July 15, 2020

Japanese Incense 101: Aromatic Roots

Japanese incense has its roots in Buddhism imported from China. So it should not come as a surprise that many of the aromatic roots used in Japanese incense also have a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, as well as the homeopathic traditions of India and Tibet where Buddhism originated.

生姜  Sanna - Galangal

Known commonly as aromatic ginger, sand ginger, or resurrection lily, Galangal is a member of the ginger family of flowering plants. Used throughout China and India both medicinally and as a culinary spice, Galangal root has many well documented uses that date back over a thousand years.

A member of the Zingiberaceae family of gingers and known botanically as Kaempferia galangal, Galangal's genus is named in honor of German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer who wrote extensively on the topic of Japanese flora in the late 1600s. A small perennial rhizomatous plant (growth through spreading shoots from tuberous root nodes), Galangal has flat spreading leaves of three to six inches that grow low to the ground and that produces stemless white blooms marked with purple.

Native to India and Burma and cultivated for it's root stock throughout Southeast Asia, Galangal prefers humid moist tropical climates, growing in shady forested under-story locations. Sometimes referred to as "Lesser Galangal," Kaempferia galangal is a separate species from Lesser Galangal, which is its botanical cousin Alpinia officinarum.

Used medicinally in both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Aurvedic Medicine, studies have shown Galangal to possess anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and sedative properties.

Galangal's unique fragrance and spicy taste is due to high concentrations of the flavonoid Galagin in its roots. Sweeter than other ginger varieties, Galagal has a warm, sweet, spicy, camphorous fragrance with rich woody and bitter top notes. When used in incense, Galangal is said to aid in alertness, stimulating the body and mind. It is believed to be strengthening and cleansing, helping to overcome exhaustion and elevate mood.

甘草 Kanzo - Licorice

Known to be in use for over three thousand years, Licorice is one of the Fifty Fundamental Herbs used in Traditional Chinese medicine. Mentioned as early as the first century in Chinese herbal remedies and extensively studied in the modern world, Licorice root's use has changed little over several centuries. Used as a sweetener and as a blending agent for other herbals, Licorice is able to temper the harshness and bitterness of its more aggressive herbal counterparts. A spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down today, but Licorice root was making medicine go down centuries before sugar was in common use. In fact, today Licorice root is used to sweeten all manner of products from black licorice candy to liqueurs such as Jagermeister to cold medicines like NyQuil.

A member of the legume (bean) family, Glycyrrhiza uralensis, or Chinese Licorice, is the root known as Gan-cao meaning "sweet herb" in Chinese. The common name "licorice" come from the ancient Greek Glycyrrhiza, or "sweet root" from which its botanical name was adopted. A perennial plant native to northern China, Glycyrrhiza uralensis reaches two to three feet in height and produces purple and white flowers from June through early September. Most often cultivated today in the northwestern provinces of China, the root is collected in spring and fall and then dried prior to use.

Medicinally, Licorice root has been studied significantly. The active compound that gives Licorice root its sweetness is Glycyrrhizin which is over fifty times sweeter than sugar. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is used to enhance effectiveness of other herbal ingredients as well as mask their bitterness with its sweetness. Due to this, Licorice root is estimated to be used in nearly half of all Chinese herbal remedies as a carrier drug. Medically, Glycyrrhizin has well documented anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-fungal properties.

Surprisingly, what most in the west have come to associate as the fragrance of "Licorice" is actually Star Anise. Most products thought of as "Licorice" contain no Licorice at all, instead substituting Star Anise oils or artificial flavorings. In fact, chemists have identified thirty-nine chemical components responsible for Licorice's fragrance that often overlap other plant materials. This is due to Licorice containing the aromatic compound Anethole, which also occurs in plants such as Fennel and Star Anise.

The actual fragrance of Licorice is sweet, earthy, musty, with sometimes burnt qualities that many find off putting as it can call to mind artificial sweeteners like Saccharin. As an incense ingredient, just as with its medicinal use, it comes as no surprise that Licorice is sweet, acting as a balancing agent for other fragrant ingredients.


云木香 Mokkoh - Saussurea

Known as Costus, Kuth, Kustha, and Mu Xiang, Saussurea has been used as traditional medicine and for its fragrance for centuries. Like Licorice, Saussurea is another of the Fifty Fundamental Herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and was used widely as well in both Tibetan and Ayurvedic traditions as both medicine and incense. The root was listed in rabbinical texts as "koshet" and used in ancient Israel as a incense. Shipped from China to early Rome, Saussurea was used as a culinary spice and fragrance. The root's name "Costus" is from the Sanskrit "Kustha" which translates as "that which stands in the earth."

A species of perennial alpine thistle, Saussurea costus is a member of the Compositae family of flowering plants, and is native to the Cashmere province of India near the region that borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and China. In India it is believe to be of divine source, as it thrives in the high altitudes of the Himalayas, growing between 8,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level. A perennial herb, Saussurea has heart-shaped leaves with jagged toothed edges and flowering stems that reach from three to six feet in height. Blooming from July to August, Saussurea produces dark blue to deep purple flowers in rounded clusters at the top of the bloom stalk.

Primarily prized for its root stock, Saussurea is cultivated commercially in mountainous regions of the Yunnan province of China. The root is approximately the size of a finger, with off-white bark and yellow wood, and growing up to sixteen inches in length.

Saussurea costus in the wild is listed as critically endangered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) due to over-exploitation, grazing, illegal trade, and loss of natural habitat due to military incursion. However, the biggest factor threatening the herb has been the increasing demand for its use medicinally. In fact, the government of India has prohibited the export of Saussurea costus as oil or processed products.

Medicinally, Saussurea is widely used in India, Tibet, China, and Korea. It is believed to have antiseptic, antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, expectorant and stimulant qualities. In traditional medicines it is often prescribed for cough, colds, and rheumatism.

As an incense ingredient, Saussurea is used both for its fragrance, as a fixative to extend the life of other fragrant materials, and as a diffusing agent to expand the overall fragrance. Its scent is often described as warm, earthy, floral, woody, with animalic and musk-like overtones. The Chinese name Mu Xiang translates as "wood fragrance," as its scent often presents as richly aged wood.

大黄  Daioh - Rhubarb

Cultivated in China for medicinal use for over four thousand years, Rhubarb is known as Da huang in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which translates as "big yellow" - a nod to Rhubarb's yellow colored root. Arriving in Europe in the 12th century via the Silk Road from China through Arabia, Rhubarb was first reported in the Volga region of what today is Russia. This lead to its name in the west: "Rha" being the ancient name for the people of the Volga region, and the Latin word "barbarus" meaning "foreign," combined together to form Rhubarb.

There are several different species of Rhubarb that fall into two categories - "garden" variety Rhubarb (Rheum x hybridum) that possess edible stalks that have culinary uses, and Chinese or Turkish Rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) cultivated for its root's medicinal and fragrance uses. The United States Food and Drug Administration notes that "garden" Rhubarb may only be used as a flavoring in alcoholic beverages (such as Aperol or Zucca), whereas Chinese rhubarb may be used as a wider general flavoring.

Known botanically as Rheum palmatum, Chinese Rhubarb is a rhizomatous herbaceous perennial native to the Mongolian Plateau of northeastern Tibet and northwestern China, and now cultivated widely throughout Asia. Reaching six to ten feet in height, Rheum palmatum has large jagged basal leaves that form a four to six foot wide mound. From this base, stalks up to seven feet tall covered in pink to reddish flowers bloom from May through July.

Grown primarily for its root stock, after the plant has reached between three and five years of age Chinese Rhubarb is harvested in September and October. With a brown exterior and deep yellow interior, the root is long and tapered. After harvest, the roots are often dried and aged an additional six to twelve months to increase their potency.

Estimated to be included in over 800 Traditional Chinese Medicinal prescriptions, Chinese Rhubarb is one of the most commonly used medicinal herbs. Used primarily as a laxative for over two thousand years, Rheum palmatum is believed to have immune boosting, anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, and anti-cancer properties.

Rhubarb when used as incense has a softening and unifying affect on other sharper aromatic materials. Its fragrance is sweet and fruity, reminiscent of sweet potatoes or yams when cooked. Rhubarb is said to be cleansing and purifying, and adds a sweet overtone to a variety of fragrances.


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