Palo Santo - the Holy Wood

Spiritual Cleansing and Healing
Palo Santo has a long tradition of medicinal and ceremonial uses in different cultures throughout the South American, African, and Asian continent. It is one of the most favored botanical medicines in South America and highly valued by shamans since thousands of years for its powerful healing assets. The smoke can either be inhaled or used as fumigant to cure, tranquilize, and cleanse. The burned smoke has an exceptionally peaceful, woodsy and comforting scent that carries a strong energy of healing and purification. Its wide range of enjoyable aromatic notes are unique and uncharacteristic to any single aromatic component. It is physically grounding and stabilizing, and it will release negative emotions and energies. In addition, Palo Santo can be used as a tea, and as an alcohol extract. The oral consumption is assumed to tranquilize and to accelerate and support healing. Moreover, the essential oil of the Palo Santo tree has many applications in aromatherapy.

Origin & Ethnobotany
The incense, Palo Santo or "Holy Wood" (Bursera graveolens), originates from a short, dense tree that belongs to the Burseraceae or Torchwood family – a family that also includes myrrh and frankincense (Boswellia carteri). The Burseraceae family typically displays fragrant oleo-gum resins that come from the tree heartwood and are consequently burned as incense due to their ethereal odor (Langenheim 2003). Even though the wood is primarily used as incense or to extract essential oils, also the leaves, fruit, bark and roots are harvested and used. The trees grow in dry, tropical forests, like the Andean region, and are native to Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, the Gallapagos Islands, and the Gran Chaco region (northern Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and the Brazilian Mato Grosso). The tree has a soft wood and only carries green leaves in the wet season; it grows preferably close to river banks, and is often inhabited by Brazilian fire ants that protect the holy tree from invaders.

Figure 1 Palo Santo Tree

Chemical Composition
The sweet woodsy Palo Santo scent comes from its aromatic ingredients that are composed of d-limonene, alpha-terpineol, carvone (Crowley 1964), phenolic compounds, flavonoids, quinones, antocyanidines, and also several unidentified agarofurans (Yukawa et al. 2004), which are found in the aged heartwood. Sesquiterpene viridiflorol is the main compound (~71%) contained in the holy Wood.

Figure 2 Palo Santo Sticks

Ceremonial and Medicinal uses of Palo Santo
There have been several different ancient uses of Palo Santo and its family members, yet, the most prevalent use of Palo Santo is to clean energies, expel evil spirits, and purify spaces (Getahun 1976; Diallo et al. 1999; Singh and Pandey 1998; Arvigo and Balick 1993). Such cleaning can be applied in many settings, but it is commonly used before healing ceremonies, to refine, cleanse, and amplify the energy (Heine and Heine 1988b) and to accelerate the recovery of sicknesses (Singh and Pandey 1998; Comerford 1996). Shamans in the Andean mountains still use Palo Santo as part of their curing rituals and it is widely used in Kambo treatments, to help expel negative energies and toxins from the body by swaying the smoke directly under the face of the patient while under the influence of the venom.
Moreover, Palo Santo is used for driving away the evil in the carcass (Wisdom 1940), for cleansing after contact with sick people (Wisdom 1950), and to cleanse areas where illnesses had occurred (Heyne 1950). In connection with hunting, the Sierra Popoluca of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec burned Palo Santo fumes with the jawbones of the hunted animals to help return their soul to the spirit world by (Foster 1945). Furthermore, Mexican shamans combined the resin with Datura innoxia Mill. and Tagetes lucida Cav. and burned the mixture to protect them from black magic (Rätsch 2004; Marcello et al. 2010). Also the Incas used the sweet, balsamic, and herbal scent of Palo Santo for generations as a natural aromatic incense to cleanse and purify properties during spiritual and ritualistic ceremonies and to banish evil spirits, bad luck, and other negative energies. Apart of using the smoke for its cleansing and shielding abilities, there are several other ancient uses of Palo Santo. Already the Maya of Central America valued Palo Santo for its incense properties (Uphof 1968) and used its fumes to treat hemorrhoids (Rätsch 2004). Moreover, Palo Santo was one of the most sacred trees of the Maya, who mixed the resin with tobacco for a superior smell and burned Palo Santo during ritual offerings (Stross 1997) or during funerals, masses, and to communicate with gods (Alcorn 1984).

Only naturally fallen wood produces the strong resinous character and the sweet, woody odor that Palo Santo is well known for. The oil increases in strength with increasing time of being dead, as the resin will only migrate into the heartwood when the wood dies and ages. Thus, the highest quality oil and the most odorous wood is obtained from trees that are fallen over for a long period of time. Palo Santo trees can live for about 80-90 years and to develop its spiritual and odorous properties, the dead tree has to age for about 4 – 10 years to. The trees are growing wild and are used only in small sustainable quantities and without impacting on the environment. The exportation and supply is, in addition, restricted and supervised by the government to insure the longevity and safety of the trees and to prevent living trees from being cut.

Burning Directions and Combinations
In the shamanic tradition, shredded or powdered Palo Santo is burned on charcoal discs. Yet, the simplest way is to burn Palo Santo by holding the stick at a 45 degree angle and lightening the end of the stick with a flame or lighter. Allow the wood to burn for a moment (roughly 30 seconds), and then blow out the flame and continue blowing a few times to increase the glow and smoke. While the wood is smoking, walk through all areas that need cleansing and spread the fumes. When you finished fumigating, leave the wood in a fireproof bowel or plate.
For those who love to experiment with the alchemy of combined scents, Palo Santo goes very well with the following incenses: Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata), White Sage (Salvia apiana) and Copal (Dacryoides peruviana).

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