Palo Santo: Myths and Reality

woman burns palo santo

So, what is Palo Santo meaning? This word has Spanish roots, as long ago Spanish monks discovered the tree and its sacred, healing features. Palo Santo tree was marked as “the wood of the saints”. Officially, it was first described by Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt during their expedition to South America in 1824. Nowadays, its scientific term is “Bursera graveolens” – a tropical tree, which grows in different areas of South America. Their cultivation is especially high in Ecuador and Peru.


The history of Palo Santo

The origin of Palo Santo tree takes roots in ancient times. When the Inca Empire was founded in the 15th century, the local shamans of the Inca tribe used Palo Santo wood in their rituals. They were called “Curanderos”. The Palo Santo meaning was a “holy wood” – a perfect description of its nearly unlimited possibilities. Due to its sacramental nature and healing effect, it was mostly used in various religious rites at that time. The main purpose of using it was to drive off evil spirits and cleanse the land from the dark energies. According to the knowledge of shamans, if one is attracted by an aroma of Palo Santo – they have a decent level of spiritual purity.

paolo santo wood

But how a simple tree can affect spirits? This ancient practice was known as a Palo Santo Smudge or “smudging”. By burning the Palo Santo sticks and wood, the dense smoke worked as a ward against the otherworldly presence. Its specific aroma is a mixture of citrus and mint, which creates a mind-soothing effect. This effect causes a meditative state and spiritual purification, which is still popular in modern society. Even though, its cultural meaning is nearly lost nowadays. Lots of people underestimate its supernatural value and use it for pure relaxation.


Palo Santo uses

The Palo Santo tree is usually reaching 18 meters in height and its ripe age is usually 40-70 years. Some indigenous people say that such trees may live up to 200 years. The interesting fact is that there are male and female Palo Santo tree kinds. There are usually 1 male tree and 8 female trees. They are also visually different. The male Palo Santo tree is hollow, fragile and has a white color. The female Palo Santo tree is heavier, sturdy and has a yellow color.

By itself, the tree doesn’t have any special value. However, once dead because of natural causes, the Palo Santo tree can produce a special Palo santo oil. This possibility is available due to a decomposing process. It takes around 5-8 years for the Palo Santo oil to mature and become fragrant. After that, it can be harvested and used for a variety of purposes. Making it simple, the more years have passed since its death – the more “sacred” and valuable it is. Also, if you would cut the tree right away – you won’t receive any immediate effect from it. So it’s necessary to be patient and respect the nature of the tree itself.

palo santo oil

There are 3 main qualities of Palo Santo wood, which grows in Ecuador:

  1. The Amarillo’s holy pole.
  1. Especial shrubs. Contains a large percentage of limonene – a special medical substance, which prevents cancer.
  1. The Selecciòn’s holy pole. If we compare it with the Essential Shrubs – it may not have that amount of rich substance. However, it’s most commonly spread.

So what are Palo Santo used for? One of the main reasons why it is successful are Palo Santo sticks. Let’s find out if they are as good as rumors say.


Palo Santo Sticks

1. Cleansing

One of the most popular Palo Santo uses from the ancient times. Palo Santo sticks are a premium product, which contains everything you need: energetic and physical healing, positive energy, and unforgettable aroma. Usually people use them to fumigate houses, chambers or people.

If you have one and would like to use a Palo Santo smudge technique – you should definitely give it a try. How to use Palo Santo sticks? Here are some quick steps on how to burn Palo Santo:

1) Make sure that your Palo Santo stick is dry and not wet. Otherwise, wait until it is dry.

2) Hold your Palo Santo stick at a 45-degree angle.

3) How to light Palo Santo? Ignite the tip of the Palo Santo stick and let it burn for half a minute.

4) Waiting for too long may cause a fire to destroy a stick completely. Blow out the flame and let the specific white smoke spread around for 1-2 minutes. You can use a Palo Santo incense for even better effect.

5) Once you’re done – make sure to avoid leaving the Palo Santo stick lying around. Place it into some fireproof object to avoid fire. Do not put it into water.

6) Gently blow the embers from time to time to keep them burning. Repeat the steps, if necessary.

Some people suggest using the Palo Santo cleansing process in the right order. If you want to cleanse the house – make sure to start at the front door first and then fumigate other rooms one by one. Corners are believed to be house places with the highest level of negative energy. That’s why it’s recommended to give special attention to them.

If you would like to try an advanced way of using Palo Santo sticks – this ceremony can be performed using a combination of medicinal herbs. Such is white sage or cedar, which you can use in a bundle with Palo Santo sticks. Palo Santo benefits are superb in such a combination.

The importance of cleansing practice is significant. If one is using a sacred stick only for positive vibes – this is not a welcome practice by indigenous people. The reason is simple – it is sacred for them, so make sure to respect the traditions of these people.

burning palo santo

2. Medicine

You may ask – what is Palo Santo used for in medicine? The folk medicine and traditions are strong in Ecuador. If you use Palo Santo sticks for folk medicine purposes – it helps in a variety of ways. For example, if you’re experiencing stress, flu, or cold – or all of them at once. Especially, it’s good for people with asthma, bronchitis, and seasonal depression. The effect is granted due to the high percentage of antioxidants and limonene. If you are burning Palo Santo before bed – it grants a stable, calm rest.

3. Meditation

Palo Santo cleansing effect creates a positive energy for the person with negative thoughts and state of mind. They restore spiritual clarity and tranquility. The positive state provides a wider alternative for creativity, concentration and inner consciousness. A known practice is to drink a Palo Santo tea, which grants a certain digestive aid during the training. Some advanced yoga trainers use special crystals (citrine, amethyst, rose quartz, etc.) to drive off the negative energy and use Palo Santo sticks to cleanse the crystals for further usage. In a combination with Palo Santo incense, you will create an unforgettable atmosphere for yourself and all people around you.

4. Insects

The volatile Palo Santo essential oil and citrus aroma prevent the house from unwanted vermins. Burning Palo Santo makes you sleep without the discomfort. This practice is quite popular in the everyday life of Ecuador people. At the same time, this method is much safer for health purposes, rather than popular chemistry solutions.


Palo Santo vs Sage: benefits and difference

A quite popular topic is the Palo Santo vs Sage comparison. What is Palo Santo used for? Should I use it or maybe Sage instead? What is so special about them, and what differs them?

We’ve spoke a lot about the benefits of Palo Santo, however, Sage has its benefits as well. It’s always a good idea to compare these popular, ritualistic plants if your choice is not set in stone. In short – if you have a small space, Palo Santo may be a better decision. Even though Sage is a great solution for large apartments, and you won’t need to blow the embers to sustain the smoke effect that often. Which is suitable, no doubt. However, there are still more nuances to consider.

While both Palo Santo and Sage’s main purpose is smuggling, Sage has a more powerful effect. Yet, according to the rumors, it cleanses everything – both negative and positive energy. Meaning that you should “fill” the area with some positive energy afterward. Crystal ceremonies, dancing or music – everything can work.

If you want to burn Sage for ritualistic purposes, it’s somewhat similar to how to burn Palo Santo. It’s highly recommended to use regular matches instead of butane lighters. Indigenous people think that it may affect the final medical effect and purpose of the ceremony. After it burns for half a minute, you can fumigate the house even with greater effect than Palo Santo. Still, the scent would be quite different and depends on the personal taste of the owner.


Palo Santo Endangered?

There exists a popular myth that the Palo Santo wood is nearly extinguished. Why Palo Santo endangered? Some say it is because of its popularity. Some insist on the lack of protection from the government and unreliable companies, who distribute it all over the world. Well, all that is just a half-truth. The reality is slightly different due to the following factors:

  1. There are two completely different species of Palo Santo.

One is “Bulnesia sarmientoi” – a dark wood which is used for the furniture business. This one in fact is endangered. While the status of “Bursera graveolens” (the tropical tree with specific aroma wood) is listed as “of least concern”.

It’s also important to notice, that such a misunderstanding could appear because not all species are endangered in different countries. For example, in Ecuador the situation with Palo Santo wood is quite great, and even the modern business demand may not threaten its current status. Still, only the moderate use and harvesting of Palo Santo sticks and oil will help to keep this status as stable as possible. Meaning that such a situation may still take a place in the future for certain species of Palo Santo trees. This leads us to the next point.

  1. High Consumption Rate

The mainstream of Palo Santo uses created a risky situation. The deforestation of these woods bypasses even the country law of Ecuador and Peru. It creates not only a bad situation for the forest and nature of these countries, but also for the end-consumer. The main reason is that Palo Santo essential oil requires time to form, and buying these unprepared product creates a dangerous precedent for a black market. Nowadays, such markets produce synthetic Palo Santo sticks, which contain only chemicals and not a natural aroma. It may even lead to various health issues. That’s why it’s important to get such a product only from the official, reliable sellers.

  1. Corporations vs Local Indigenous Sellers

While getting a product from corporations with a good (and usually “fake”) rating usually sounds like a good idea, you may want to rethink this decision. The main reason behind this is that local, indigenous sellers are paying much more attention to their potential customers. They are also oriented for a long-term relationship. If you will ever visit Ecuador – it’s never a bad decision to support a local distributor. By supporting their way of moderate manufacturing and distribution, you actually help them to preserve the “holy wood” of Ecuador.


How to tell if Palo Santo is real? There are some tips which may help:

1) Palo Santo smell is a unique, non-strong citrus odor;

2) The smoke should be white once you’ve burned the Palo Santo stick;

3) There should be presented some amount of glossy oil over it;

4) The wood is usually soft and carving it with a knife should not be a problem. Also, after carving it, you may feel a specific Palo Santo smell. In such a case, you’ve most likely got the real Palo Santo wood.


Palo Santo modern trends and lack of sacred meaning

A lot of people nowadays try to commodify a foreign culture for their own profit. And with this approach, Palo Santo loses its most important aspect – traditions and sacred rituals. This is not about “good vibes” any longer, as if you wish to cleanse your room – you can simply use lavender, right?

The Palo Santo wood is something more than just a pile of wood sticks and oil. Of course, modern people may think that all these rituals are witchcraft, religious nonsense, and so on. But ask yourself – is it really a thing which is important. Or we’re trying to make everything trivial and meaningless? What is Palo Santo specifically for you – another plant to burn and receive a temporary effect? Or something more?

The thing is that Palo Santo has its own history and that is what makes it so special. It has its own myths and real facts. All that creates a perfect picture of a legendary, holy tree that brings happiness to thousands of people all over the world. And if we’ll preserve it – we’ll do something good in turn. Preserving the nature of an Ecuador land in all its glory.

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