The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Juniperus recurva Buchanan-Hamilton ex D. Don


Drooping Juniper




Cupressaceae (Juniper Family)

Forms and Subspecies


There is a dwarf form that does not have its own botanical name. Juniperus recurva var. squamata (Don) is the variety that grows in Kashmir (Weyerstahl et al. 1988).



Juniperus macropoda Auct. non Boiss.193

Juniperus squamata D. Don

Folk Names


Apurs (Pakistan), bsang (Tibetan,“incense”), dhupi (Nepali, “incense tree”),194 drooping juniper, hapusha (Sanskrit), hochgebirgswacholder, shang-shing (Tamang, “incense tree”), weeping blue juniper


Drooping juniper (Juniperus recurva) can be recognized by its downward-curving branch tips. (Photographed in Langtang, Nepal)



An incense powder (dhup) for use in rituals is produced simply by rubbing the branches of Juniperus recurva.




Species of juniper are found throughout the world and are especially common in Europe, Asia, and North America. In almost every region, they are used for ritual, magical, and medicinal purposes. In most of the cultures in which shamanism is found, juniper is an incense of the shamans. It is likely one of the oldest fumigants of humankind. The earliest written documents of ancient times (e.g., from Dioscorides and Pliny) provide evidence of numerous juniper species. Alexander the Great was presumably acquainted with the Himalayan juniper. We do not know how long this juniper has been used in the Himalayas for ritual purposes. The first botanical description of the plant was made in the nineteenth century.



Drooping juniper occurs from Pakistan to southwestern China and is particularly common in Nepal (Langtang and Helumbu), where there are entire forests of the tree (Shrestha 1989). It grows at altitudes of at least 3,000 meters and up to 4,500 meters. In the subalpine zones, it sometimes forms large forests (“incense forests”).

In northern India, it is said that the juniper forests of the Himalayas are the abode of the gods. Certain sacred sites (e.g., in Muktinath) have solitary juniper trees, some of which are very old, that are venerated as sacred trees.



Unknown; this species presumably is propagated and cultivated in the same manner as common juniper (Juniperus communis L.) and Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis L.)



Drooping juniper can grow as tall as 12 meters but often attains a height of only 3 to 5 meters. It usually grows in a stocky or prostrate fashion. The species name is derived from the fact that the tips of the branches curve downward. The relatively soft needles are 6 to 8 mm long. The large, oval fruits (8 to 13 mm) contain just one seed and are violet-brown to black in color (Polunin and Stainton 1985, 390).

Drooping juniper is very easily confused with the closely related species Juniperus excelsa M. Bieb. (Goodman and Gharfoor 1992, 52*).

“Everything has come together in the kitchen, the center of the house, and while those in search of healing are still conversing, the shaman is already beginning to sing. Behind him, juniper is being burned. He groans, for he is soon singing so rapidly that he has difficulty taking a breath. It appears to be a mild hyperventilation, for he can fight for air only once in a while. While he recites in song, he arranges the table before which he kneels as an altar. Now, completely surrounded by billows of juniper smoke, he blows, utters inarticulate sounds, and breathes more and more heavily until high, sharp screams pass over his lips—signs of the approaching deity.”






(1996, 23*)


Psychoactive Material


—Fresh or dried branch tips



Preparation and Dosage


Drooping juniper is one of the most important materials for the manufacture of Tibetan incense and is made into incense powders and sticks. The branch tips are used for the former, while both the tips and the (heart)wood may be used for the latter. Most Tibetan incense blends based upon drooping juniper also contain other Juniperus species, branch tips of the Himalayan cypress (Cupressus torulosa D. Don), and various Artemisia species (cf. Artemisia spp.and incense).

Nepali shamans use freshly ground twigs, white sandalwood (Santalum album L.), and nepali kagas or daphne paper (Daphne papyracea Wall. ex Steud. [syn. D. cannabina Lour.]) to make incense cones approximately 10 cm long that they use in rituals. Normally, however, the fresh, half-dried, or dried branch tips are simply strewn onto glowing coals and the resulting smoke is deeply inhaled. Concrete information about dosages is almost impossible to ascertain, as the amounts used can range from small branch tips to entire bundles or even large branches.

Ritual Use


Drooping juniper is sacred to almost every Himalayan people. Branches of the plant are often attached to the ends of the masts holding prayer flags (as a symbol of the World Tree or shamanic tree). Wanderers in the mountains also use the branches as amulets to protect them from falling or being hit by rocks; the branches are offered to the mountain spirits at the piles of stones typically found at passes. But the primary ritual use of the plant is as an incense.

The Tibetans characterize the incense they make from drooping juniper as a “food of the gods.” The incense is associated with a special ritual of purification they call bsang (pronounced “shang”), which is the same name they give to the tree. In this ritual, branch tips are burned while special mantras (conjuration formulas) are recited. The shamans of western Tibet also use juniper as a trance-inducing incense (Schenk 1994*).

The Buddhist peoples of the Himalayas (Tibetans, Bhotyas, Tamang, Sherpas) use fresh or dried juniper branches as an incense during their morning prayers (puja) to the Buddha Shakyamuni. The Sherpas fumigate with juniper when conjuring spirits and cremating bodies.

Nepali shamans (jhãkri) use a variety of incenses, the most important of which is juniper. They use either the branches or the resin. Drooping juniper has definite psychoactive effects upon these shamans:


It was striking that the shaman (jhãkri) began the exorcising activities by bending over an incense bowl filled with glowing juniper needles of recurva (other species are not used) and clumps of resin and deeply inhaling the smoke before drumming himself into trance with the aid of a large lama drum. (Knecht 1971, 218)


In Pakistan, juniper is venerated as a sacred tree that the shamans of the Dards use as an incense. The shamans and trance dancers (bitaiyo) of the neighboring Hunza also inhale juniper smoke:


The state of true trance is attained by inhaling the smoke of a juniper fire, by biting on juniper branches, and by drinking the blood from the severed head of a male kid goat. . . . The trance dancer (bitan) runs around jumping wildly. . . . He repeatedly interrupts his fast run, . . . to listen to the musical instruments and, finally, breaking down over a drum, he sings his prophecy in an ancient language that he is incapable of speaking or understanding when he is awake. (In Knecht 1971, 219)


The Hunza attribute shamanic abilities directly to the effects of juniper smoke:


In Hunza, the bitaiyo are regarded as persons with supernatural powers whose services as prophets, magicians, and healers were called upon. They manifest their abilities only after inhaling the smoke of burning juniper branches and drinking warm goat’s blood. After this, they danced to rhythmic drum beats until they had attained the trance state. When asked about the future, they passed on the messages of the fairies in the form of songs. (Felmy 1986, 19)


To increase the psychotropic effects, juniper needles may be mixed with the seeds of Syrian rue (Peganum harmala) before being cast onto a fire.



Branches and trunks of drooping juniper may be erected at cloisters and shrines as symbols of the World Tree or shaman’s tree. Juniper (and other materials) is burned as incense in numerous incense vessels. The vessels usually are made of bronze or brasslike alloys and typically are decorated with Buddhist symbols (the eight auspicious symbols, dragons, et cetera).

Medicinal Use


In Darjeeling, an area that is under Indian jurisdiction but culturally is part of Nepal, the branches are burned to dispel insects and mosquitoes.


Although Juniperus species are used throughout the world for both ritual and medicinal purposes, only the species Juniperus recurva has a reputation for being psychoactive. (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633.)


In Darjeeling and in Sikkim (formerly a tiny Himalayan kingdom, now a part of India), the ripe fruits are added to the locally brewed millet and rice beer for flavoring (Biswas 1965). In other regions, they are used to perfume homemade millet schnapps (rokshi). Juniper berries are said to have a purifying effect upon the aura and the subtle body and therefore find use as incense in both Ayurvedic and tantric medicine. In Ayur-veda, the berries are ingested as a diuretic and to improve digestion. They also are made into a paste that is applied externally to treat arthritis, swelling, and pain (Lad and Frawley 1987, 214*).


Traditional representation of a high mountain species of Juniper (Juniperus pseudosabina) on a Tibetan medical thangka.




Drooping juniper is rich in an essential oil whose composition presumably is similar to that of the essential oil of Juniperus communis L.195 The essential oil is most heavily concentrated in the tips of the branches, the fruits (0.46 to 0.88%), and the heartwood. Isocedrolic acid and 4-ketocedrole have been found in the entire plant. The needles contain biflavones, cupressoflavones, and their derivatives (Asolkar et al. 1992, 380*). The composition of the essential oil of the Kashmiri variety squamata has been worked out; it consists of 23.6% limonene, 16.3% sabinene, 14.6% α-pinene, and some α-thujone, myrcene, terpinene, and Δ-cadinene, as well as trace amounts of other substances (Weyerstahl et al. 1988, 260). The dried leaves have yielded biflavones (amentoflavone, hinokiflavone, isocryptomerin) and flavonol-O-glycosides (quercetin-O-α-L-rhamnosides and kaempferol-3-O-β-D-glucoside) (Ilyas et al. 1977).

The smoke of Juniperus recurva has been chemically investigated for psychoactive components. The gaseous phase contains over forty substances, the primary components of which have been identified as acetone, benzole, toluole, ethylbenzole, o-xylole, m-xylole, and most likely limonene (Knecht 1971, 220). To date, no actual psychoactive component has been discovered or isolated and pharmacologically studied.

Some sources in the literature have asserted that norpseudoephedrine is present in this species of Himalayan juniper (Schuldes 1995, 45*). Such claims most likely are incorrect (cf. ephedrine).



Indian and Nepali scientists have determined that the smoke from the fresh wood has emetic effects causing prolonged vomiting (Suwal et al. 1993, 72*); the extract of the branch tips appears to have anticarcinogenic effects.

Drooping juniper often has been attributed with the ability to produce psychoactive effects. However, it is uncertain whether the scent has a psychological effect or the smoke has a pharmacological effect. It is possible that only certain specially endowed individuals are able to experience the psychoactive effects of the smoke.

In my own experience, the smoke promoted the recall of memories. I found myself immediately transported to the Himalayas, where I mentally participated in archaic shamanic rituals.

Commercial Forms and Regulations


In Nepal and India, the dried branch tips are sold in herb markets and by sellers of incense (e.g., around the stupa of Bodnath, near Kathmandu). Drooping juniper is not subject to any restrictions.



See also the entries for essential oils and incense.


Biswas, K. 1956. Common medicinal plants of Darjeeling and the Sikkim Himalayas. Alipore, India: West Bengal Government Press.


Felmy, Sabine. 1986. Märchen und Sagen aus Hunza. Cologne: Diederichs.


Ilyas, Mohammad, Najma Ilyas, and Hildebert Wagner. 1977. Biflavones and flavonol-O-glycosides from Juniperus macropodaPhytochemistry 16:1456–57.


Knecht, Sigrid. 1971. Rauchen und Räuchern in Nepal. Ethnomedizin 1 (2): 209–22.


Malla, S. B., et al., eds. 1976. Flora of Langtang and cross section vegetation survey (central zone). Kathmandu: His Majesty’s Government, Dept. of Medicinal Plants.


Rätsch, Christian. 1995. Einige Räucherstoffe der Tamang. In Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness, 1995 (4):153–61. Berlin: VWB.


Shrestha, Bom Prasad. 1989. Forest plants of Nepal. Lalitpur, Nepal: Educational Enterprise.


Weyerstahl, P. H. Marschall-Weyerstahl, E. Manteuffel, and V. K. Kaul. 1988. Constituents of Juniperus recurva var. squamata oil. Planta Medica 54:259–61.


“Whoever carries a Kranewitt bush [Wotan’s belt, Juniperus communis] on his hat is protected from dizzy spells and becoming tired. The smoke of the ‘Martin’s belt’ dispels snakes, worms, and spirits. The drink made from its berries enables one to see the future.”