Those that burn the sweet yet musky sticks from the Palo Santo tree do so in hopes of clearing out negative energy while bringing in positive effects of aromatherapy. If you don't do this personally, think about your favorite yoga instructor who infuses the room with a nice warm, calming aroma. Ironically though, these spiritual seekers may be causing negative unintended consequences in the dry tropical forests from which these trees are native to.
So is palo santo endangered?!
How can you stop participating in this accidental cycle of destruction?
Let me explain...
The ceremonious burning of Palo Santo, or Bursera graveolens, is nothing new. In fact, it dates back to the Incan empire of Peru. These Native Americans burned palo santo for cleansing, healing and mystical rituals. The relationship between indigenous people and their land is generally a symbiotic and mutually beneficial practice. Living closely to the land, the Native Americans who used (and still use) palo santo are able to closely monitor the sustainability of its use. For example, they only harvested Palo Santo from fallen trees so they never had to cut down or harm living trees. This is a really important piece to sustainable harvest, especially because the aged heartwood is where the most fragrant sticks of palo santo come from. Heartwood is at the center of the tree, and it is aged as it lies on the forest floor.
In 2002, however, the use of palo santo started making its way into the global marketplace. With a sudden jump in demand, people started harvesting wood by cutting down living trees. The once manageable and sustainable harvest performed just by those who were using it (the natives), has now turned into a rat race of people exploiting the tree. Luckily, the government of Peru stepped up by placing the tree in “In Critical Danger,” and banning the cutting down of it. This government regulation has made many wonder, "is palo santo endangered?" The quick answer is that the survival of this species is dependent on proper management of its harvest. Why should you care about the preservation of trees? Read more about the link between ocean & terrestrial health.
But let’s get more into the tree from which Palo Santo comes from
So let's talk about this tree from which palo santo comes from. Confusingly enough, there are two trees known as “Palo Santo” that grow in latin america. Both are fragrant and both have been used in the cosmetics and fragrance industry. You must be an educated consumer when purchasing Palo Santo, because one of these trees is endangered. And we all know how desperately our planet needs more perennials everywhere!
Bulnesia sarmientoi is endemic to the Gran Chaco region located in Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and a part of Brazil. Endemic means a tree is native to that region and restricted to that region. Thus, endemic (= native) plant and animal species are particularly vulnerable to extinction. So please, do not purchase Palo Santo that is sourced from the tree Bulnesia sarmientoi.
Bursera graveolens is the common wild tree that is more typically sold as palo santo in the global marketplace. The heartwood, or the wood deep in the core of the tree, has an incredibly rich and satisfying aroma, making it no surprise that it is related to the myrrh and frankincense trees. Bursera graveolens grows in the dry tropical forests ranging from the Yucatan peninsula, to Venezuela, and Peru. Dry tropical forests are vulnerable ecosystems because they have the rich and beautiful diversity of tropical rainforests, but with a dry season that offers a window for potential poachers, mismanagement, and infestation of human activity. While the government of Peru has banned the cutting down of living trees, it does not mean illegal activity has fully ceased. Therefore, there is little room for the sustainable management of this tree to meet such a high global demand. If you must purchase palo santo, it is crucially important for you to know your source.
Wildcrafted or Sustainably Grown?
Wildcrafted plants are by no means superior to farmed plants. In fact, if they are not wildcrafted ethically, there is a likely chance that native and wild populations of plants are being threatened. If a plant is wildcrafted, you need to be sure it is done so in a sustainable manner. Sustainably grown and cultivated plants, from a farm for example, are often replanted to ensure a continuous and sustainable supply. So be sure to seek out ethical wildcrafters that harvest in accordance with the laws, or from farms with regenerative efforts like replanting. Regenerative farming practices ensure proper land and resource management, and healthy future populations of trees and diverse ecological life.
Defined as adopting another culture’s practices into your own culture. No doubt is the widespread burning of palo santo cultural appropriation. But is it cultural misappropriation? That is a debatable topic! If one is burning palo santo with no acknowledgement and respect to the native tradition from which it comes, then yes, you can likely say it is cultural misappropriation. If the harvest of palo santo is in turn threatening the survival of the species, then yes, you can definitely say the global use of palo santo is cultural misappropriation.
Alternatives to Palo Santo
Where are your ancestors from? Do they have any ceremonial practices that involve the burning of incense or smudge sticks? I dare you to take a journey into your ancestral lineage and find out! Many, if not all, traditional cultures have rituals that involve medicinal or sacred plants. If we all were to honor and continue the practices from our own culture, rather than from one or two more popular ones (think palo santo and white sage), then perhaps there would be a more balanced and sustainable distribution of many plants, rather than an overharvest of just a few plants.
Here is a list, by continent, of some alternatives to palo santo:
White Sage Salvia apiana (endangered - do not buy wildcrafted white sage)
Sage Brush Artemesia tridentata
Sweetgrass Hierochloe odorata (endangered)
Central & South America:
Copal Protium copal
Frankincense Boswellia serrata (near threatened)
Myrrh Comiphorra myrrha
Sandalwood Santalum album (vulnerable species)
Agarwood Aquilaria malaccensis (threatened species)
Dragon’s Blood Dracaena cinnabari (vulnerable)
Weeping cypress - Cupressus funebris
Rosemary Salvia rosmarinus
Vervain Verbena oficinalis
Juniper Juniperus communis
Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris
Yarrow Achillia millefolium
Eucalyptus Eucalyptus globulus
The truth is , harvesting palo santo requires either illegally chopping down a tree, or obtaining it from a dead tree. Global demand is too high for it to be gathered only from naturally-fallen trees. So we recommend finding an alternative, unless burning palo santo is part of your heritage. If you must purchase palo santo, be sure it is from the species Bursera graveolens. Furthermore, make sure it is either harvested sustainably from a fallen tree, or from a regenerative farm.
As you can see, there are luckily a lot of alternative options. So if we even have to question if palo santo is endangered, it is probably time to diversify our use of incense, and minimize our use of palo santo. And if you are feeling guilty about past use of a vulnerable tree species, you can do your part by planting perennials in your home garden.