Palo Santo (Holy Wood) has been used throughout Central America and many northern territories of South America for thousands of years for purification and cleansing of the physical, energetic, and spiritual realms. Its uses are as numerous as the tribes and cultures that call on this sacred tree’s healing and spiritual powers. Its warm, delicately sweet and woodsy aroma that fills people with a sense of peace and tranquility, its powerful presence in ceremonies and spiritual practices, and its vast physical healing powers have sparked much interest in this sacred incense material around the world, giving rise to the popularity of this wise ancient tree.
The heavily essential oil-saturated wood of the Palo Santo tree is found to contain around 112 chemical compounds which make it a strong antibacterial, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, sedative, and insecticide, helping people overcome many sicknesses, colds, allergies, headaches, rheumatic pain, skin infections, and much more. Traditionally it is used as a mosquito repellant in coastal areas and as an air cleanser in the presence of the sick. But perhaps the most important compound found in its smoke, limonene (62.88%) is said to have chemotherapeutic properties and has also made Palo Santo a very effective treatment for depression, anxiety, and stress.
Palo Santo creates a pleasant, fresh-smelling smoke with hints of mint and citrus. It’s uplifting scent raises vibrations in preparation for meditation and ceremony and allows for a deepening of spiritual connections. When people get a first whiff of Palo Santo smoke, they tend to sit up straighter, their eyes-widening. The aroma of this tree seems to often give people a feeling of something ancient, sacred, just beyond their grasp. I tend to describe the feeling it generates within as an ancient ceremonial energy.
In a spiritual sense, Palo Santo is a strong ally to many medicine people, shamans, and healers. It is used to cleanse homes of negative spirits and energies, attract good fortune, communicate with the spirit world, in smudging rituals, as an aid in meditation, clearing the mind and sharpening awareness, and much more. Native cultures say that the spirits of Palo Santo trees materialize themselves in the oil and are responsible for its potency and healing qualities.
According to folk legend, when the world was in its embryonic phase and there were very few human beings, Cosokait, the most handsome and virtuous of men fell in love with a young maid. The young girl didn’t reciprocate his feelings and sadness made him seriously ill. On his death bed he called for the young woman several times to see her one last time, but she never came. “Please tell her that I don’t want to die, but Yago (God) is taking my life away. I’ll be always with her, I will ornate her head with perfumed flowers. I will frighten insects away from her. I will give fragrance to the water that her lips drink. I will go to heaven in the aromatic smoke during the Nareg ceremony. And I will be wherever she is and will give her whatever she asks for…” After these words, he was consumed by fever and died invoking her name. Where he was buried, a tree grew. Its wood had a soft fragrance. When it was burned it would release a deep, sweet aroma. It was the Palo Santo tree, the symbol of love and kindness. For its elevated value and nobility, the Toba people consider Palo Santo a sacred tree and call it Cosakait in honor of this legend.
While the growth of the tree is slow owing to hibernation in the dry season, it may live up to 90 years. It is important to note, however, that the wood of Palo Santo is of no use unless the tree has died of natural causes. As if protected by unseen magical forces, when a live tree is cut by human hands, its precious oils will not properly produce. A dead or fallen Palo Santo tree requires at least three years of a natural, alchemical process of decomposition before it fully releases it’s precious oil.
As Palo Santo grows in popularity, its natural populations become more and more strained. Greed and survival lead some harvesters and illegal poachers to overlook traditional harvesting methods. Live trees are cut, too much wood is taken from trees, and irreversible damage is often done. There are many governments in South America doing their part to protect these precious populations. There are also sustainability groups that offer their protection and help to plant new trees in reserves. Regardless, populations are still at risk. It is up to all of us, the consumers and suppliers of this wood, to do our part by knowing our sources. We must always be sure we are not causing harm, but supporting and promoting traditional sustainable efforts and harvesting methods.
Article by Evan Sylliaasen
Evan Sylliaasen is the founder of the Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine and Higher Mind Incense. For the past decade his incense company has been a leader in sustainability and conscious sourcing of aromatic plants. As the head instructor of his online school, he teaches aromatherapists, incense lovers, herbalists, and spiritually-minded folks the traditional art of incense crafting, incense as medicine, and the art of wild-harvesting aromatic plants responsibly.
Evan lives with his family in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains of Washington state. He channels his creative passions through writing, photography, wood working, craftsman building, and music. When he’s not working, he’s out in the garden, forest and fields, walking along rivers, beaches, or in the mountains breathing deeply.
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*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.