Palo Santo: Everything you need to know.

Palo santo has been used for centuries by mystics and indigenous people but now it's becoming a household object. We explore everything you need to know about these incense sticks.


Palo santo is having quite a moment. With all the collective stress of being a human right now it makes sense that this ancient healing incense is gaining in popularity.  You may have smelled that smoky, earthy aroma before and wondered why it was both indescribable and familiar. The first time I smelled it in a tiny vintage shop in Parkdale, Toronto, my body almost had a visceral reaction, and I immediately asked the shop owner about it. 

When I saw that it came from these small wooden sticks, I was even more intrigued. Palo santo has been used by mystics and indigenous people for centuries for its unique ability to purify energies and enhance spiritual practices. Let’s explore what makes the GCC’s palo santo so special. 

What is palo santo? 

Palo Santo comes from the wood of the Bursera graveolens tree which only grows in the dry tropical forests of Peru and Ecuador. In order for the wood to be harvested sustainably and for the resulting incense sticks to acquire their mystical healing properties, the tree must have died of  natural causes and laid on the forest floor partially decomposing for five to seven years. This is when the tree is said to acquire its heartwood, a distillation of the essential oils of the tree that make it so powerful. 


Why is palo santo considered mystical? 

Ancient monks and shamanic healers believed that the wood became imbued with the spirit of the tree, and it was the spirit itself that gave the palo santo the powers to shift and clear energy, facilitate healing and spiritual clarity.

This respect for the natural life cycle of the tree is part of what makes the palo santo experience so special.

The connection to the lifespan of the tree is embedded in the smoke that you are inhaling, allowing you to feel connected to the natural world in a visceral and grounding way.  


How was palo santo used in the past?

Palo Santo is translated literally as Holy wood. This makes sense given the way the indigenous tribes of South America used it for smudging ceremonies.

Smudging is an ancient practice that uses smoke and the purifying properties of fire to shift and release negative energies. These practices go back hundreds of years and it’s important to recognize and acknowledge those origins when you use the palo santo in this way.

Even taking a moment to imagine and acknowledge the roots of these ancient ceremonial practices can help you feel a sense of deeper gratitude and connection and avoid the trap of cultural appropriation. 


Is using palo santo cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation occurs when we take on a part of a culture’s practice without acknowledging or honouring the people and culture that we are borrowing from. The simplest way to avoid participating in cultural appropriation is to become conscious by educating yourself about the origin of the ceremony, tradition or practice in which you are engaging.

In the case of palo santo, this means understanding that this incense has been used by shamans and holy seekers from a variety of tribes in Peru and Ecuador for healing, connecting to the divine and meditating. We honor them when we use it for our own purposes. 


What's the difference between palo santo and sage?

Unlike sage or other herbs used for smudging, palo santo offers both the cleansing benefit of removing negative energies while also imbuing the object or person being cleansed with positive traits, also known as good vibes! 

Most smudging herbs are primarily used to purify the negativity, so it is quite rare that palo santo can also bring positive traits as well. This is why it has been used by shamans to aid in healing of a variety of illnesses. 

What are the health benefits of palo santo?

Palo santo can also be helpful for reducing pain and inflammation in the body. There are a few different reasons that palo santo could do this, one of which is the general calming and anxiety reducing effects of the compounds in the wood. Palo santo essential oil contains limonene, a chemical that scientists are still  learning about. Initial research has shown that it has many positive effects on the body. These include reducing free radicals and increasing antioxidants in the body as well anti-inflammatory properties.

Some studies have shown that limonene may have the ability to promote healing along the neural pathways of the brain. 

How does palo santo aid healing?

In the case of palo santo, when it has been used for centuries by shamans and healers of different modalities, there is also a deep sense of mystery as to how exactly the healing properties work their magic on our stressed minds and tired bodies. 

It’s also important to respect this mystery. We don’t need to understand exactly how palo santo works from a scientific perspective in order to appreciate its many benefits for healing, both physically and psychologically.

The important thing is to try it for yourself and note the effects on your body and your mind after using it. In order to do this you might just take a moment to check in with yourself, notice how your mind and body are feeling before you use the palo santo, and then make sure to do it again after, tuning in to subtle differences in your physical state. 

Can palo santo be used for meditation?

From an emotional or psychological perspective, palo santo has been used throughout history to aid in concentration and to deepen meditation.

Accessing deeper states of connection with ourselves and others can relieve feelings of stress and anxiety. This could be part of the magic of palo santo, this holy wood, that when it is burned has the ability to connect you deeper to the moment.

Our sense of smell is one of the most emotionally linked senses in the body. Certain smells have the ability to transmit us back in time to very specific memories or mindsets. This is why using palo santo regularly for meditation or aura cleansing can be so effective.

As you start to use this ancient sacred wood in your daily life, the scent can become a trigger for your whole system to relax. This is a form of mindfulness, being able to use all the senses of the body to become more aware and in tune with the moment. In this age of near constant distraction coming from the omnipresent devices in our pockets, grounding yourself in the moment by engaging fully in the rich scent of palo santo burning can be a very powerful grounding practice.

What are other benefits of burning palo santo?

Another benefit of burning palo santo sticks is that it serves as a natural insecticide. Using it will ensure that you can be outside enjoying your favourite flower in the warm weather without worrying about mosquitos or other bugs. It's a much more pleasant way to protect yourself than spraying a fine mist of questionable chemicals all over your skin. Instead light one of the GCC’s palo santo sticks and breathe in the layered woodsy scent knowing those pests and bugs will steer clear.

Burning your palo santo is also an excellent natural air freshener, so if you need to clear the air after a smoke session, this will just add to the experience. 

How do you use palo santo? 

Now that you know all of the many ways that using palo santo can benefit your mind and body, you might be wondering how exactly to use it!

It’s very simple and if you have ever burned incense before it will feel familiar.  All you do is hold the palo santo stick upside down and  light the end of the stick. 

Try to use wooden matches or a refillable fire source for this if you want to minimize your environmental impact. Then place it ember side down in a heatproof dish or incense holder. The smoke will waft gently upward from the burning tip. 

Depending on the length of your smudging session or how long you’d like to enjoy the palo santo for, you may have to relight it a few times or gently blow on the embers at the end of the stick. If you don’t have a heat proof surface that makes it easy to snuff it out, you can also place a few small rocks in a bowl and let the embers drift down that way. 

How long does palo santo last?

Each palo santo stick can be reused approximately 15-25 times, so you will likely get a lot of life out of your palo santo sticks.

Some people find the scent of the palo santo is strong enough from just leaving them in a cloth bag in a drawer is a nice way to store them when you aren’t using them as it makes the clothes take on that natural tree resin scent. And when you are done with your GCC palo santo sticks you can use the glass jar to store buds. 


Is palo santo endangered?

While the Bursera graveolens tree is not endangered, there have been rumours floating around about the sustainability of having a regular palo santo habit. In 2019 the internet was flooded with articles claiming that palo santo trees were dwindling, all of which stemmed from a confusion about the type of tree that palo santo was sourced from.

The bursera sarmeniento tree is in fact endangered, but this is a lumber tree that has been clear cut for commercial purposes. The bursera graveolens tree, the one that palo santo is harvested from, has been declared “a species of low concern”. 


How can I make sure the palo santo I am buying is sustainable?

As always when reflecting on how to make sustainable choices, it’s important to look into the origins and environmental impact of whatever you are buying. This becomes even more necessary in the case of palo santo.

Choosing to purchase from an ethical, sustainable source means the difference between contributing to the protection and conservation of the dry tropical forests and supporting questionable practices that may have significant environmental impacts. In addition, not knowing the true source of your palo santo can actually mean that you are burning a less effective and  potent incense.

Given that the life cycle transformation is what gives the heartwood of palo santo its uniquely beneficial properties, making sure that you are buying your palo santo from a sustainable source is a necessity. 


Can palo santo help me feel less stressed?

In this age where disconnection, distraction and stress have become a chronic part of daily life, palo santo is a simple calming ritual that can have powerful effects for shifting your energy.

Buying your palo santo from the GCC ensures that you can enjoy the most potent and transformative benefits from this holy wood and know that you are participating in an ethical supply chain.

An energetic reset is as close as lighting a stick of palo santo, and now that you know all about its mystical origins, you can truly relish the natural gifts of this grounding practice while feeling gratitude for the people who originally discovered its powerful effects.


What makes the GCCs palo santo sticks special?  

The GCC’s palo santo sticks are sourced ethically from a small company made up of botanists, environmentalists, and socially minded entrepreneurs who are dedicated to the preservation of the tropical dry forests as well as improving the quality of life for the producers within the supply chain. This company adheres to strict guidelines that are put in place to make sure that palo santo is harvested only from trees that have died of natural causes and that thousands of palo santo seedlings are planted each year to ensure that reforestation is an ongoing commitment.

You can feel good that your palo santo choice also helps to support the farmers and indigenous people who act as the gatekeepers of the health of palo santo trees and the tropical dry forest. 

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