Amidst the many mindfulness rituals infiltrating the $4.4 trillion global wellness market — think saging, crystals, meditation — another ancient tool for healing is steadily coming into view: palo santo. Native to the Yucatán peninsula, Peru, and Venezuela and now found in seasonally dry tropical forests throughout South America and the Galápagos Islands, the wild tree (whose name means “holy stick” in Spanish) has been revered for thousands of years for ritual purification and holistic medicinal purposes. And while not new in the indigenous Latinx community, it seems palo santo is getting a 2023 makeover as it (and its likeness) is being mass marketed as a trendy healing tool for the new generation.
At this point, you’ve likely seen the chic packaged bundles of light wood sold at cool-girl retailers like West Elm and CB2 and the translucent liquids of bottled fragrance from luxury labels like Le Labo and Pura. You might even be burning a bit of the soothing wood (known for its subtle, woody fragrance with hints of citrus and mint) in the corner of your bedroom as you read this. The point is, over the course of a few years, palo santo has rapidly transitioned from an obscure treasure to a viral wellness trend. But with popularity can come abuse and mishandling, which is often the case for ancient traditions being commodified for modern society. That’s why it’s important to understand the roots (literally) of plants like palo santo, so you can truly harness and enjoy the benefits.
“We're entering the age of Aquarius, which is a new age, a new era,” explains Amelia Jiménez, intuitive energy medicine therapist, referring to the forthcoming astrological era, based on the orientation of the earth's rotational axis. “Essentially what this era is all about or this age is all about is the merging of ancient technology with the future technology. I think it is a time where [...] we are we being called to recognize and reconnect to all these ancient ways.”
The Los Angeles-based healer adds that the past few years of lockdown and social distancing also contributed to an increased interest in natural forms of healing and purification. “Especially after COVID and having had to go deep into the inner realms of self during those years, people are beginning to kind of wake up in the fifth dimension, going from 3D to 5D,” she says. “And a lot of these things of spirit [like palo santo] live in these dimensions.”
This raises the question of palo santo’s purpose in the spiritual and medicinal world. According to Eliseo Torres, professor of traditional medicine at the University of New Mexico, the revered plant has been long used amongst Latinx curanderos and holistic healers for spiritual, energetic cleanses. The tree is often employed to cure people who have gone through some kind of traumatic experience, also referred to as susto in Latinx culture. “Maybe they are jittery, they have insomnia, they can't sleep,” Torres explains. “So, the idea is that your soul may have left your body and is wandering, and they're trying to bring it back to your body. That's when they do their cleaning (also called limpias) using palo santo.”
Jiménez says amidst the many plants she employs in her practice, palo santo (which she typically uses to cleanse homes and living spaces) is her favorite. “It holds different energy than, for example, sage,” she says, referring to another ancient purifying plant. “They are both used for similar reasons — to heal, clear, protect, purify. But palo santo, is more of a lighter energy than sage, which has more of a scraping aspect to it.” She goes on to explain that sage cleansing properties are more aggressive in that they clear both negative and positive energy. Palo santo, on the other hand, is more balancing and gentle in nature, bringing harmony into the vibration of a space.
In addition to smoke, the tree’s plethora of benefits, which also includes reducing inflammation, headaches, asthma, and anxiety, are commonly harnessed in tea and oil form, although the latter can be hard to come by. “It takes like five to eight years for a tree to basically give you the oil,” explains Jiménez. “And a lot of times when we buy it in stores or places that don't come directly from indigenous people, most of the time it's not real.”
This, indeed, is an increasingly prevalent problem as the tree becomes more popular and commercially produced. However, Jiménez says there’s an easy way to decipher a fake product from an authentic one. “First of all, when you burn it and the smoke is black, that's a sign [it’s not real]” she says. “The smoke should be white.” Another easy way to decipher the real deal is by feeling the wood itself. “Palo santo is a really soft wood, so you can carve it easily with no problem” adds Jiménez.
Torres adds that even when you are able to acquire authentic palo santo, the due diligence does not end there. How the wood is harvested is is a key factor and mark of respect. “The natives take branches that have fallen from the tree, and that's the way that they harvest the tree, instead of breaking the branches or harming the tree,” he says. “The people who know how to harvest the plant, they always leave the roots and they don't take the whole plant. They don't pull the plant. You could harm the tree if you don't harvest it correctly.”
Both Jiménez and Torres agree that the first step in respectfully working palo santo into your day-to-day life is sourcing it properly. While your best bet is typically with an indigenous, Latinx herbalist or plant expert, research is crucial. “It's really about doing your research and taking the time to find the people that are really working with it in intentional and mindful ways,” says Jiménez.
From there, the process in which you harness the plant’s benefits is important, which also requires research. If you don’t want to employ the help of trained curandero or healer, that’s OK. The power of palo santo can and should be used regularly in the home — Torres says everyone has the ability to heal themselves and the spaces around them. That said, to respect the ancient rituals and traditions associated with the tree, Torres says one should approach it with carefully acquired knowledge and good intentions. “It doesn't have to be exactly [how others do it]” he says. “People say, ‘Well, I don't know how to do the ritual,’ I say, ‘Well, create a ritual. Create something, as long as the intention is a positive intention.’”
Jiménez seconds this notion of positive and pure intention, with some additional footnotes. One should always treat and handle the tree with utmost reverence. “When you light it, do not just turn it on with a lighter,” she instructs. “Lighting any of these smudging tools with a lighter is disrespectful. And this is something that I've learned from different indigenous people or elders that I've worked with. It's important to have a natural fire lighted. So light it with matchstick or something like that.”
Once you’ve confirmed what it is you want to clear from your space or self, having a specific place to send the energy is vital. “Just make sure that you speak to [where you’re] sending it — to the waters or the heavens or the cosmos,” says Jiménez. “It’s where you want to kind of intentionally send the smoke and these energies so that they don't just kind of mingle and go somewhere else.” The healer says she likes to keep a bowl of water in the room when using palo santo to cleanse a space. “It takes the energy,” she explains. “It'll hold it in and then you can pour out the water and offer it to the earth. So you really want to bring it somewhere and then be able to dump it out.”