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February 09, 2020

Discover beautiful Palo Santo, the mystical tradition, the ethical harvest, and how you can use it in your life


All natural Palo Santo is one of my favourite forms of incense, one of my favourite scents. Sometimes I burn it to start my practice, creating sacred space. And I often burn some form of Palo Santo wood before I begin to work on a creative project. It chases away any lingering negative energies and its beautiful, citrusy smoke invites a positive, high-vibe environment for focus, clarity and creativity.  


This has become a personal ritual for me, the signal of moving from a busy, distracted state of mind to one that is quiet and peaceful, open to inspiration.


Because I love it so much, I always think everybody knows what Palo Santo is. But when I ask, most people have never heard of it.


So what exactly is Palo Santo?

Palo Santo literally means “holy wood” in Spanish.  There are a couple of different tree species that are called "Palo Santo", and some of them are endangered. Bulnesia sarmientoi  (that grows on the Argentina-Bolivia-Paraguay border) is one that is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  So we need to be careful with what we choose.  The  Palo Santo that is most commonly sold for burning, and that I am talking about here, is Bursera graveolens, which is not listed as endangered but it definitely requires care when choosing to buy it.


Bursera graveolens  is a highly sacred tree that is part of a mystical and powerful shamanic tradition. It grows in Peru, Equador, parts of Central America and the Galapagos Islands.  It’s a relative of the frankincense and myrrh trees.


South American shamans, particularly in Peru and Ecuador, have been burning Palo Santo for hundreds and hundreds of years in ceremonies to purify and cleanse negative energies and evil spirits from spaces, groups of people and individuals, and for raising positive vibrations, inviting positive energies. They also prize and burn Palo Santo for its ant-inflammatory and antioxidant healing properties.


Harvesting and preparing Palo Santo for use is a unique and very long process. Due to the sacred nature of these trees, many of the forests where they grow are protected by the government, particularly in Peru and Equador.  No live trees are destroyed to get palo santo wood for burning.  The wood should be taken only from fallen wild bursera graveolens trees or whose branches have naturally fallen to the ground.  But the newly fallen wood is not yet ready to burn. The trees and branches must be aged for at least 4 years and up to 10 years to allow the essential oils naturally present in the wood to concentrate. Only then can the wood be consecrated as “holy wood”.


How can we use palo santo in our own practice and homes?

Should we be burning Palo Santo, when it is so revered in South American traditions?  So let's talk for a minute about "cultural appropriation".  There is a lot of controversy about this, it's a very big topic with different opinions on whether or not we should not be practicing traditions and rituals from other cultures that we are not born into.  You can make your own decision about that.  


I believe that we can do so with respect and understanding.  When we understand this long-standing shamanic tradition and the unique harvesting practices of Palo Santo, and if we take care to buy Palo Santo that is sustainably and ethically harvested, borrowing this tradition and burning Palo Santo as part of our own personal rituals is so much more meaningful and respectful.


Here are some of the things Palo Santo can do for our home and practice: 

  • Create a separation between our daily life and our home practice, making it sacred and special
  • Purify negative energies from our home, practice space, ourself or another person, or from a special object (a lot of people like to purify their crystals with palo santo)
  • Invite positive energies in, to raise the vibration of a space, a person, an object
  • Enhance creativity and inspiration
  • Bring a sense of peace and calm
  • It might even help to get rid of headaches, cold symptoms, anxiety


Palo Santo is burned in the form of small sticks (4-5” long), shavings, or ground and pressed into sticks. It creates a beautifully fragrant smoke, soft, slightly citrusy and quite distinctive.


You can also find essential oil of Palo Santo. It’s the essential oil in the wood that makes it smell so beautiful. 


Take care when you are buying Palo Santo:

  • Make sure you’re buying Bursera graveolens - if it's not clearly indicated, or your not sure, don't buy it (we need to make sure we don't buy the endangered Bulnesia sarmientoi species)
  • Ensure it’s sustainably sourced, ethically harvested from wild trees. The best way to do this is to do your research and prefer to buy from small companies that work with local communities to ensure the Palo Santo is sustainably harvested. By purchasing sustainably sourced Palo Santo you are helping local communities and it actually helps the species to flourish.
  • Make sure what you buy is actually natural Palo Santo and not a synthetic reproduction of the scent

How do you burn Palo Santo?

Sticks - this is the traditional form of Palo Santo and the easiest to find. Light one end with a wooden match (more natural than a lighter), let the flame burn for 30 seconds or so and then carefully blow or fan it out so you are left with a smouldering end that creates the fragrant smoke. 


Ground and pressed into sticks - I find this to be the easiest form of Palo Santo to burn. It catches easier and burns better. It doesn’t last as long as a stick though. Break off a piece of a stick of pressed Palo Santo (2-3 inches will burn for about 10 minutes) and place it in a safe burning bowl. I like to put a bit of sand in the bottom of my burning bowl for added safety.  As with the sticks, light it with a wooden match, then carefully blow or fan out the flame so you are left with the smouldering, smoking wood.


Once you have your smoking Palo Santo, carry it carefully with you (ideally in a burning bowl to protect from ashes) and waft the smoke into every corner of the room you are purifying, all around the person or the object.


Do it with intention.


Let the smoke go - open a window to release the smoke.


Take care when burning any form of Palo Santo (or any other form of incense), keep it away from children, pets, anything flammable, and never leave any burning incense unattended.




To learn more about the history and the power of incense, please read SACRED SMOKE.

To discover our own ethically sourced Palo Santo offerings, please visit our PALO SANTO COLLECTION. 


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