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 has deep traditional roots and is typically for the empath, the highly sensitive, and the spiritual person.
History & Origins
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 makes the best wood and essential oil. The essential oil is found in the fallen tree, branch, and trunk. The longer the tree lays on the ground, the more the oil and chemistry develops, so 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.
Palo Santo Conservation Status
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.”
Part of the confusion around this tree’s status may be because palo santo is a name for another tree: Bulnesia sarmientoi. This is not the same species, and 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 over-harvested 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. 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 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.
A key consideration is that medicinal use of palo santo isn’t best from living trees. Look for companies using 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.
Palo Santo Incense & Resin
Palo santo trees also contain resin. For most resin essential oils, the tree can be safely cut, and the resin tapped. The resin is then chopped or powdered and distilled. Sustainable practices are important for resin collecting. If incisions are too large, too deep, and too repetitive, the tree doesn’t have a chance to recover.
Because the chemistry develops over time, living palo santo trees do not need to be cut for oil or resin. The oil comes from the dead wood, which is chopped into sawdust and then distilled. The resin also comes from the tree after it has died. Incense sticks are made from the palo santo sawdust formed into cones.
How to Use Palo Santo Oil
Essential oils are made of constituents that have therapeutic effects on the body. Palo santo’s main constituents are limonene, alpha terpineol, and menthofuran.
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 that helps remove substances from the body. It also has positive effects for concerns like reflux and GERD and a preventative effect for cancer.
That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a treatment or that this particular oil has those effects, but research shows this effect in animal and human models. We’ve also seen skin tumor inhibition with limonene as well through inflammation and oxidative stress prevention.
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.
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, this isn’t one to ingest.
This constituent isn’t a great one for the liver. We see in in vitro research that menthofuran has the potential to be hepatotoxic, meaning toxic to the liver. It also does have that high limonene content, which we see may actually be supportive for the liver and its natural processes. Essential oils work synergistically, which means we have to consider the whole chemical composition as a whole.
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.
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.
How does this translate for use? As we said, those constituents or compounds can do certain things, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will do in the context of all the other constituents within the oil.
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.
Burn the wood for cleansing and purifying and fragrant smoke that keeps insects away.
Palo santo is a beautiful tree and essential oil with ancient uses. There are many cases of fake products on the market, poorly sourced products, or misunderstanding of the species. Here’s what to check before purchasing.
- The species name. You want Bursera graveolens not Bursera sarmientoi
- Peruvian products are ethically and sustainably sourced
- Product comes from a naturally fallen tree
- The company engages in fair trade & fair wages with locals and Indigenous peoples