Palo Santo, or holy stick in Spanish, has been used by shamans in South America since pre-colonial times. This holy wood is said to cleanse bad energies from a space or a person and to bring good luck. Palo Santo has also been traditionally used in folk medicine to heal emotional and physical wounds.
Over the past fifty years, the western world has had a deep interest in indigenous spiritual traditions through yoga, meditation, plant medicines and smudging with Palo Santo or white sage. Influencers and yogis have created a hashtag on Sundays for #selfcare and #sundaysmudge, expressing their own “spiritual awakening” through the use of these methods. The popularity of Palo Santo has spread across the globe, raising ethical questions regarding its use: are we ignoring the true origins and sacredness of Palo Santo? Are we commodifying spirituality? Is Palo Santo a sustainable product? How is it produced to cater to the increased demand?
Palo Santo’s history is not well accounted for since it dates back to the Incan Empire, where written records were not well kept. Yet oral accounts passed down through generations recall that Palo Santo was mainly used by shamans during rituals, ceremonies and medicinal practices to communicate with spirits.
It was used by some communities as a mosquito repellant or during wedding ceremonies. For example, in Bolivia, indigenous people would plant a Palo Santo tree when they got married as a symbol of unity. Today, in Argentina, the Toba people uses Palo Santo to break generational karma and black magic spells during the Nareg fire ceremony. In Paraguay, the Lengua-Maskoy tribe believes that a fire pit made out of Palo Santo wood scares away evil spirits from coming into people’s homes.
Understanding the origins of Palo Santo practices is of great importance to fully respect the cultures behind the processes before buying into spirituality’s aesthetic trend of smudging. Westerners tend to commodify and handpick cultural norms to their benefit, ignoring the social issues and their contexts, many of which have endured and are still enduring oppression through colonization, racism, and social exclusion. For example, during colonial times, indigenous people were forced to hide their religious ceremonies and today indigenous people in the Amazon are threatened by industrial loggers and cattle ranchers.
Palo Santo develops when its tree, Bursera Graveolens, dies. Harvesting Palo Santo takes time, from four to ten years after the tree has fallen to the ground. According to shamanic practice, the tree’s spirit transforms once it dies, and its spiritual properties are released after a long time of being dead. The ethical way of harvesting Palo Santo is sustainable since no trees are being cut down, as they are harvested once the tree dies naturally.
The Palo Santo tree.
Yet the #spiritual trend of smudging has increased the demand for Palo Santo, opening the door to black market logging. The Palo Santo tree is not yet endangered, but profiteers are cutting down trees for immediate economic gain due to the high demand. Governments in Latin America have enforced laws that prohibit the logging of Bursera Graveolens since its popularity can risk the endangerment of the tree. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species states that Bursera Graveolens must be controlled to prevent extinction.
Nonetheless, it is very difficult to manage logging activity in forested, remote areas. The trade laws that Palo Santo has are stringent, yet corruption is widespread, allowing profiteers to sell the wood to large franchises such as Anthropologie or Sephora to sell under mystic marketing branding, regardless of the harvesting method. Thus, the market has industrialized Palo Santo and failed to recognize its sacredness. You may think you are appreciating indigenous communities by adopting their smudging techniques, yet you may be contributing to the demise of this practice due to illegal logging.
If you truly respect sacred indigenous practices then you should understand their cultural origin before engaging in a smudging fad. Cultural appreciation entails engaging fully in a practice and understanding all of its meanings, questioning whether you should adopt this practice.
If you truly can’t help yourself, then you can buy Palo Santo from Sacred Wood Essence, Ecuadorian Hands, Brujita Skincare and Prabhuji’s Gifts that ensure the harvesting process is both ethical and sustainable.
You could also learn about your own ancestry and find out about other cultural smudging techniques. If you come from Europe, you might like to try smudging bad energies with juniper, lavender, vervain, mugwort, pine, European sage, rosemary, mint or dill, which you can harvest on your own.