Taking up smoking

I’ve been toying with the idea of smoking herbs for a while, having seen experiments reported by fellow bloggers and thinking that it might make for another interesting (or pleasurable) way to take the qualities of wild plants into my person for medicinal purposes or simply to add the much-needed feral spark to my oftentimes dull, civilised character. I already do this with a myriad varieties of plant teas made from the dried or fresh leaves, stems, flowers, seeds and roots of the many species I’ve come across and experimented with over the years in my locality. So I asked myself: What’s the difference between herbal tea and herbal tobacco? It’s all dried plants (tea and tobacco are herbs just the same) – why not try smoking them instead of drinking them? That way, for one thing, the compounds go straight into the bloodstream via the lungs rather than having to slowly seep out of the digestive system. Plus it does look cool when all the other kids are doing it…

I first tried it a couple of summers ago in Italy. I’d heard that Mugwort was a good candidate for a smoking herb, and had found some pretty lush specimens growing in the sunny pastures of the mountain village where my uncle is fortunate enough to own a house:

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I let it dry in my room for about a week then brought it downstairs late one night when a few of us were getting ‘merry’, and we smoked small, torn pieces of the herb in roll-up cigarettes. The strong aroma of the growing plant came through in the taste and smell of the smoke, with one wild enthusiast comparing it to smoking incense(!), and there followed a very relaxed and pleasant light-headed feeling and the promised vivid dreams which a at least two of us reported the following morning*. We hoped there wouldn’t be any awkward questions at baggage control after one of our number had made a harvest to take with him on the plane back to Spain!

What tipped the balance for me, though, was seeing fellow herbal apprentice Charlie give a talk on ‘Herbal Fumigants’ at the Springfield Sanctuary ‘Celebrating Herbs‘ festival last September. She brought a bong and various smudge sticks and incense balls she had prepared in the preceeding months along with many plants to sample and hear associated stories, science and folklore about. It was a feast for the senses, especially when we got to try some of the herbs at the end. I tried Mugwort, Sage, Coltsfoot and Mullein.

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She writes:

Many people believe that burning herbs and smoking are something brought to us from the New World with tobacco, but tobacco is just one plant.  It’s true that a huge amount of the herbal lore that is current in the UK today has been imported or reimported from America but burning herbs to release their properties has been Old World practice for as long as recorded history has existed, whether we are referencing the Oracle at Delphi or Bald’s Leechbook which tells us in Anglo Saxon, “geréc þone man mid þám wyrtum“. (Translation: smoke that man with herbs).

Apparently Coltsfoot is the big one to check out here in Britain, with many smoking it during WW2 when tobacco became too expensive or impossible to import. Funnily enough it was a well known remedy for coughs and bronchial troubles, as indicated in the Latin name, Tussilago Farfara (‘tousser’ = French for ‘to cough’), making it potentially very interesting to people trying to quit ‘regular’ tobacco smoking. I’m told some continued to smoke it even after the war was over. As Maude Grieve wrote in her 1931 classic ‘Modern Herbal’:

[...] Coltsfoot has justly been termed ‘nature’s best herb for the lungs and her most eminent thoracic.’ The smoking of the leaves for a cough has the recommendation of Dioscorides, Galen, Pliny, Boyle, and other great authorities, both ancient and modern, Linnaeus stating that the Swedes of his time smoked it for that purpose. Pliny recommended the use of both roots and leaves. The leaves are the basis of the British Herb Tobacco, in which Coltsfoot predominates, the other ingredients being Buckbean, Eyebright, Betony, Rosemary, Thyme, Lavender, and Chamomile flowers. This relieves asthma and also the difficult breathing of old bronchitis. Those suffering from asthma, catarrh and other lung troubles derive much benefit from smoking this Herbal Tobacco, the use of which does not entail any of the injurious effects of ordinary tobacco. (link)

Tussilago farfara ColtsfootNow’s the time to be on the lookout for the flowers, which perplexingly come out before the leaves. I’ve spied a few of the yellow beauties, whose location I will be doing my best to remember for when the leaves come out later in the season.

All this inspired me for a winter project: making my own pipe. Brief e-research told me to use a hard, non-resinous wood for the bowl and (obviously) something hollow for the stem. I heard good things about cherry wood and happened to know where a few trees were growing nearby. I couldn’t find any handily seasoned, non-rotting wood of the right kind of size around the base of my chosen tree so I climbed way up and selected a green-wood branch that it looked like the tree didn’t need too badly, carefully sawing it off close to the trunk with my pruning saw and carrying it back down with me. The next step, a few days later was to choose a section of the branch that looked most suitable and saw it off:

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I attempted to carve out the bowl with my pocket knife but it turned out the wood was too hard so I had to use a hammer & chisel instead, tilting the piece of wood and using the angled edge of the chisel on the inside of the bowl so it didn’t cut too deep:

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Then I used a drill to make a small hole downwards and then, measuring the likely position, from the side (it took a few attempts before they lined up, as proved by my being able to blow through the piece):

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Finally, selecting a larger drill bit, I drilled a small distance into the side and whittled the piece of bamboo I was intending to use as a stem to the right size to wedge inside:

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Et voila, my fully functional pipe (I’ll need to find a better stem once it dries out and gets too thin, and maybe the bowl will get de-barked or some further carving to show off the red cherry finish. Also there’s some research needed on filters to intercept as many of the bigger ash particles as possible, which might otherwise result in health issues if I become a regular smoker…):

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…which I proceeded to load up from my Mugwort tea stash and have my first enjoyable (albeit rather chilly) back-garden smoke of the year:

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Well, there you have it. I thought I’d share :) Further onwards I’m looking to try Lemon Balm, Angelica, Sage, Coltsfoot, Mullein, Yarrow, Rosemary, Lavender… There’s what looks like a great online resource of ‘Herbal Smoking Mixtures’ by Howie Brounstein over here, if you’re interested to find out more. It includes handy tips on how to prepare your herbs, which plants combine well together and recommended mixes depending on what you’re looking to get out of the experience. Puff away, kids!

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* – I’d had similar experiences previously after drinking a tea of the plant before bed, but strangely the most powerful experience was a prolonged sequence of crazy, tricksterish dreams I had while drying a couple of long stems above my head where I was sleeping:

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4 Responses to “Taking up smoking”

  1. Sean Says:

    Hi Ian,

    I’m the Survival editor at Before It’s News. Our site is a People Powered
    news platform with over 4,000,000 visits a month and growing fast.

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  2. Nick Says:

    Hi Ian,

    great post! Having never been a smoker of any kind I have never even considered this. I know it is well documented that certain “herbs” have pain relief and beneficial mental health applications etc., but I hadnt though any further than that. This is a really interesting line of enquiry from a health perspective. I wonder if there is much material documented about the use of smoking herbs in various indigenous cultures? I know “smudging” is common which has both a spiritual cleansing aspect and a firmly practical one (insect repellent). I have read sage is used for this in some places – as well as being appropriated into modern belief systems. One thing to consider is when and how the herbs are collected. This from wikipedia (“smudge stick”):

    “Traditionally, when gathering herbs for ceremonial use, care is taken to determine the time of day, month, or year when the herbs should be collected; for example, at dawn or evening, at certain phases of the moon, or according to yearly cycles.”

    Great post though. Let us know what you find out.

    Cheers,

    Nick

  3. Ian M Says:

    Hi Nick,

    Glad you liked it. I’m sure there’s a literature out there about indigenous smoking practices. Living traditions remaining too, I’d assume. I tried a North American variety of Sage which Charlie brought to the herb festival, and the aroma and taste were markedly different (more pleasant actually) than the common/garden sage. Possibly there’s a long history of cultivation there? I know that tobacco was the one plant approaching a state of managed domestication in native California, as related in Kat Anderson’s Tending The Wild.

    One thing to consider is when and how the herbs are collected.

    Absolutely, the properties of any plant are in a continuous process of change, depending not only on the particular stage of life (at one point the medicine you want will be in the root, later the leaves & stem/bark, then the flower, then the seed) but even the time of day and local weather conditions. I know next to nothing about it, but am persuaded this goes way deep. This passage, for instance, from Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Lost Language of Plants has stuck with me since reading it a couple of years back:

    Once, a medicine man was coming to visit my home. The day before I spent the day cleaning, helped by the young daughter of a friend. Late that evening we decided it was such a beautiful starry night that we’d get our blankets and sleep outside, but first we’d have a calming cup of herbal tea. I had a small patch of chamomile that I had grown that year for the first time and had never picked. I went out to pick some and brought it into the house. The petals were curled up tightly, as they do at night, and we made a joke about it, “Ahh, how sweet, they’re sleeping,” and proceeded to make the tea. The next day I was showing the medicine man around the garden, and unexpectedly, as we strolled by the chamomile patch, without even looking at it, he turned around and shook his finger in my face, saying in a suddenly raised voice, “…And you should never pick them while they’re sleeping!” My jaw dropped. Startled, I stammered that I hadn’t known that. He replied in a perfectly normal tone of voice, “Oh yes, plants need their sleep, just like people.”

    And Buhner continues:

    This idea of plants having needs “just like people” is one I hear over and over again from native people. I have been told: When you go out to pick the plants, you must start talking to them before you even leave your house. You must ask them for their help. Tell them why you need them. Ask them to reveal themselves to you. If you are picking plants for a particular person, name that person, and tell the plant what the person’s problem is. If you pick for a certain person don’t ever use that medicine for someone else. If you don’t know exactly who will be using the plants, just say that it will be helping somebody. Don’t ever pick the first plant you see, but leave an offering there–it might be a prayer, a song, a simple thank you, or something material like a piece of your hair or some tobacco or sagebrush. It’s the intention that’s important, the acknowledgement that the plant is giving itself for your benefit. Respect for that gift must be shown.

    Another time I was told, “It’s not simply that you need to learn about the herb, but the herb needs to learn about you. You must share with it who you are, what you’re up to. That way it will come to know you and will be better able to help you in your work.” (pp.258-9)

    Cheers for stopping by :)
    I

  4. Charlie Farrow Says:

    Only just spotted this! So pleased you enjoyed my talk Ian!

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