Is Palo Santo Endangered? How your Cleansing/Smudging Ritual Is Killing Off a Species of Trees

Cleansing rituals are century-old practices usually performed in the name of spirituality. With holistic and naturopathic medicine making a comeback, so has the art of smudging, but not without costs. Some of the herbs and dried wood-like Palo Santo are seeing the repercussions of the trendy behaviour of the newest generations.

With the arrival of the modern era, the boom of spirituality in social media (side-eyeing you, Instagram) is endangering the same natural cleansing mediums used centuries ago in these sacred rituals.

With its favourable properties for wellness and self-care, Palo Santo has been the protagonist of several headlines on websites claiming that its current popularity in the western world for cleansing/smudging rituals has led it to be prone to extinction. But… Is this true? Is Palo Santo endangered? Or is this just an exaggeration from our fellow environmental journalists? Let’s find out.

What exactly is palo santo & Why has it become so trendy?

Let’s start from the very basics. What exactly is Palo Santo?

Palo Santo, or “holy stick” in English, is a sacred tree that grows in several South American countries whose magic lies in its spiritual cleansing properties when it’s burned. In fact, Incas called it “holy tree” or “holy wood” because they believed that the smoke its wood gives off when burned had the property of cleansing all energy to enable better communication with their gods.

Palo Santo reaches its maturity at 50 or 70 years after it is planted, and once the tree dies of natural causes, it must be left in the same place for at least five or eight years so that its oils mature enough and its “heart” emerges. A dense, resined core is the main element for when it’s burned. Its smoke holds that therapeutic quality that characterizes it so much. A quality that has been one of the reasons why this sacred tree has become so trendy in social media.

The #wellnesswednesday and #selfcaresunday hashtags have been full of posts alluding to Palo Santo, and while many people breathe in its smoke to calm down, meditate or cleanse their homes, others use it to simply get rid of mosquitoes. In one way or another, Palo Santo has become synonymous with the wellness community. Its benefits have spread like wildfire, making more and more people willing to join the trend of using Palo Santo wood for smudging. But what is smudging in the first place?

A woman holding Palo Santo.
Photo by Content Pixie on Unsplash

What is Smudging?

Traditionally, smudging is an important ceremony in many Indigenous communities involving the burning of sacred woods or herbs for praying, purifying, or cleansing the soul of the negative energy of a person or place. At least this was before it became trendy.

Nowadays, it just takes a quick overview of the hashtag #smudging on Instagram to see how some people don’t take this ceremony as important nor sacred as it was intended to be.

A Brief History On The Use Of Palo Santo For Cleansing

The origin of Palo Santo burning for cleansing is very ancient, but long story short, it was used by Inca Shamans in Peru, as well as Ecuadorians, and other indigenous communities in South America for religious-spiritual rituals (such as taking ayahuasca), to attract good luck, ward off evil energies and to achieve better spiritual communication with their gods. In a way, Palo Santo was used in a similar way as Native Americans used white sage.

Fast forward nearly 600 years to today, and Palo Santo is still burning, but without the deep, cultural meaning behind it. Its sweet yet complex aroma has captivated the masses, and its growing popularity has only succeeded in diluting its religious and sacred origins over the years.

Is burning Palo Santo cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation has many faces, from using ceremonial garments from other cultures only as a “costume” to taking deities from different cultures and quoting them without understanding their origins. It’s a term that refers to the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not our own, especially when no respect is shown towards it.

Yes, we know, in social media, this term is thrown from right to left even to judge people who do respect foreign cultures, but after giving it a lot of thought, I concluded that true cultural appropriation is the product of ignorance. In regards to Palo Santo, many people don’t know that non-indigenous companies are making money off histories and traditions without acknowledging nor spreading their importance, which perpetuates the cycle of cultural appropriation.

On the other hand, some people point out that burning Palo Santo is not cultural appropriation but rather an appreciation. But if we are talking about the Palo Santo industry… Do you think the bundles of Palo Santo sticks of dubious provenance that are sold on Amazon are meant to appreciate indigenous culture? Or is it the shampoos, soaps, and other “medicinal” products that appreciate it? I don’t think so. I am all for celebrating and learning about cultures other than our own, but neither Palo Santo products nor many of the people who consume them have any idea of their sacred background.

Today, the Palo Santo business is driven by profit by how much money they can make on behalf of this tree’s wood and essential oils, not by anything else. Several companies that export Palo Santo outside of South America don’t even bother to explain the history behind it, and many of those who consume it don’t bother to look it up either. Something sacred became a commercial commodity, and that’s a fact.

A woman holding Palo Santo.

Is Palo Santo Endangered?

Before answering the million-dollar question of whether or not Palo Santo is endangered, let’s clear up some confusion. There are two types of Palo Santo trees, one known as Bulnesia Sarmientoi and the other known as Bursera Graveolens. The first one is indeed on the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the leading organization dedicated to maintaining a record for the conservation of plants and animals.

However, the species of Bursera Graveolens isn’t on the Red List… Yet. The demand for Palo Santo has increased significantly throughout the world, and if they continue farming it like they are, it will soon join its cousin on the List. Even in countries like Peru, its government lists it as an endangered species thanks to local over-harvesting.

Moreover, another possible effect of over-harvesting Palo Santo directly impacts the habitat in which the tree grows. You see, Palo Santo grows in tropical dry forests in areas where there is a strong human presence. This is because the tropical dry forest is a much more favourable environment to settle in than the rainforest, for example. Thanks to its very fertile land, people have been farming (ehem, exploiting) this biome over the past several thousand years, causing only 10% of all the dry forests in some areas of Latin America to remain alive.

If this over-harvesting continues, adding to the fact that in this biome, there are strong droughts that extend up to 7 months, the erosion that will be caused by the loss of flora and fauna will end up destroying it completely, taking all of the Bursera Graveolens trees with it.

What is Bulnesia Sarmientoi?

Bulnesia Sarmientoi, as mentioned above, is the Palo Santo tree that is globally endangered. This dark wood, similar to mahogany, can be found in Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. It’s also used for its essential oils, but its primary use is to manufacture furniture and other products.

Its current status as an endangered species arose due to the deforestation of the Gran Chaco, where this tree mainly grows, and the strong worldwide demand for its wood.

What is Bursera Graveolens?

On the other hand, Bursera Graveolens can be found in Ecuador and Peru, and it’s the one that people commonly use for smudging. Of a light brown, nearly yellow colour, the wood of this tree, when burned, gives off a white, almost milky smoke whose scent has sweet, citrus, and woody notes.

Why We Need to Stop Using Palo Santo

It’s time to rethink the trend of using Palo Santo wood for smudging.

Besides the environmental consequences mentioned above, there is a fact that contributes even more to the possible future endangerment of Bursera Graveolens. Although in Peru and Ecuador it’s illegal to cut down Palo Santo trees, as this is a very profitable business thanks to the trendy #smudging, some awful companies have been illegally cutting down the trees before their maturation time and pouring the natural oils on the chopped wood to give it its characteristic scent. Basically, they rip customers off while disrespecting the environment and the culture behind Palo Santo. All in one.

Another reason why we should stop using Palo Santo is the fact that most of the workers in charge of harvesting and processing the sacred wood are not paid a fair wage. While on this side of the American continent, there are people who only have to place an order online from the comfort of their homes to do their Palo Santo cleansing ritual. Behind the scenes, there are workers and indigenous communities who are not well paid for their contributions.

Last but not least, we highlight again the topic of cultural appropriation. Palo Santo has exceptional positive properties. It smells delicious. We get it, but do you really want to cleanse your energy with something that has not been culturally respected and, plus, may be endangered? That’s some bad juju right there.

Can Palo Santo be ethically sourced?

True Palo Santo is cared for, honored, and respected. While many of the companies that source Palo Santo do so in a questionable manner, there are others that do so in an ethical and sustainable way.

One of them is Luna Sundara, a shop that sells authentic Peruvian and Ecuadorian products, including Palo Santo. This brand works directly with the governments of Peru and Ecuador to legally import this sacred wood from reserves in those countries while respecting its maturation time and also ensuring that the workers and indigenous communities that are part of this process receive good care and a fair wage.

Another brand that gets a gold star for its commitment to the environment is Sacred Wood Essence, which has ethical working conditions and ensures that Palo Santo harvesters do their job in a sustainable way. Also, in addition to offering the classic smudging sticks, they extract the Palo Santo essential oil from the tree’s seeds rather than from the wood itself. And they also contribute to the reforestation of the Bursera Graveolens!

Finally, there is a retailer/organization that not only sustainably sources Palo Santo but also actively participates in the reforestation of areas in Ecuador, such as the province of Manabi. Its name is Ecuadorian Hands, and if you want to see in detail how they source Palo Santo and how they process it, they have several awesome videos on their YouTube channel.

Questions to Ask a Seller If You’re Going To Continue Buying Palo Santo

Here’s our advice if you’re going to continue buying Palo Santo (even though we discourage it): get to know the companies you are buying your products from, and ask them about their sources. All three mentioned above are good options with fully transparent production chains, but if any of them doesn’t deliver to your country, here are some questions you can ask other brands just to make sure that their practices are both ethical and sustainable:

What country do you source your Palo Santo sticks from?
Is your supply chain transparent and ethical?
Which species of Palo Santo do you sell?
Are you legally able to export Palo Santo?
(Bonus question to shed some light on the culture of Indigenous people): Are you explaining the history and meaning of Palo Santo?

Alternatives Smudging Herbs To Palo Santo

Let’s say you discarded Palo Santo from your spiritual life, but you still want to get involved in the smudging ritual. What alternatives do you have? Well, non-Indigenous people can learn to cleanse their spaces in ways that are culturally and ecologically sensitive! Even if your ancestors are indigenous, you can still try other herbs if you want to.

Lavender is a great option. It’s an aromatic mint family member that magnifies purification, love, relaxation, and fertility (and it can keep mosquitoes away!). Juniper is another great one, it has a sweet and spicy aroma that reminds of a Christmas tree and blueberries, and it offers purification, cleansing, and prosperity. Plus, it allegedly boosts male interest. And if we’re talking about benefits for ladies, rosemary takes the crown. It expands feminine energy and brings positivity and confidence.

A lavender bush.

Other equally good alternatives can be basil, thyme, pine, mint, vervain, mugwort, and chamomile. Also, we encourage you not only to buy other smudging herbs but also to grow them on your own if you’re into gardening.

Cleanse Your Home With Crystals

If you’ve completely ruled smudging out of your life but still want to keep the energy of your home in check, crystals are for you.

Different crystals have different properties. There are tons of various crystals depending on what energy you want to transmit to your home, but amethyst, for example, cleanses your space of negative energy and helps you clear your thoughts. If you live with your partner and want to cleanse your love energy, rose quartz is perfect for healthy relationships. But if you are mainly looking for a sense of peace, selenite is the way to go.

But it doesn’t only matter which crystals you place in your home, but also where you place them. You can place crystals anywhere like amethyst, but rose quartz, for example, is recommended to be placed in the upper right corner of your home so that love flows freely. Just do your research and see if the world of cleansing with crystals fits your spiritual needs!

While only one species of Palo Santo is currently endangered… How long will it take for the second to reach red status?

Now that the claim that all Palo Santo is endangered has been debunked, and it’s clear that only one of its species is truly endangered, how long will it take for the second to reach red status? If its popularity continues to increase, not too long.

Although we do not know the exact number of years, let alone a specific date, it’s evident that if Bulnesia Sarmientoi became endangered due to deforestation, Bursera Graveolens may also become endangered for the same reason considering that there are already companies mercilessly cutting down the trees. If we don’t speak out against what is currently happening with the Palo Santo industry and change our consumption habits, this sacred tree will disappear sooner rather than later.

At this point, we know that globalizing certain aspects of spirituality can lead to more severe consequences than we might think, but the only thing we can do to improve the situation is to take that spirituality and channel it in a place that is both gentler with cultures and our environment.

Help someone by sharing this article – sharing is caring 🙂 !

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