Should we be using palo santo?


April 9, 2019

Alisha Galbraith

Should we be using palo santo?

I did a lot of reading before I started looking for an alternative to smudging with sage–one, because I just don’t love the smell of wild sage and two, to be frank, because all of the controversy around white people using a plant that is sacred to many indigenous cultures.

While reading I found palo santo, or holy wood. This seemed like a really beautiful alternative to white sage, which is actually not endangered as many posts on the internet suggest, I do feel like it isn’t being treated with respect. You can check to see if a list is on the endangered list by checking the USDA database here.

Anyway, back to palo santo: when I learned about palo santo over a year ago I read that it is harvested from naturally dead trees or limbs making this a sustainable alternative to white sage. To have the greatest effect, sticks should be made from trees that have been dead at least 4-10 years. So I was like, awesome, and I got some and I’ve been using it ever since. Not like every day, but once every week and a half or so. Or sometimes only once a month. It really just depends. Since the tree is related to frankincense and myrrh, it makes all the sense in the world why it it one of my favorites.

Now fast forward to a year+ later I’ve been seeing posts sharing concerns over people using palo santo–and I’ve had a few different friends send me these posts and we’ve had some good discussion! I’ll share some of the concerns and my thoughts here 🙂

disclaimer: this is not meant to dismiss, hurt, guilt, or shame anyone, but to share my perspective. like, I’m afraid to even post pictures of my palo santo right now haha

Concern: Palo Santo is endangered and not ethically harvested

When I read this I was like, OMG I thought I read through the internet thoroughly on this!! And my heart fell out of my body for a minute. And while this is true for some areas, it is not true for all areas. Palo Santo is endangered in Peru (report hasn’t been updated since 2005 source). But Palo Santo also grows in Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Galapagos. So Palo Santo is not endangered in all of these areas, though “In some of the regions that it is grown, because of its cultural significance, the tree is protected by the government and can only be harvested from deadfall and dead trees.” (source).

For example: juniper berry is considered an endangered tree in Europe, but here in the United States our trees aren’t. (source)

And even then it’s only certain types of this tree–if you look at the botanical name of palo santo, you’ll see that it is Bursera graveolens, whereas this report is for PAO Santo, not PALO santo (source) so I’m wondering if there is some confusion regarding the two trees?

It’s important to note that the endangerment of Palo Santo is not solely from the trend of people using it for cleansing though it has certainly brought it to light–it has also been used for flooring, furniture, crafts, perfume, and essential oil. (source.)

Concern: using Palo Santo is cultural appropriation

I will be 100% honest, cultural appropriation is hard for me to understand because I come from such a mixed heritage–I’ve never felt like I completely “fit” into one culture; I’m either too much of one thing or not enough of another, so I’ve always just pulled things I like from different cultures, even if they weren’t my “own”.

But I still try to be mindful of appropriation. This one time we went to spend Thanksgiving in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. We spent the day after Thanksgiving hiking, then stopped in the Cherokee reservation to check out a couple of the shops. I remember my husband parking the car and I told him to wait because I needed to take out my braid before we went into the shop. He was so confused as to why, but as a darker skinned person who is kind of culturally ambiguous and has been mistaken for “Native American” and “Cherokee” and “Navajo” and “Ute” before, especially when I wear a braid, I didn’t want to accidentally portray a false image. He was still so confused and let’s be honest, my people also come from Denmark and they wear braids too, but…there I was, taking out my braid so no one thought I was trying to appropriate.

I don’t have a black and white answer to this concern and because I don’t it seems dismissive, though I don’t intend it to be. But I also believe that people cannot decide who can and cannot use a plant (which is why the government and cannabis piss me off so much and of course, being safe with a plant is always ideal). I definitely believe it is important to understand that all plants, no matter what they are, have life and are sacred. That it’s important to understand the cultural significance behind what you are using. Saying that people can’t use certain plants because they aren’t of that culture seems…trivial.

How can we possibly come together if we’re fighting about plants?

Concern: You can only use palo santo when given to you by a shaman

Unpopular opinion: While I do believe that shaman are holy and wise, I don’t subscribe to the idea that you can only use certain plants unless a holy man gives it to you. The Earth has already given these plants to all of us–they are a GIFT already. We are born with a natural stewardship to the earth and these plants. Plants have both practical and spiritual uses and can be used religiously/ceremoniously or socially (like the Hawaiian drink, kava, or corn and quinoa–if you really want to get upset let’s look at the desecration of corn through GMO, plz). Obviously when a trend is taking place it is considered social, but can become spiritual when one incorporates it into their spiritual practice.

Concern: Palo Santo means nothing when a western civilization uses it so you’re just wasting it

I feel like this again, goes back to the social vs spiritual use of palo santo. Some people may literally be burning it because they think it’s cool and everyone else is doing it, sharing it on social media (as I have done) as a social/educational aspect. But just because a western human is using it doesn’t mean they’re using it brainlessly. If you choose to use it, use it mindfully! Set an intention, read stories and learn about how it was used. This is another good source.

I’m not going to tell you not to buy palo santo. I’m not going to tell you to buy it either. It’s up to you. Ask yourself why you want it, what will you use it for, then if you choose to buy it, make sure you have ethically sourced palo santo (because it is possible). Feel free to have a civil discussion in the comments ♥

Update: Comment from Fabrizio Vera: we greet you from the company EcuadorianHands. We have read your website, and we are very interested in the subject of palo santo. We are aware of current concerns in social media about the future of the Palo Santo Bursera Graveolens tree and its “danger of extinction”. We have been working for around 5 years in restoring the dry forests of Manabí and make the Palo Santo sustainable. In this year only we reforested around 4000 trees of palo santo. We would like you to please learn about our work to preserve this sacred wood and can be an useul source of information. With respect.