Palo santo — the aromatic wood that has been used for traditional healing and in spiritual ceremonies in indigenous and mestizo Latin American cultures for centuries — has seen a growth in commercial popularity alongside concerns about its conservation status.
Its popularity within the mainstream self-care community is driven by its warm scent when burned as an incense and oblique promises to clear a space of “bad vibes.” Memes portraying palo santo as being a couple packs of incense away from extinction are prolific. Some even claim there are only 250 trees left. The reality isn’t quite so grim but is certainly complicated.
What, exactly, is palo santo?
The tree species being used in the wellness world is called bursera graveolens, which grows all over the Americas including Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Galápagos Islands and plentifully in mainland Ecuador. To get palo santo of the best quality, the wood must be harvested in a certain way. “They come to a ripe age at 50 to 70 years old. That’s relatively short. Once the tree dies of natural causes, it has to be left for a minimum of five to eight years for the oils in the heartwood to mature enough to make quality incense,” said Jonathon Miller Weisberger an ethnobotanist and author of “Rainforest Medicine: Preserving Indigenous Science and Biodiversity in the Upper Amazon..” That fallen, aged wood is then processed into sticks used as incense. Watch out for synthetic palo santo, where chemicals are used to 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.”
Is palo santo endangered?
Palo santo is not endangered. This month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for the first time released a review of bursera graveolens’s conservation status and declared it “of least concern.”
So why the confusion?
A few factors are at play. The first: a case of mistaken identity. A totally different species, bulnesia sarmientoi, is also commonly known as “palo santo” and grows in the Gran Chaco region of South America. Its dark, mahogany-lookalike wood is used for its essential oils and in making products like furniture. And that tree is in fact threatened and may be confused with bursera graveolens when people are researching the topic online.
There’s also the matter of regional versus international status. The IUCN which has declared bursera graveolens of least concern takes global populations of a species into consideration when making its assessment. 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 rumors may date back to 2005, when Peru listed its palo santo as endangered.
What is palo santo good for?
Palo santo has a sweet yet complex scent. Its essential oil is used in consumer products, like shampoo, perfume and soap for fragrance. Palo santo sticks are burned as a sacred tool in spiritual ceremonies like smudging, which has varying purposes but is commonly said to cleanse negative energy. These practices have their roots in indigenous cultures, but palo santo is used in Catholic religious ceremonies in Latin America, too.
Can I go back to doing my palo santo thing then?
Not without some thought. Though palo santo isn’t endangered, its habitat, tropical dry forest is threatened. “Dry tropical forest have been decimated. Estimates are that only five to ten percent of dry tropical forests are still intact around the world,” said Susan Leopold, Ph.D., and the executive director of United Plant Savers, a conservation organization. She said that 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.
According to Mr. Miller Weisberger, 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 group of palo santo.
“Without a doubt buying palo santo is potentially jeopardizing and people could be participating in the decimation of isolated rare populations of palo santo,” said Mr. Miller Weisberger. To complicate matters further, what we know as bursera graveolens could actually be multiple species. “The isolated pockets throughout Central America and on the Galápagos may be subspecies or even a different species that is so reduced that suitable harvesting isn’t possible,” said Mr. Miller Weisberger. This all means consumers must ensure the palo santo they’re buying is sustainably and ethically produced.
How do I buy palo santo sustainably?
By all means, don’t stop buying palo santo. Experts like those at the IUCN say that more demand combined with responsible cultivation and harvesting could be good for the species and its habitat. Land that might be razed to raise cattle would have higher economic value if farmers can plant palo santo and sell it for a good price. Buy it from small business not a huge corporate retailer. Look for a supplier that is completely transparent and doing its own the legwork in sourcing palo santo. Adriana Ayales is a rainforest herbalist who grew up in Costa Rica and runs Anima Mundi Apothecary. “Look for companies where they themselves have gone to the area where the trees are from, met the farmers, know their names, know the area and regularly return to the area. There are a lot people who are essentially middlemen of Latin American distributors who aren’t doing that kind of legwork,” said Ms. Ayales.
But wait — is using palo santo cultural appropriation?
If you’re using it in a quasi-spiritual way without proper knowledge or training, yes, probably. Indigenous and Latin American people have developed a cultural heritage around many different types of herbal healing and spiritual ceremonies. While smudging has become popular, it’s very rarely done with the participation or consultation with those groups. “So when you scroll through Instagram and see a non-Native person smudging with sage or palo santo and taking their artful picture of that, they’ve probably purchased that item from a corporate source. They’re using our culture but removing our faces from the picture. It forwards the narrative that we don’t exist and that we’re not experts in our own fields and heritage. And that’s harmful to us because it perpetuates the extremely prevalent notion that we don’t exist,” said Chelsey Luger, founder of Well for Culture, an indigenous wellness initiative. You’ll have to make the call, but at least consider buying palo santo from small, local and indigenous-owned businesses and do your research on the heritage of these spiritual practices.