Photograph is Copyright © Edward S. Ayensu.
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, Dept. of Systematic Biology, Botany.
Aromatic Note: Middle note
There are up to nineteen species and subspecies of these drought tolerant herbaceous perennial and evergreen shrubs.
Encelia species are native from western North America thru Baja Mexico and south through Chile.
In his book entitled “Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West“, Michael Moore states that Encelia “is everywhere along roads and valleys of the lower deserts of California and Arizona, making its way into Nevada and Utah, down into the western states of Mexico: from sea level to 3000 feet.” Other botanists have also found the shrub growing abundantly in Chile.
Encelia grows one to five feet tall and wide, with woody branches, two-inch silver-gray or blue-green velvety leaves and small bright-yellow flower heads on stems. When not in bloom it can be easily mistaken for white sage from a distance.
A resin runs out of the flower stem and at first it’s extremely sticky, which is the reason it has been traditionally used as a glue. The soft, gooey resin was used to fasten arrow points to the slit ends of arrow twig. It was also used on the interior of water vessels to help waterproof them. The branches are used to as kindling to start fires.
In full flower (March thru May) the stems exude a syrup-like resin whose sweet aroma has been used as incense in churches all along the Baja peninsula for centuries, where it’s known as Incienso. Native Americans, Mexicans, and Chileans are all known to have also used this resin as chewing gum.
Encelia farinosa resins fall to the ground and usually harden by late summer. Search the ground around the base of plant for little yellow tears of dried resin.
Do not touch the resin on the plant itself, we’re told it’s so sticky that you’ll need a miracle to get it off your fingers.
Harvest only what has already fallen to the ground underneath the plant and wait until summer or fall to harvest. Use a stick to touch any resins you find to make sure they’re not still sticky. A pocketknife, spoon, and jar usually works well for collection.
You can grow your own incense resin! Encelia farinosa seeds germinate readily and are widely available on the Internet. Use your favorite Search Engine to find the supplier nearest you!
Due to its little or no water and near zero maintenance requirements, Encelia is an excellent xeriscape plant for your water-conservation garden. The plant prefers a southern exposure and near-dry soils.
Synonyms: Incienso, Pa akal (Cahuillo name), golden hills, coast sunflower, brittle bush, button brittle bush, bush sunflower, etc.
Origin: Arizona, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, from Baja Mexico south through Chile
Parts Used: resin
Aroma Description: “delightfully elegant”
Cosmetic Uses: none known
Culinary Uses: used as a seasoning for broth (Encelia frustescens var. resinosa)
Medicinal Attributes: blossoms, leaves, and stems were held in mouth as a toothache remedy. A decoction of leaves and flowers is used as a wash for rheumatic pains. The dried leaves are used in tea form for treating bronchitis and arthritis.
Essential Oil: we could find no distillers of this plant resin in operation.
Mixes Well With: lavender, rose, sage-desert, sage-white, sweetgrass, red cedar etc.
***A special thanks to John & Maria Yager for bringing this shrub and its aromatic resin to our attention and helping us research it. John & Maria bring in resins from a small rainforest area of the Philippines that they’re trying to protect and preserve. They also sustainably cultivate native aromatic species of the Pacific Northwest on their farm in Oregon, U.S.A.