Palo santo (sp. Bursera graveolens) is a tree native to Central and South America and belongs to the same family as the frankincense and myrrh trees. It is typically for the empath, the highly sensitive, the spiritual person, and has deep traditional roots. The Incas used palo santo wood to spiritually cleanse and purify themselves and Shamans used it to ward off evil spirits as well as cleanse and purify. It grows throughout Mexico, Peru, Paraguay and mainly along the coast of Ecuador in the dry forests. Like the frankincense tree, it has shallow roots instead of a long tap root. When the monsoon season comes, the palo santo tree is able to soak up large amounts of water. The tree also has long branches and a short trunk, so this combination of shallow roots, being top heavy, and large quantities of water makes it prone to tipping over.
This process of naturally falling is what makes for the best wood and essential oil. The essential oil is actually in the fallen tree, branch, trunk. The longer the tree lays on the ground, the more the oil and chemistry develops, and the longer it lays, the better. The more oil in the wood, the more fragrant the wood, the slower it burns, and the better quality the essential oil is for healing properties. A living or cut tree does not develop the oil in the same way the fallen or dead tree does, which is an interesting phenomenon. This is good news for those who use and purchase palo santo as it’s an excellent method for identifying authentic and ethically and responsibly sourced products.
Conservation Status & Confusion
In 2005, the government of Peru listed palo santo as critically endangered. The tree was considered an endangered species until 2019 when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published its review. Palo santo’s status, they said, is “of least concern.”
The first thing to understand is that Palo Santo is a name for another tree, but the species is entirely different: Bulnesia sarmientoi. This is also called Palo Santo, but it is not the same species. B. sarmientoi is an endangered tree.
Next, conservation status can vary from country to country. This is the status of the species within certain borders and regions. In some areas, species may be overharvested or threatened by other problems. If the species is rare and only found in that region and threatened, then that puts it at greater risk for endangerment. The IUCN considers the species globally. The overall state in all the areas. Because it is critical in one area doesn’t mean it diminishing across the world. Palo santo, therefore, is not endangered.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the public should freely purchase palo santo from any source or go on a buying spree. The tree’s habitat is threatened by change in use, logging, farming, and urbanization. Products used should still be ethical and sustainable. The products should come from naturally fallen trees. There should be no living or cut tree used. This should be done in fair trade and fair wages with locals and Indigenous peoples. The biggest thing to consider is that medicinal use of palo santo isn’t best from living trees, therefore people should look for companies using these sustainable processes of naturally fallen trees.
Globally, palo santo isn’t endangered. However, it is especially important to ensure that products from Peru are ethically and sustainably sourced.
How & Why to Use Palo Santo
Palo santo trees also contain resin. For most resin essential oils, the tree can be safely cut, the resin tapped, then chopped or powdered, and then distilled. With resin, where it becomes dangerous for the tree is when incisions are too large, too deep, and too repetitive and the tree doesn’t have a chance to recover.
Because the chemistry develops over time, living palo santo trees do not need to be and shouldn’t be cut for oil. The oil comes from the wood, which is chopped into sawdust and then distilled. You can purchase palo santo resin, like you can get frankincense resin, and burn that in a resin burner. However, the essential oil is from the wood.
This is also applies to incense. The dead tree should still be used.
Palo Santo Uses
Chemistry of Palo Santo
Main constituents are limonene and alpha terpineol and menthofuran. It, of course, has many more, but those are the highest.
Research shows that limonene is effective for a variety of things. It’s supportive for the liver and stimulates the Glutathione-S-Transferase, which is a detoxification process in the liver. It stimulates that process to help remove substances from the body. It also has positive effects for concerns like reflux and GERD and a preventative effect for cancer. Now that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a treatment or that this particular oil has those effects but that we’ve seen this compound do that in animal and human research. We’ve also seen skin tumor inhibition with limonene as well through inflammation and oxidative stress prevention.
Limonene has Generally Regarded As Safe status and is a flavouring agent in fruit juices, sodas, ice creams, and other products. However just because palo santo has limonene, which is safe to ingest, doesn’t mean this essential oil should be. Given its menthofuran content, which we’ll come back to in a moment, and just the gross taste of this oil, this isn’t one that I would ingest.
Limonene is a solvent of cholesterol and dissolves cholesterol-containing gallstones. Supports normal peristalsis, or natural movement of the intestines. Limonene also reduces anxiety, which is perhaps why it’s used most for spiritual reasons and during mediation.
Alpha-terpineol is antifungal, antimicrobial, insect repellent. This combination makes palo santo excellent for the skin, between the limonene and the alpha-terpineol. The a-terpineol also has analgesic effects, which makes this oil beneficial to joint and muscle pain and inflammation.
This constituent isn’t a great one for the liver. We see in in vitro research that this has the potential to be hepatotoxic, meaning toxic to the liver. Now, this oil also does have a high limonene content, which we see may actually be supportive for the liver and its natural processes. But the menthofuran content makes a person pause and consider. People who may need to be more cautious: people with liver disease, small children. But at the same time, dose is important here as well. Appropriate dosing of 1 drop at a time is unlikely to cause a concern.
How does this translate for use? As we said, those constituents or compounds can certain things, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will do in the context of all the other constituents within the oil. This is because essential oils are synergistic.
Apply for skin care use, for joint and muscle relief, for reducing inflammation as an immune support, respiratory support. Diffuse for grounding and a sense of security energetic cleansing, uplift the spirit and mood, and use during meditation.
Wood: burning for cleansing and purifying and fragrant smoke that keeps insects away.
Palo santo is a beautiful tree and essential oil. Make sure the products you’re purchasing are authentic, as there are reports of fake products. Make sure to purchase ethically and sustainable products sourced from naturally fallen trees, especially if they are from Peru.
But also rest assured that Palo Santo is not endangered.
Samain, M.-S., Fuentes, A.C.D. & Martínez Salas, E. 2019. Bursera graveolens. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2019: e.T67836767A144249196. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-3.RLTS.T67836767A144249196.en.
Barstow, M. 2018. Bulnesia sarmientoi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T32028A68085692. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305
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