Ah, the burnt, slightly minty aroma of palo santo. No, it isn’t some hipster strand of THC selling out in your nearest dispensary, but it is lit, in the most literal sense. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, I can confirm it’s been hiding in plain sight or so unassuming that you never bothered to ask what it was.
It’s the air purifier of choice in yoga studios, where the Amazonian wood is burnt to eliminate the remnants of B.O. And if horoscopes are your brand of gospel, at least one has probably told you it can conjure up good vibes after a bad breakup or help turn a new home into a sanctuary. The popularity of the ancient wood has skyrocketed so much stateside that even some beauty companies have blended its scent into their fragrances.
Long story short: there are plenty who swear by its power, as the scent is said to cleanse your mind as it cleanses the space it fills too. Unfortunately, our overzealous use appears to have backfired in a way that is well worth paying attention to. In the grand scheme of things, it seems palo santo is anything but cleansed. First, a quick rundown of what it actually is.
Where Does It Come From?
The use of Palo Santo originates from indigenous peoples of several nations of South America, including Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay, and northern Argentina. It traces back to pre-Colombian cultures, including the Inca and the Tihuanaco. In the region, the uses, including spiritual and health attributes, have remained relatively stable since then. For indigenous peoples who are connected to its magical and ritualistic characteristics, when it is burned, it is said to clear a channel to contact all positive parts of the universe, setting aside negative influences.
Several rituals are connected to the Palo Santo, including the act of lighting it with the belief that supernatural powers lie within the ritual itself. Ultimately, the belief is that Palo Santo is like a guide that leads our intentions through a righteous path that is free of bad spirits. Additionally, Palo Santo essential oils have traditionally been used for medicinal purposes, thanks to compounds like limonene that have pain fighting, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects.
The Dark Side of the Palo Santo Trade
Because of its rising popularity outside of the Amazonian region where it originates, the Palo Santo trade to North America has skyrocketed, making way for illegal trade and unsustainable harvesting practices. When we purchase Palo Santo from literally anywhere (including reputable stores and websites), we may unknowingly take part in the drive towards deforestation.
Consider this: while we use it to clear away bad energy in our personal space, we may be contributing to negative impacts in the countries and cultures where it originates. Ironic, don’t you think? The good news is that there are alternatives to commercial Palo Santo that you can use in your home and office, some of which can even be grown in your own garden if you’ve got a green thumb.
The Right Way to Harvest
Unlike most other trees and plants used for ritualistic and medicinal uses, Palo Santo must only be harvested in an aged state. In fact, no live trees should be cut – only fallen branches and dead trunks are gathered after they have been aging for four to ten years. The aging process allows time for the resin to move to the heartwood (the center of the wood) so that the oils can mature into their ideal aromatic state.
In this way, Palo Santo should be a completely sustainable wood if traditional practices are respected. In reality, however, companies have seen the commercial opportunity of Palo Santo and have attempted, either legally or illegally, to harvest live trees and commercialize them to the US with little regard for reforestation.
The Guilt-Free (& Responsible) Way to Buy It
If you are distraught by the idea of potentially contributing to deforestation of Palo Santo, but would still like to implement energy-clearing practices, you can continue to purchase Certified Sustainable Palo Santo. By ensuring your Palo Santo is sustainably sourced, it helps to contribute to the culturally-respectful sustainable development of communities that harvest the tree using traditional practices.
The key is to purchase Palo Santo that respects local forestry regulations in the countries where they are harvested and that are part of initiatives that ensure the wellbeing of the trees and the population for whom they have cultural significance.
One well-known initiative is the United Nations FAO-approved Forestry and Environmental Development Corporation of Manabí (CORFAM). The initiative works to protect and reforest several species of plants, including Palo Santo and has benefitted over 12 thousand families in Manabí, Ecuador. Several vendors sell Palo Santo that is sustainably harvested, and where parts of the profits are given to CORFAM to continue protecting Palo Santo species.
Another initiative that protects the Palo Santo is Nature and Culture International’s Palo Santo Project. The project, initiated by the Bolívar Tello Community Association helps to manage and market Palo Santo to companies, like Florocopeia while using sustainable practices.
Since the harvest and trade regulation of Palo Santo is only beginning, the market is still subject to manipulation. It can be difficult to determine whether the Palo Santo you buy is actually sustainable, even if it has the CORFAM logo on it. So, you may be ready to try alternatives to Palo Santo – perhaps some that are locally-sourced or that are less popular in the West.
Interestingly, several cultures have traditions that mirror the Palo Santo burning ritual. It is important, when adopting cultural practices that are not originally your own, to understand and pay homage to their origins. Here are some alternatives:
Sahumerios (Mayan Incence)
Sometimes called “Mayan Incense”, the smoke produced through the burning of sahumerios are how prayers and petitions are taken to Ajaw, the Creator, through which spaces are purified, and energy is heightened. In the Popol Vuh, the Mayan highest spiritual text highlights the importance of the sahumerios for communication with the gods. There are several different types of sahumerios, but they may be made from copal, also known as pine pitch or tree resin, or from pericone leaves.
Frankincense and Myrrh
Frankincense and myrrh are among the most widely-used resins for spiritual purification around the world. In addition to their use as perfumes, bug repellant, and as mostly as medicine for respiratory conditions, headaches, rheumatism, and memory, among others. It was also widely used in churches and temples for purification purposes, either through burning it or through anointing people with their oils.
Sage, Sandalwood, Cedar, Tobacco and Sweetgrass
The burning of these herbs and plants originate smudging ceremonies of Native Americans. The word smudging is often used to refer to the use of any herbs or wood being burned for purification purposes, but in reality, it should only refer to traditional practices of some Native American and indigenous cultures. It is a custom where native herbs like sage, sandalwood, cedar, tobacco and sweetgrass are burned to create a cleansing smoke bath that purifies the body and its energy, personal articles, and ritual space.
This is perhaps the most commercialized form of smoke purification, and in cultures outside of Asia, many use it for its aromatic properties rather than for its purposes as a purifier and energy cleanser as it is used in Chinese culture. Originally, it is used in connection with religious ceremonies, including veneration of ancestors.
There is no way I can do justice to the cultural depth of these practices right now, but I hope it will at least encourage you to simply do better. Plus, it wouldn’t hurt to engage in conversations with people for whom these cultural practices hold deep ancestral and historical meaning.