A magical tree, shrouded in centuries of tradition, mysticism, and ceremony, Palo Santo is known by another name: holy wood. This ancient tree is rapidly gaining place in popular culture due to its use in spiritual practices and its other-worldy fragrance.
Palo Santo has been a part of South American culture for thousands of years, dating back, according to some sources, all the way to the Incans. Used to purify a person or space before a cleansing or healing ritual, the resin or incense from this saintly tree gives up a smoke that shamanic wisdom believed affected the energy field of ritual participants, clearing negative thoughts and evil spirits. Through folklore and oral traditions, the magic of this holy wood was passed down through generations of shamanic healers all across central and South America. In addition to ritualistically clearing the energy of a person or space, Palo Santo holds a deep-seated tradition of medicinal and ceremonial uses. Ancient cultures burned Palo Santo with the jawbones of hunted animals to aid their souls in returning to the spirit world. Other shamans mixed the Palo Santo resin with different ingredients to protect them from black magic.
Though shamanic tradition called for the shredding or drying of Palo Santo into powder to be burned on charcoal discs, today, it’s commonly found as tiny sticks or shards. Its smoke works well to keep away mosquitoes and other insects with wings; hence why the people of Ecuador and Peru use it often to deter uninvited visitors.
It’s aroma is distinct and thought to have numerous benefits, but this holy tree punches well above its weight for other reasons. Essential oil made from Palo Santo is considered as aromatherapy calming to the immune and nervous systems. It has been utilized for centuries in sacred rituals by the Incas, shamans, healers, and indigenous communities of South America to heal common colds, symptoms of the flu, reduce stress, treat asthma, headaches, inflammation and provide aid and comfort to those struggling with anxiety and depression.
The short, dense tree belongs to the Burseraceae or Torchwood family, which also includes myrrh and frankincense, both made famous for their uses in biblical times. The wood is the primary source of extraction, but sometimes its leaves, fruit, bark, and roots are harvested also. The trees find homes in dry, tropical forests and near river banks. Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, the Gallapagos Islands, northern Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and the Brazilian Mato Grosso all provide ideal conditions for this tree to thrive. Its wood is soft and its leaves are green only during the rainy season. They are often inhabited by Brazilian fire ants that protect the majestic tree from invaders. While female trees tend to live around 40-50 years, the male can live up to 200 years. Wood from female palo santo trees is yellow, solid and heavy, whereas that of the male is white, hollow, fragile and light. Believed to be a sacred plant, Palo Santo wood can only be harvested from deceased trees. Folklore states that the wood of the Palo Santo tree holds no power unless it died of its own accord.
Palo Santo hails from the citrus family and therefore contains sweet notes of pine, mint, and lemon. There’s something quite ethereal and enchanting about the smell that comes from this holy stick. When burned, it releases a smoke that is fresh and grounding. It’s believed it uplifts and raises the vibration of those who are near it. It can help prepare one for sitting in solitude and allows for a deeper connection to spirit and the divine.
The spirit of the divine Palo Santo tree carries wisdom and healing. Shamanic belief holds that attraction to the aroma of palo santo denotes emotional and spiritual purity. It is also said that Palo Santo enhances creativity and brings good fortune to those who are open to its magic.