It's holistic origins are rooted in Latin cultures.

By Roxanna Coldiron
February 24, 2021
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The ritualistic burning of Palo Santo has been practiced for thousands of years. But what is it and why are people burning it? "Palo Santo is traditionally burned by people of indigenous cultures in Latin America for a variety of reasons. Often the wood is burned to cleanse and purify the energy field within a space," explains Erica Matluck, ND, NP, owner of Seven Senses. "From a holistic perspective, there is a direct relationship between energy and one's physical, mental, and emotional experience so when the Palo Santo is burned in a space it can dispel or neutralize negative energy, or what some indigenous healers may refer to as negative spirits."

Here, we explain Palo Santo both in terms of its ancient origins and modern uses.

matches and palo santo bundles in holiday gift wrapped boxes
Credit: ADDIE JUELL

The Origins on Palo Santo

The wood itself can be found in South America. Its wood is considered sacred by many cultures in that region, and the pleasant fragrance that it gives off has made it desirable for all types of purposes. There are, in fact, two trees in South America that are referred to as palo santo but the one that is often burned for self-care or for cleansing homes is the bursera graveolens. The b. graveolens is not currently considered to be endangered; however, another species, bulnesia sarmientoi, which is a lookalike tree and also called palo santo, is indeed on the threatened species list.

The bursera graveolens is harvested from tropical dry forests across South America. This is a concern for conservationists because dry tropical forests are considered to be under threat as a whole, according to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Unethical harvesting could further threaten these forests. So, you may want to make sure of where your palo santo is coming from and how it was harvested.

How It's Used

In the United States, palo santo has become popular for cleansing the home, creating a comforting scent, and for therapeutic aromatherapy purposes. "Culture has a big impact on how one may define health or wellness," Dr. Matluck says. "From a holistic perspective, energy plays a big role in one's health or well-being. In my experience as a practitioner, before anything exists in the material world, it exists as energy, so working with energy is a potent form of prevention." Working with this energy to harmonize it in our bodies and our minds can have a positive effect on our internal feelings.

And the lovely aroma from Palo Santo also cannot be denied. Pleasant fragrances can have an affect on our overall well-being, too, she explains. "Our sense of smell is directly related to memory and emotion, so the aroma of Palo Santo alone can directly impact our emotional state, which is translated to the body physiologically via the endocrine system," Dr. Matluck says. "The wood itself contains antioxidants and known anti-inflammatory agents suggesting a wide range of therapeutic uses."

It's sold in the form of wood sticks or part of a kit including a bowl. When burning Palo Santo in your home, follow fire safety practices: Light the wood stick and hold it downward at a 45-degree angle. Once it's burned for 30 seconds, blow out the flame then place the stick in a heatproof container to allow it to continue its burn. Keep the burning wood away from children and pets or anything that could catch fire, like a wayward curtain, while burning it. You should also never leave burning Palo Santo or incense unattended.

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