schizophrenia. Also it may potentiate dopamine agonist medications so should be avoided.
Lecture notes from class on the endocrine system with Dr. Jody Noe
Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health by Aviva Romm
Vitex: the Chaste Tree by Christopher Hobbs, Ph.D., L.Ac., A.H.G
Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus)--pharmacology and clinical indications.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?filters=&orig_db=PubMed&cmd=Search&term=10%2A%5Bvolume%5D%20AND%20348%5Bpage%5D%20AND%202003%5Bpdat%5D%20AND%20Wuttke%20W%5Bauth%5D . Wuttke W1, Jarry H, Christoffel V, Spengler B, Seidlová-Wuttke D.
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed.
Vitex not for PMS-Henriette’s blog: http://www.henriettes-herb.com/blog/vitex-not-pms.html
Chaste Tree-Orto Botanico Universita di Padova- http://www.ortobotanicopd.it/en/agnocasto-vitex-agnus-castus-l
The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, A New Indexed Version In Modern English By TA Osbaldeston AND RPA Wood
Back to Basics 4: Dopamine! Neurotic Physiology: http://scicurious.scientopia.org/2010/08/26/back-to-basics-4-dopamine/
First photo: By Sten Porse (Own photo, taken near Pont-du-Gard, Provence.) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Sacred Tea Ceremony
Many of us think of the Japanese tradition when we hear “Tea Ceremony” and they definitely have one of the worlds most beautiful and sacred ways of making tea a healing practice. Tea ceremonies have been done in different ways in many other cultures also. The English are famous for their afternoon teatime and a tea culture exists in many other countries where tea making is sometimes ritualized and sometimes just a part of daily life as is our American coffee culture. Many ‘hip’ communities in the United States now have “tea rooms” where people can gather and drink tea together while relaxing and visiting. There is even an “American Tea Ceremony” now that has been adapted from the Japanese version.
Making tea is a significant part of using herbal medicine although it is not the fastest or most concentrated method of administering herbs. Still, it is a central activity in this ancient healing tradition and water based preparations were actually easier and more accessible to people at one time. Herbs could be easily gathered and dried for use all year with their medicine preserved and re-ignited during the tea making process.This is not a quick, swallow a pill or “take it on the go” way to receive herbal medicine which is part of why teas can be so sacred and self-nourishing. To make oneself a cup of tea takes time and time is a dwindling resource in our fast-paced production oriented modern lives. The act of making and drinking tea is part of "tea medicine" and it is one of my favorite recommendations for my clients with anxiety. I always remembered my Social Psychology professor saying that one of the best ways to remedy a panic attack was to get the person to breath. The change in focus was often enough to redirect the person's energy and distract the stress response. I think of taking a tea break as a similar process in the midst of a high intensity society. When I was a young mother and so busy all the time caring for others, making tea was a moment of grace and respite even amongst the household busyness, demands and oftentimes chaos that seemed to be swirling around me. Just the act of pouring water over a tea bag can offer us an opportunity to take a deep breath and stand still for a moment. The time it takes to steep a cup of tea, although we may go off and do other things while it’s happening, still calls us to hold space for our own nourishment. We may be sweeping or folding or wiping, but we have that cup of tea steeping on the counter in our minds and, in just that simple thought, we are caring for ourselves. This is slow medicine and swallowing a pill or take a squirt of tincture will not produce the same results.
To make an herbal tea you may follow these simple steps:
- Choose your tea or tea blend. You can either make your own or choose from the many herbal tea blends on the market.
- Boil water in a tea kettle. The water has to be boiling for most herbs to break through the cell wall and extract the medicinal compounds.
- 3. Pour the water over your tea bag or tea ball
- 4. Let steep for 10-15 minutes
- 5. Strain and drink
***For more detailed information about making tea and water-based preparations you can go to my previous post Here
Do-it –yourself Tea Ceremony
- Set aside 30 minutes or longer of quiet time when you can be alone or at least in another room or your house. It’s super special if you can take your tea outside in your garden or anywhere . If you want to do this with others you can still make it a quiet time of contemplation or choose some focused topics or thoughts to share
- Make a cup of tea as directed above but stay present with each step of the process by following this tea making movement meditation
- As you turn the knob on your stove and the flame or burner ignites beneath your teapot exhale and release as much tension as you can while bringing your mind to the present. Think about the wondrous nature of water and how grateful you are for its life giving action.
- While the water boils prepare your tea. If you are mixing your own blend put each herb into your tea press or tea ball one by one. Acknowledge the medicinal qualities of each herb and say ‘thank you’. If you are using a tea bag, name(say aloud or to yourself) each herb and give thanks for its medicinal qualities.
- When the water is boiling, turn off the burner and inhale. Pour the water over the tea and exhale. Imagine that the water and tea are now merging into one as they meet, react and transform into medicine. Watch the steam as it rises from your cup.
- While your tea steeps gaze into the mug and imagine that it is a deep well of water. Visualize any intentions that you have for that day and see them emerging in the reflection of your tea.
- Find a relaxing quite place to sit and drink your tea and allow yourself to just be. If your mind wanders let it. If you feel called to draw or journal now, do so. Deeply taste each sip of tea and notice the way it feels on your tongue. Notice what flavors you can taste and imagine all of the nutritional support you are receiving.
Take time to do this as often as you can, but at least once a day is optimal. Don’t make it too rigid, make it your own, add your own twist to it. Also, don’t be afraid to modify and make it shorter or longer. Invite others to join you if you can’t be alone. Once a week or once a month is better than never.
- Light a candle on your counter or wherever you make your tea.
- Light a candle to sit by while you drink your tea
- Play some sacred music in the background
- Create a tea space or tea room in your house. It can even be a closet. I have a friend who cleaned out a closet and made herself a meditation room. She had six children and this was her sacred space of respite and centering. The kids could even join her and they would enjoy some peaceful downtime together. And what great role-modeling for our children to observe us taking time for ourselves as we hope that they respect themselves enough to do also.
Some herbal ideas for tea making
Tea blending itself is an art form, but to start just keep simple with 2 or 3 different herbs.
Sacred Basil/Tulsi(Ocimum sanctum)~Sacred Basil is a great substitute for caffeinated teas. Not because it is similar in taste but because it is uplifting, mind clearing and centering while at the same time contains no caffeine so is not over-stimulating to the nervous system. For more on Sacred Basil go Here
Nettles(Urtica dioica)~Is one of the most highly nourishing herbs we have. It is high in many essential minerals and is strengthening, tonifying and overall life enhancing.It relieves fatigue, stabilizes blood sugar and regulates metabolism. Nettles gently restores balance and resilience
Red Raspberry leaf(Rubus spp.)~Often known as a woman's herb, Red Raspberry is a tonic for the uterus and so is a great choice during menstruation, pregnancy and anytime during the phases of a woman's life
Lemon Balm(Melissa officinalis)~Is uplifting, yet calming, anti-depressant and contains anti-viral properties
Roses(Rosa spp.)~are a nervine having a calming effect on the nervous system. Roses taste delicious and smell divine while they open the heart and uplift the mind
Skullcap leaf(Scutellaria laterfolia)~great for anxiety, burn-out, and sleep irregularity. Skullcap used for insomnia is best made with warm instead of boiling water but mixed in a tea blend for overall anxiety can be made as tea.
Catnip(Nepeta cataria)~Calming, eases upset stomach, generally tasty and relaxing
Linden Flower(Tilia europaea or Tilia americana-American Basswood)~Linden relieves nervous tension and is tonic to the circulatory system. It's a nice calming herb for children and used for ADHD
Hawthorne Leaf, Flower, and/or Berry(Crataegus spp.)~Hawthorne is tonic to the cardiovascular system, is nervine and antioxidant. I love Hawthorne for any type of grief or heavy-hearted sadness. It relaxes the nervous system and is great for anxiety, irritability, ADHD(especially with Tulsi and Linden flower), and any type of restlessness.
You can mix and match or use each of these on their own. Just blend proportions to your personal taste.
Sources of loose herbs for tea
- Jeans Greens
- Healing Spirits Herb Farm They also have their own line of teas here and I love them!
- Mountain Rose Herbs
My favorite tea blends:
Mandala Centering Tea from Jeans Greens. There are several great tea blends here and any tea accessory you might wish for!
Love Tea from Pukka
I usually blend my own in the moment based on what I feel like, but sometimes it's nice just to throw in a tea bag and not have to come up with something.
Making tea is a practice from ancient times and when we share in this tradition it re-connects us to an old way of being in the world that is so needed in our new times. It is also a practice that is flexible and simple enough that it fits nicely in our modern context. Tea making is a thread that has been woven into the tapestry that we have carried from the past into the present with us. It is so simple and appropriate, yet a primitive skill that we can use to reach into the wisdom of the past and fit it into the world of the now and the continuous motion toward the future. So go ahead, sit down, relax and have a cup!
DIY Adirondack Incense
Incense or some form of plant based aromatic smoke has been used cross-culturally throughout time beginning with the kindling of the first human made fires. It was and continues to be used ceremoniously as fire is a transformative element and the smoke produced by a finely blended mixture of various naturally aromatic plants and resins is considered a way to cleanse, purify, call in the sacred, and eliminate excessive or inappropriate negative energy. It is also known to be a form of medicine with many highly aromatic plants containing strong medicinal properties including anti-bacterial compounds and he incense or smoke of a plant is a way to facilitate our modern practice of aromatherapy .Even from the most superficial perspective, burning incense is used simply as a method of making a room or space smell good still altering the ambiance and energy of whatever area it fills with its aroma.
Incense has also made a comeback as an aspect of ceremony and meditation with the resurgence of Pagan and other Earth-centered religious practice and various meditation techniques that incorporated aromatic smoke as a way to clear, center and identify a boundary of sanctity. Incense also continues to be used in prayer and during worship in the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. These are usually single plant resins of Frankincense and Myrrh or other sweet and aromatic plant concentrates. Many Native American ceremonies include the use of some form of plant-based smoke called ‘smudging’ that is meant to purify, cleanse and protect. This practice has been adapted by modern American culture in the making of a ‘smudge stick’ or a wand of plants, usually White Sage, Sweetgrass and some type of Cedar that is wrapped tightly with a thread.
There are many commercial brands of incense but, unfortunately, they are often made with synthetic fragrances and glues that adhere the scented blends to sticks. Although I love to breath in deeply the myriad of scents provided by life on Earth, I am extremely sensitive to anything that has been chemically altered or synthesized and so, can’t use most of the incense available on the mainstream market. I began to seek out recipes for making my own aromatic smoke blends and started with essential oils and oil burners which I still feel is a much better alternative than commercial air fresheners when it comes to eliminating unwanted odors or even as aromatherapy. Unfortunately, essential oils can still be quite strong, expensive and are not always ecologically sound because of the large quantity of plant material required to distill just small amounts of precious oils.
My quest for a good quality, non-toxic aromatics continued as I spent a great deal of time wandering the woods and wilds of my bioregion of the Adirondack Foothills where we have rolling hills, sloping meadows, lush valleys and wetlands, diverse deciduous woodlands and White Pine and Balsam forests in the mountains. Through the seasons I always sensually moved by the procession of blossoming flowers emitting their aromatic fertility call to local pollinators. As an herbalist, I was seeking the flowers, roots, barks and resins I needed to make my herbal preparations amongst the exquisite fragrances of the land that not only signal reproductive ripeness ,but to me, convey the unique quality of the individual plants and the way that those qualities express themselves in relative proportion and in context my beloved home. I liken these essences to one of the colors of the palette of the beautiful place I am honored to stand upon, and when I breathe deeply here I make contact with the medicine, spirit and purpose of this place. I found myself longing to carry these scents with me through the winter and so I began exploring recipes and methods of making incense with my locally grown aromas. There are many recipes and kinds of incense but right here I am going to share my favorite recipe for Kyphi style incense. I either make Kyphi or plant bundles (smudge sticks) that I burn daily as a means of prayer, healing and for the simple pleasure of the smell.
Kyphi is Latin derived from the Greek description of what the Egyptians called Kapet which was their primary temple incense. The process of making this does require some wait time for the mixture to ‘cure’ before it can be used and, traditionally, the waiting period was important not only to allow the scents to synergize and transform, but it was a part of the prayer and may have included the daily addition of other herbs and spices as a form of meditation. I usually gather the necessary ingredients throughout the growing season and make several batches in the fall to use for the following year. I mostly make bioregional incense but may make special formulas with other plants and resins that I’ve gathered from my travels to different lands such as Sage, Pinyon Pine resin and Desert Lavender. I also like to burn Frankincense and Myrrh around the Solstice holiday season and have a big love for both Palo Santo wood and Copal resin that I have to order. You can create your own favorite mixtures with this recipe as it is quite flexible and, in fact, I never make the same formula twice. I just barely follow the recipe, never measure accurately, and allow my intuition and my nose to make the decisions of what amount of what. You are more than welcome to follow it precisely, however, as your own personal style will become part of the formula and the medicine.
Please be conscious when gathering wild plants of ethical harvesting practices. If you are not experienced at plant identification and harvesting you may want to find sources to buy some of the ingredients. Also, please remember when gathering tree resins that the resin is like a scab over wound for a tree and we must be careful to only take excess resin and to not cause any further injury. When gathering barks and roots, only scrape barks from small branches and twigs and definitely not from the trunk of the tree. When we dig roots we will more than likely kill the whole plant so please follow ethical harvesting guidelines such as I have outlined here.
The below ingredients are bioregional to the Northeast and specifically the Adirondack Mountains and foothills but you can make substitutions for preference or location. I adapted this recipe from Kiva Rose and Sarah Anne Lawless both who use a variation of the same method with their own bioregional aromatics. Both recipes call for honey and wine or mead but I mostly use a floral elixir made with brand and honey and usually wild roses. No one knows for sure what the exact Kyphi recipe was and it is likely that there were several variations.
Kyphi Style Incense
Kyphi incense originated in ancient Egypt and refers to a collection of different recipes used in temples devoted to each of the Gods and Goddess. Each deity would have had their own specific recipe with various herbs and resins including Myrrh, Juniper berries, Pine resin, Sweet Flag, Cinnamon, Frankincense, and Cardamom. I have shared two variations here; one is the long method which requires week long steeping times. The short version makes just a nice of a blend but is not traditional and may lack some of the subtle changes that happen during the wait times.
*I dedicate a spoon, fork and a couple of bowls to this project as the resins can be very sticky and hard to remove.
Long method (traditional)
The Base-wet ingredients
Dried berries, honey, and sometimes an oil. I like poplar bud oil. The consistency should be that of a stick paste. This is all covered with wine or mead in an airtight container. A ceramic or glass bowl with a lid is ideal. This is all steeped for a week.
½ cup of dried berries-these can be chopped well or ground. I sometimes use powders here.
1 Cup mead or wine
1 Tblsp. honey
- You can use homemade or locally made wine or mead and local raw honey. I usually use either wild rose honey or wild rose elixir that I make.
- A few drops of aromatic infused or essential oil can be added here
Mix dry ingredients together and place in a separate glass or ceramic container and allow to sit for a week
½ Cup Resins-you can use one resin or a combination of resins. From any conifer-White Pine, Red Pine, Spruce
- Propolis-this you will have to get from a beekeeper or order
- Bud resins-Poplar, Birch, Cherry
Pine resin can be anywhere from dry and chunky to drippy and really sticky. I try to gather the dry stuff because it’s easier to chunk up. I generally chunk it up small with either a mortar and pestle or a hammer and a bowl. Then I mix in some propolis , Poplar buds and/or one or more of the powdered flowers, leaves, berries. I use two forks to blend them as if I’m blending butter into flour to make a pie crust so you have small mixed clumps. Then I put this into my little herb grinder (coffee grinder) and grind it up to an even consistency.
1 Cup Leaves and Flowers
- Wild Rose
- High Bush Cranberry
- Pine Needles
*Sometimes I grind these into a powder and sometimes I like to leave them whole. I like the way they look whole mixed in with the resins.
½ Cup Roots and Barks-
- Yellow Birch Bark
- Angelica Root
- Elecampane Root
Beeswax (optional)-add about ¼ cup of grated beeswax
After these have set for a week they are mixed together to make a sticky consistency adding more honey or wine if necessary. I like it to be the same consistency as when I make meatballs or meatloaf. It sticks together and you can form it but it still maintains its texture.
Roll mixture into chunks or balls or just press as one layer onto a baking sheet about an inch thick. Allow to dry in a warm place for 1-3 weeks. If you made a single layer you can break or cut after it’s dry.
- ½ Cup of resins-ground
- ½ Cup powdered berries
- ½ Cup roots/barks-ground
- 1 Cup ground and powdered leaves and flowers. Mix leaves and flowers at whatever proportion you desire. If you only have leaves use only leaves. If you only have flowers use only flowers.
- ¼ Cup of grated beeswax(this is optional but helps hold the mixture together nicely)
- Add enough honey, mead, elixir or wine until the mixture is sticky.
Press the entire mixture onto a baking sheet. I dedicate one of these to this also but if you would like you can use parchment paper to cover the pan. Let dry in a warm place for 1-2 weeks. Break into chunks or pieces.
To burn Kyphi you can use a store bought charcoal although some of these have toxic additives. Be sure to buy a brand that is chemical free. I usually use a coal from my woodstove or a Tinder Polypore (Fomes fomentarius) which is a fungus that grows on yellow birch trees.It is used to start fires because it burns dry and even like a charcoal I gather them, dry them out and slice thin. Either way be sure to use a heat proof plate, stone or an incense burner.
Sometime my recipe produces a dry enough incense that it will just burn when lit.