This post was written by Arti Jalan, from Forage and Sustain. Forage and Sustain is an online platform that approaches all things related to sustainable and conscious living with a fresh perspective. Arti creatively explores a myriad of topics that affect our lives such as self care and wellness, conscious travel, slow living and ethical fashion. She educates readers on how to shift our focus to have a more positive impact in these areas, and encourages us to become agents of social change.
Having become quite the sensation in recent years in the western world, Palo Santo has erupted when it comes to wellness and self-care. With Instagram making #selfcaresunday and smudging popular, people have flocked to the crystal shops to get their bundle stashes faster than ever.
First off, what is Palo Santo? Palo Santo, or Bursera Graveolens (found in Ecuador and Peru) and Bulnesia Sarmientoi (found in parts of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia) is a sacred tree traditionally used by Indigenous communities as a sacred practice. Shamans burn Palo Santo sticks in bundles to cleanse their space and ward off spirits. Palo Santo in Spanish is holy stick.
The therapeutic benefits of Palo Santo are many, with it being highly medicinal and healing. The only way to get the full benefit of this tree is by letting it die naturally, and allowing it a four to ten year resting period on the forest floor. The highest quality oils form in the aged heartwood, which is used in sacred ceremonies and to heal by specific local cultures.
If it’s such a treasure, why am I telling you to stop buying it? Two main reasons:
The Palo Santo tree is currently endangered and is on a watch-list. According to the United Plant Savers Medicinal Plant Conservation, there are less than 250 mature adult trees in the wild, and the numbers are rapidly declining. While the tree is not nearing extinction, it has been added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) list as over-harvesting can lead to extinction. While some information circling the internet is ambiguous as record-keeping isn’t always done in certain regions, we like to err on the side of caution when it comes to buying up a sacred tree simply because it is trendy.
In Peru and Ecuador, it is illegal to cut down these trees, but it is quite difficult to enforce this law. According to the sacred beliefs and in order to gain the actual benefit of the tree, a Palo Santo tree should never be cut down, and it should not be sold as a commodity. As mentioned above, the only way to get the highly therapeutic oils from the tree is by letting it rest on the forest floor to age for four to ten years. Those who cut down the tree prematurely are selling Palo Santo bundles that provide little benefit, yet being so far removed here in the west, they are still being snatched up faster than ever because of the trend aspect, rather than the understanding of its importance.
Upon hearing from people within the communities and Indigenous folk in North America, Palo Santo, along with White Sage, should not be sold as a commodity, but rather be given to you by a shaman to ensure it actually has the sacred benefit that it is being used for. Because of the global trend that is insatiable, profiteers are cutting down the trees for immediate economic gain, with westerners happily buying it up, not knowing or caring about the difference.
2. Disregard for the Sacred
The highest therapeutic oils that have been taken from a naturally fallen tree are absolutely sacred to specific cultures, and because someone decided to make smudging trendy, the trees are in danger. By buying it from commercial sellers to participate in a trend (or because you love the smell, use it as an insect repellent or find that it calms you), you are not getting the benefits from it which made it popular in the first place. Quite counterintuitive!
This is also problematic because of cultural appropriation. While this term definitely gets thrown around for almost anything these days (we are huge fans of celebrating different cultures and encourage you to embrace and learn about as many things as possible), we do have to be cautious and respectful when it comes to specific realms. The burning of Palo Santo and White Sage is one of them. Not only are we picking and choosing part of Indigenous cultures that we like, while turning a blind eye to the things we don’t like, trends like this negate the actual importance behind the practice, giving westerners the idea that they can commodify cultures for their own personal benefit. This is harmful not only because it means we have turned something sacred into a commercial commodity which has, as a result, become endangered, but also because we create a divide between what the piece actually represents, versus the itemization of it. Distancing ourselves from the true meaning and depth that other cultures have been practicing for hundreds of years further perpetuates that divide and robs sacred cultures of their revered traditions.
When it comes to something like White Sage which North American Indigenous communities have been using for years, our appropriation of it is hurtful because these very communities were banned from practicing their religious beliefs for decades by white settlers and government bodies. To suddenly mark it as trendy and want to use it means we are cherry picking the aspects of Native culture that we want for ourselves, while ignoring the history and atrocities they’ve had to experience.