Palo Santo Uses and Benefits

by Victoria Finlay

What is Palo Santo?

Palo Santo Sticks

Palo Santo ("Holy Stick" in Spanish) is a type of wood from the non-endangered Palo Santo (Bursera Graveolens) tree, which grows in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Galápagos Islands, Peru and plentifully in mainland Ecuador.

A different species, Bulnesia Sarmiento, currently listed as critically endangered, is also commonly known as “Palo Santo” and grows in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. Its dark, mahogany-lookalike wood is used for its essential oils and in making products like furniture.

The only way to enjoy the full benefits of the Palo Santo (Bursera Graveolens) tree is to let it die naturally (50-70 years compared to the hundreds of years others in the arboreal world take) and allow it a 5 to 10-year rest on the forest floor. This is where the resin forms, the scent associated with Palo Santo. The most refined Palo Santo oils form in the aged heartwood, utilized in religious practices and healing by many Indigenous and Mestizo communities for thousands of years.

Using Palo Santo

Smoldering stick of Palo Santo laying in an incense holder

Palo Santo wood is typically shredded and used as a stick incense which gives off an aroma reminiscent of baked apples or burnt sugar. Shamans traditionally burn Palo Santo sticks in bundles to cleanse their space and ward off harmful spirits. Palo Santo has both therapeutic & medicinal benefits and is used in many products, like bracelets, essential oils, shampoo, perfume, and soap.

Watch out for synthetic palo santo, where chemicals produce the signature Palo Santo scent. We don’t know how much is out there but read the fine print on packaging, it will typically say 'synthetic.’ This has caused some serious problems for those burning the sticks without knowing, as many have immediately caught rapid fire. This is both a serious hazard, and an indication that this kind of usage is just not right.

Benefits of Palo Santo

A BIPOC woman holding a smoking Palo Santo stick

The benefits of Palo Santo are many, as the tree is both medicinal and healing. Palo Santo smoke helps eliminate foul odours and promotes peace and happiness. You may apply Palo Santo essential oil to the body (such as at the base of the skull or on the spine) to help increase relaxation. It's an all-natural product that can help you feel calm amid chaos, improve your mood by releasing serotonin levels, soothe your skin with its antiseptic properties, and help you get a good night's sleep. It's also said to help with stress, anxiety and depression. It even keeps insects away, as the smoke's distinct scent also serves as a repellant.

So what makes Palo Santo so Unique? Is it the woody scent that fills the air? Is it the antiseptic properties that are good for your skin? The ability to increase serotonin levels and regulate mood?

No matter what it is, one thing is sure – Palo Santo has many benefits.

Palo Santo Through History

Palo Santo Geographic Range

The use of Palo Santo dates back to ancient times in South America. Palo Santo (or Holy Wood) was first used by the Incas and other Indigenous tribes for spiritual & religious ceremonies and as a kind of folk medicine. Queen Isabella I of Castile even banned Palo Santo in the 16th century because she believed it harmed Spain's economy. 

Palo Santo is mistakenly thought to be endangered for a few different reasons.

The IUCN, that has declared Bursera graveolens of 'Least Concern', considers global populations of a species when assessing.

But national governments determine a plant’s regional conservation status, meaning a plant can be listed as endangered in one country and not another. The online rumours may date back to 2005, when Peru recorded its remaining Palo Santo trees as endangered, banning the cutting of live trees and allowing only the collection of naturally fallen or dead trees.

However, Palo Santo in Peru has made a resurgence, and in 2014 Peru removed it from the SERFOR (National Forest and Wildlife Service) list of protected species.

Though Palo Santo isn’t endangered, its habitat, tropical dry forest, is threatened. Because dry tropical forests have a dry period (unlike rain forests), they are hospitable to human activity. People can go in and log or clear forests to use the land for something else, like cattle ranching.

The most abundant populations of Palo Santo are in Ecuador, but other regions have small populations. If you don’t know where your Palo Santo is coming from, it could be from one of these tiny populations where improper harvesting could erase that specific regional variety of Palo Santo.

Burning Palo Santo

Man holding and burning a stick of Palo Santo

Palo Santo may be burned, similar to incense, by lighting shavings of Palo Santo wood. Shamans traditionally burned Palo Santo in a bundle of sticks to cleanse, purify and create sacred space. When you light a Palo Santo stick, the smoke will purify the air and rid your environment of any negative energy. It is also said to help attract positive energy into your life.

Palo Santo and Indigenous Peoples

A Mestizo woman holding a smoking stick of Palo Santo

While “cultural appropriation” is a term that can get thrown around for almost anything these days (we are huge fans of celebrating different cultures and encourage you to embrace and learn about as many things as possible, respectfully and in the right way), we do have to be cautious and considerate when it comes to specific realms.

It's important to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples are not a single group and each tribe has its unique protocols, customs, norms, and rules when using Palo Santo. It is critical that we work with these communities, establish a relationship with them, and assist them in their conservation efforts.

Native Americans use the charcoal of Palo Santo sticks for ritual smoke cleansing or 'smudging.’

In Peru, a shaman, or medicine man, burns Palo Santo sticks, and the rising smoke will enter the "energy field" of ritual participants to clear misfortune, negative thought prints, and 'mala energía' (bad energy).

"Palo santo para limpiar tu casa de la mala energia, palo santo para la buena suerte"

"Palo Santo to cleanse your house of bad energy, Palo Santo for good luck."

Using Palo Santo Respectfully

Multi-Cultural Yoga Group using Palo Santo in a circle

While the use of Palo Santo has its roots in Indigenous culture, Palo Santo is also used in Catholic religious ceremonies across Latin America. Many Yoga, Wicca and New Age practitioners have also adopted Palo Santo into their practices.

There are several methods to cleanse your space and create a soothing atmosphere that you may respectfully utilize. Consider the rituals of your unique heritage to participate with and maintain. You may always use what helps you connect to your unique cultural background and ancestry.

And by all means, don’t stop using Palo Santo! Experts like those at the IUCN say that more demand combined with responsible cultivation & harvesting could benefit the species and its habitat. Land that Indigenous people might use to raise cattle would have higher economic value if they plant Palo Santo and sell it for a good price.

You can find Palo Santo at most local or online metaphysical supply stores. However, most companies are unaware of the procedures or care little about sourcing their Palo Santo respectfully.  Buy it from small, local or indigenous-owned businesses, not a huge corporate retailer. Look for a completely transparent supplier that’s doing its legwork in sourcing Palo Santo.

Man holding a smoking stick of Palo Santo

What are some ways You use Palo Santo? 

Please share them below in the comments section!


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