June 17, 2020

Japanese Incense 101: Aromatic Plant Materials

There are many different aromatic ingredients used to create Japanese Incense. Although not often featured in leading roles, the following aromatic plant materials routinely find their way into Japanese incense recipes for their positive effects.

 紅花  Benibana - Safflower

A botanical relative to the Sunflower, Safflower is one of the oldest cultivated plants. As the source of carthamin, a natural red pigment capable of producing a bright red, warm red, and yellow dye, Safflower has been used as a dye producing plant throughout the world. In Egypt, the dye was used in textiles and to dye linens used in mummification yellow. In Europe it was used extensively to dye wool used for textiles and carpets. In Japan, it was used in cosmetics prized by Geisha and Kabuki artists. In fact, it is believed that the term "red tape" comes from the 16th century practice in Britain of binding legal papers together with tape dyed red with carthamin produced from Safflower. It is still used today as a food coloring known as Natural Red 26.

Dried as a brilliant red spice, Safflower flowers were often used in culinary applications as a substitute for the much more costly Saffron. Referred to as "bastard Saffron" or "False Saffron," Safflower is often substituted as a less expensive alternative to the rare and expensive Saffron.

A member of the Asteraceae family botanically known as Carthamus tinctorius, Safflower is a thistle-like annual that thrives in arid climates. Grown widely throughout the world, Safflower is found throughout Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Reaching mature heights of between one to four feet, Safflower produces multiple branches that each produce multiple yellow to orange flowers. The seeds produced are sough after for their essential oils, and the the flower itself is used to produce dye.

Used in traditional Chinese medicine, Safflower is believed to have antioxidant, antimicrobial, and analgesic properties. As a fragrance, Safflower is said to be stimulating, cleansing, regenerative, and balancing.

Safflower is only slightly aromatic. However, Safflower oil is often used as a natural fragrance carrier due to its near odorless nature and ability to act as a diffusing agent for other fragrant ingredients in the overall recipe. This carrying ability helps to enhance and expand the fragrant materials used to create long lasting and animated scents.

八角 Daiuikyo - Star Anise

Used medicinally for centuries in China, India, Egypt, and Rome, the sweet licorice fragrance of Star Anise is a key ingredient in many eastern culinary traditions. One of the five ingredients in Five-Spice powder at the core of Chinese cooking, it is also used in Vietnamese Pho soup and common to Indian cuisine. It is still used today as a popular spice, to flavor a wide variety of products from liqueurs to toothpaste, and as a breath freshener after meals.

Star Anise is the dried seed pod of Illicium verum, commonly known as Chinese Anise. Native to the region of the Chinese-Vietnam border, and routinely cultivated in the southern provinces of China, Star Anise is a small evergreen tree that reaches a height of up to sixteen feet at maturity, flowering from March until May. The fruit, in the form of an eight-pointed star shaped seed pod, are then harvested in autumn just prior to ripening. The pod then turns a deep rust-brown as it is dried prior to use. Both the seed and the pod itself are fragrant.

In Japan, a botanical cousin of Star Anise, Illicium anistatum, is viewed as highly sacred by many Japanese Buddhists due to its ability to remain fresh long after pruning. Known in Japan commonly as Japanese Star Anise, or Sacred Anise tree, Illicium anisatum is inedible as it is dangerously toxic. However the dried and powdered leaves and fruits are used as incense in Japan.

Star Anise contains the natural compound Anethole, which provides its characteristic sweet, spicy, licorice fragrance. The Anethole in Star Anise is also believed to provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties as well. Used in both tea and incense, Star Anise is described as calming and stress relieving, making it perfect for relaxing or enhancing creativity.

廣藿香 Kakkoh - Patchouli

Often recognized as the "Scent of the 1960's," use of Patchouli's calming earthy fragrance is measured in millennia rather than a decade. It was grown in China over two-thousand years ago for its medicinal properties, Egypt's famous pharaoh Tutankhamen had gallons of Patchouli oil placed within his tomb for the afterlife, and the Romans used Patchouli for its fragrance and medicinal properties over a thousand years ago. Patchouli was believed to be worth as much as gold to early Europeans who traded for it aggressively and paid handsomely to obtain it.

During the empire years of Victorian Britain, dried Patchouli leaves were inserted into textiles and silks imported from the east to ward off moth damage. The leaves in turn scented the fabrics with their familiar musky fragrance, which then became associated with fine quality textiles of eastern origin. The earthy scent soon became a symbol of exotic luxury from far off lands.

Yet today in the west, Patchouli is still associated with the "flower power" era of the 1960s. With many "tuning in and turning on" to meditation and eastern philosophies, Patchouli incenses were often used to immerse the practitioner in these new practices - as well as to hide the smell of another herb that saw wide use during the 1960: marijuana. In fact, the fragrance of Patchouli is still so widely associated with this time period, that is often used to recall the "flower child" era by drawing on fragrance's ability to trigger memories and moods. For example, pop superstar Madonna had the packaging of her 1989 album "Like a Prayer" scented with Patchouli to bring to mind the feeling of a 1960s church.

Patchouli is the dried leaves of Pogostemon cablin, a type of herbaceous mint native to tropical Southeast Asia. Now cultivated throughout tropic India, Indonesia, China and South America, Patchouli is a bushy evergreen perennial reaching approximately 30 inches in height and bearing small white to light pink flowers in late fall. The plant thrives in warm tropical climates, preferring indirect sunlight to produce the largest amount of fragrant material. Harvested by hand and left to dry, Patchouli is often left stacked or bundled to encourage the start of fermentation prior to use.

Medically, Patchouli has antiseptic and analgesic properties. Used in traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed to reduce inflammation, relieve stress, increase libido, and balance Chi.

The fragrance of Patchouli is intensely rich, deep, earthy, and musk-like. Its sweeter green notes are long lasting as is its notorious warm woody fragrance. Often described as "wet," Patchouli presents an intense fragrance of dark, rich, earthy soil. The exotic and sensuous fragrance of Patchouli has been associated with increased libido, and many Chinese, Japanese, and Arab cultures believe the fragrance to be an aphrodisiac.

As an incense ingredient, Patchouli is used for both its fragrance and excellent fixative properties which help extend the life of other fragrant ingredients. It provides a solid and steady base note from which to build a fragrance upon. Believed to have a sedating and calming effect, Patchouli is said to be grounding, balancing, cleansing, relaxing and sensuous in nature.

金钱草 Reiryokoh

Known as Jin Qian Cao in traditional Chinese medicine, or commonly as Gold Coin Grass, Reiryokoh is a minty herb of the Lysimachia genus of the Primulaceae family. Native to Europe and Asia, the plant is said to have been given its botanical name for King Lysimachus who documented the plant's healing properties in the fourth-century BCE.

As a member of the Lysimachia genus with nearly two-hundred varieties, Reiryokoh is a wide spread herb that grows throughout Europe and Asian, and is cultivated throughout the southern provinces of China. A creeping perennial with one to three inch coin-shaped round green leaves, Reiryokoh flowers from May until July. Harvested in late summer or early autumn, the plant is then cleaned and dried prior to use.

Used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, Reiryokoh is known for its detoxifying ability and commonly used as a diuretic in the treatment of kidney stones and gallstones.

In traditional Chinese Medicine, Reiryokoh is considered sweet, cool, with bitter overtones. With a mild herbal fragrance, depending upon the variety of Lysimachia it is sourced from, Reiryokoh can be minty, sweet, spicy, cool, or a combination of all of these, with a curry overtone being common.