Since the time of the Incas, the fragrant palo santo tree has been harvested by shamans in Peru and Ecuador, who use its essential oils or smoke to cleanse away evil spirits before initiating ayahuasca rituals or to aid the dying on their journeys to the afterlife. The very act of foraging for the wood by the shaman is a critical part of this spiritual process. Only mature plants, around 50–70 years of age, develop the “heart”—a dense, deeply resined core—necessary for distillation into an essential oil. And palo santo trees produce the finest oils when they die naturally and sit on the forest floor for several years.
Can we get the same spiritual effect from a questionably sourced box of sticks snagged on Amazon? You’d think so: The scent of this bewitching, spicy, citrusy “holy wood” (a translation from the Spanish) is everywhere these days—infused in candles; wafting from yoga studios; for sale at mystic shops, home stores, and Anthropologie. You can buy palo santo smudge sticks from Etsy and follow along on YouTube as a woman in yoga wear teaches viewers how to cleanse a room without burning the place down.
It’s true, smudging with palo santo has reached latest-craze status. A quick #palosanto search on New Year’s Day revealed that plenty of palo santo went up across the United States as people smudged their homes to banish bad spirits and welcome in a promising new year. “Burning Palo Santo and doing some cleaning! So excited to be in a new year! I’ve got good feelings about this year!” declared one Twitter user.
Is Palo Santo a Threatened Species?
But some wellness bloggers have suggested that palo santo is critically endangered. If it is, your smudging ritual may be contributing to the annihilation of a sacred tree. That’s some bad juju, so I wanted to know: Are the rumors true?
First, let’s clear up some confusion. There are actually two trees called palo santo. One, known as Bulnesia sarmientoi, grows in Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia; this plant has indeed been placed on the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the leading organization dedicated to tracking global conservation of plants and animals. Due to overharvesting and habitat loss, the tree is near extinction.
The other species, Bursera graveolens, is also called palo santo but grows closer to the equator and isn’t on the Red List—yet. This is the tree often used for spiritual purposes. But just because it’s not on the watch list doesn’t mean it isn’t threatened. With its long, shallow roots, this tree thrives in tropical dry forests from Mexico to Peru, in areas that undergo severe droughts for up to seven months at a time. Because these forests have such extreme dry seasons, they are particularly vulnerable to soil erosion if the mix of flora and fauna is compromised due to over-harvesting or clear-cutting. “Only 5 to 10 percent of dry tropical forests are still intact around the world,” Susan Leopold, PhD, the executive director of United Plant told the New York Times. As these ecosystems vanish, she warns, palo santo may go with them.
In Peru, for example, palo santo forests have been ravaged for the industrial market, which has forced the country’s government to categorize Bursera graveolens as being in “critical hazard.” While the cutting of live trees is prohibited here, it’s difficult to enforce. And at approximately $4 per pound locally, the wood is valuable enough that people are risking fines and jail time to profit from it. Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR) reported that a truck carrying nearly 10,000 pounds of illegal palo santo wood was intercepted on December 26, 2019, on its way to Lambayeque, a city known for its important archaeological remains. Just two months earlier, another 7,500 pounds had been intercepted, the wood hidden among bananas and lemons to disguise its distinctive scent.
For a more intimate look at the situation, I reached out to my friend, Lima-based designer Fiorella Yaksetig. Recently she traveled to northern Peru where palo santo grows and spoke with the farmers who cultivate it (possibly illegally). She confirmed that palo santo forests have been devastated. “It’s been planted and cut so many times that the lands where it lives can’t sustain it anymore and it just doesn’t flourish the same way it used to,” she told me. “The tree is becoming extinct."
While it’s unlikely that all of these harvested trees were bound for the wellness and ritualistic markets, demand combined with illegal and unsustainable practices may result in Peruvian palo santo forests disappearing forever. Given how high the stakes are, how much do you trust an online source to give you the straight scoop on how that tree thousands of miles away was harvested?
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Sustainable Palo Santo
Recent international interest in palo santo as a spiritual aid is increasing the wood’s value, and in some cases, affecting how local communities regard the tree and its ecosystem. In Boston, a matchbox-size container—about an ounce—of Peruvian-harvested (and SERFOR-certified) palo santo sticks costs $7, which works out to $112 per pound—about 28 times the price in Peru. Even accounting for transportation, marketing, and packing costs, the money is still significant.
Indeed, in Ecuador, people are beginning to use the tremendous profits from the wellness market to support sustainable harvesting practices where the tree thrives. Ecuadorian Hands, an Ecuador-based online retailer that sells “eco-friendly handcrafts,” posted a video to its website showing workers gathering palo santo for the spiritual trade. No chainsaws here. Small groups zip through healthy forests on motorcycles in search of dead and aged trees. It takes them an entire day to locate two fallen specimens. Once they do, they field-dress the trunks with machetes by hacking away at the termite-softened bark to reveal the tree’s heart, then pack the wood into woven bags, strap it to the backs of their bikes, and return to the manufacturing area. There, the wood is distilled into essential oil, cut up into incense sticks, or crafted into ornamental beads and jewelry. Ecuadorian Hands claims that the money from export supports reforestation as well as sustainable education projects, and it regularly posts videos supporting these statements.
Other suppliers, such as Sacred Wood Essence, have partnered with Ecuador’s Bolívar Tello Community Association (awarded the United Nations Development Programme’s Equator Prize, which recognizes community efforts to reduce poverty through conservation and sustainability) to extract palo santo oil from the tree’s seeds, rather than from the wood itself. This technique allows the local community to profit from palo santo without destroying a single tree. The money from the sale of essential oil pays for reforestation. Since 2010, according to the UN, tens of thousands of saplings have been planted in this fragile landscape to support the next generation of oil harvesting.
So in theory, if you are careful and do your research, your palo santo purchase may support positive development in certain regions.
Palo Santo and Cultural Appropriation
But there will always remain the thornier question of cultural appropriation and smudging. If you’re non-indigenous, should you even be using palo santo as a spiritual aid?
For guidance, I turned to Brown University professor Adrienne Keene, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and an expert on the topic. In a 2018 essay published on her Native Appropriations blog—a forum for discussing representations of Native peoples—she penned a tremendously moving argument against non-indigenous use of smudging sticks. The piece, triggered by a “Starter Witch Kit” she heard about (since pulled from the market), is framed within the shameful context of European-American suppression of Native traditions and languages.
For centuries, she writes, Natives were forced to practice their customs—such as burning white sage—in secret, until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. That was only 42 years ago. Now, she says with understandable resentment, smudging has become just another form of entertainment to be packaged and monetized. “The sale of Native spirituality is easily a million-dollar industry—not even including all the culture vultures and white shamans who sell fake ceremony. Who is benefitting from the sale of these products? Not Native peoples.”
Keene argues that when choosing rituals, people should consider their own heritage. “Find out what your own ancestors may have burned for cleansing, and use that. Unless you’re Native, it probably wasn’t white sage. Sorry. I know you’re not used to hearing you can’t have something. But you can’t have this.”
Native peoples have fought long and hard for the right to say this. If Keene says don’t burn white sage, I won’t.
That said, our individual histories often aren’t neatly packaged. The rush to decode our DNA has awakened many of us to our own complex heritages. As groups migrate to escape oppression, ecological threats, or genocide, they shed or rework their spiritual identities and adopt new ones. So if we’ve learned anything from sites like ancestry.com, it’s that culture and identity are much more fluid than we once thought. Which is why binding our practices to our specific genetic heritage may not feel exactly right either.
Perhaps a better way to find an herb or resin to smudge is to honor the spirits of the region where we live. What grows there? What’s in abundance? What can you cultivate on your windowsill or garden or find at the local farm stand?
Peruvian history is in many ways different from US history, so I returned once again to my Peruvian friend for guidance. “Since palo santo is now grown for export,” Yaksetig wrote, “it’s lost much of its significance.” So there it is. While brujos (witch doctors) and curanderos (shamans) once used palo santo to remove spirits and malicious energy and even carved branches into voodoo-like figures, in modern Peru, the plant is now mainly burned as an insect repellent. Shamanic uses have decreased; it’s more profitable than spiritual.
But my inquiry did spark a discussion among Yaksetig and her family, one that she hadn’t yet had with her parents and grandparents. “After many long conversations, members of my family (all Peruvian) have agreed that using palo santo as a spiritual cleanser in any place other than Peru is a bit odd,” she told me. “Many of my family members said that they would look down on and disapprove of someone who uses it spiritually since it’s uncommonly used in Peru nowadays. It would be weird to practice it as a Peruvian tradition since it’s special and is rarely used in that way here.”
Respect for a culture’s traditions, even sharing in them, can foster deeper understanding between people. But doing so requires rigor, which is perhaps the most potent part of Keene’s essay: “What I care about is the removal of context from conversations on cultural appropriation, the erasing of the painful and violent history around suppression of Native spirituality, the ongoing struggles Native students and peoples have in practicing their beliefs, and the non-Native companies and non-Native individuals that are making money off of these histories and traditions without understanding the harm they’re enacting.”
Grow Your Own Cleansing Herbs
See the map and descriptions for a rundown on everyday plants you can buy or grow to burn as alternatives to white sage and palo santo. If you're gardening your own greenery, choose plants that can thrive in your area.