Palo Santo, or Bursera graveolens, is a sacred tree used by the indigenous people of South America. It can be found in Ecuador, Peru, parts of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia.
This sacred tree has been used for traditional healing and spiritual ceremonies for centuries. A cousin of the biblical frankincense and myrrh, the name Palo Santo translates to holy wood or holy stick in Spanish. When the wood is burned, the oils within the wood give off a sweet lemony and piney smoke that is traditionally believed to have spiritual and medicinal benefits.
Shamans and healers (Curanderos) use Palo Santo for healing and wellness, but it's also used to purify air, chase away any evil spirits, and cleanse negative energy. Medicinal benefits include easing cold and flu symptoms, depression, and stress. Palo Santo wood is rich in both antioxidants and limonene, a terpene that has been researched to have anti-inflammatory benefits.
Traditionally, burning Palo Santo is part of a meditation ritual can help create an uplifting mood through its smell. It's believed it can help with creativity and even bring good luck! Sounds way more pleasant than throwing away money on another lottery ticket.
The irony of Palo Santo being used by non-indigenous people or Westerners is that you may actually be purchasing a fake bunch of Palo Santo sticks or synthetic oil.
The wellness and spiritual benefits are only found when a Palo Santo tree dies naturally and is left undisturbed in the forest to decompose for five to eight years. It takes all those years for the oils in the wood to fully mature before it is can be used for shamanic purposes.
Sourcing true Palo Santo from indigenous owned farms is always a better choice than buying from huge corporations. With a large corporation, not only is the quality sometimes questionable but the profits are not supporting the farmers directly.
In Peru and Ecuador, it's actually illegal to cut down Palo Santo trees. According to sacred beliefs, a Palo Santo tree should never be cut down. It's called holy wood for a reason. It's believed the sacredness of the wood is lost when you purchase it at a new age wellness shop or through something like Amazon. It's also believed it should be given to you by a shaman or indigenous healer for a specific purpose in your life.
In addition to conservation concerns, some believe using Palo Santo is considered sacrilegious and cultural appropriation. Smudging, or using smoke to spiritually cleanse a place has become a trendy and almost comical way to "cleanse" that ex-husband or toxic coworker out of your space, but many consider that to be a disrespectful use of true sacred beliefs.
Some herbs and plants that are sacred to Indigenous communities that shouldn't be used for smudging are palo santo, white sage, sweetgrass, cedar, and tobacco. But if the concept of smudging appeals to you, you can buy or grow your own herbs and plants that will give you the same feeling of cleansing a space, along with aromatherapy benefits. Try juniper, lavender, pine, rosemary, mint, or dill.
There's some confusion about palo santo being on the verge of extinction. According to The International Union for Conservation and Nature, it's actually not. There is another South American tree also called Palo Santo but with a different Latin name (Bulnesia sarmientoi) that is on the endangered list.
So if you still want to use Palo Santo for your own spiritual and wellness purposes, now you know a little more about its history and some concerns to keep in mind.
Whenever you light Palo Santo sticks for purifying or to smudge your home, make sure you don't directly inhale any of the smoke and have a door or window open for good ventilation.
You can also burn these sticks like you would use a stick of incense in an incense burner. Palo Santo essential oil can be used in an aromatherapy diffuser to reduce tension, boost mood, and calm the nervous system.
If you want to clear negative energy in your space and mind, light the stick and let it burn 30 seconds before blowing it out. For energy cleansing, move around the room, waving the stick to spread the smoke all around. Smudging is as much about your mental intentions as it is about the actual smoke.