Palo Santo: The sacred wood in Ecuador

Ericka & Stefano

The aroma of palo santo makes me think of my home country. Or so I felt when I recognized that particular scent in a Paris store selling incense and fragrances.

I recall saying: Palo Santo?, and the girl who attended me nodded and asked how I knew.

That smell wasn’t new to me.

I’d say it’s a smell that’s unique to the Ecuadorian coast.

If you visit our coastal dry forests, whether on our beaches or in the Galapagos Islands, you will notice that unique fragrance.

It is also a common smell during our warm and muggy winters, when palo santo is burned to scare away the many mosquitoes and bugs that come out at that time.

I shared this boring little anecdote to introduce you to the Palo Santo wood and what it means in our country.

Ecuador is one of the main producers of Palo Santo, and it has become an important part of our culture and history.

What is Palo Santo?

Palo Santo, which in english means “holy wood,” is a native tree that grows in the coastal regions of South America, specifically in Ecuador and Peru.

Although it is also found in Central American countries and Mexico.

Its scientific name is Bursera graveolens; it is part of the same family as frankincense and myrrh, and its wood has a unique fragrance that is both uplifting and grounding.

The Palo Santo tree is medium to large in size, with a height range of 4 to 10 meters. It has thick, rough bark that is grayish in hue. Its leaves are alternate and compound, with small dark green leaflets that emit a pleasant fragrance when rubbed.

The natural habitat of Palo Santo is mainly in the dry coastal areas and tropical forests of Ecuador. Specifically, the provinces of Manabi, Guayas and Santa Elena are renowned for hosting a large number of Palo Santo trees.

These places provide the ideal conditions for the growth and development of this species, including a warm climate and well-drained soil.

Palo Santo, Rábida Island Galapagos Ecuador

A brief history of Palo Santo in Ecuador

The use of Palo Santo dates back to pre-Columbian times, where it was used by the Incas for spiritual and medicinal purposes. The tree was considered sacred and was used in religious ceremonies and rituals.

The wood was also used to make weapons, furniture, and musical instruments.

During the Spanish conquest, Palo Santo became popular among the Spanish monks who discovered its healing properties. They used it to cure various illnesses and to ward off evil spirits.

Since then, Palo Santo has been an essential part of the traditional medicine in Ecuador.

Significance of Palo Santo in Ecuador

In Ecuador, Palo Santo is an important part of the country’s cultural heritage.

It has been used for centuries by indigenous communities in spiritual and medicinal practices, as it is believed to have purifying properties that can clear negative energy and promote healing.

The wood is burned as incense during shamanic ceremonies to cleanse the air, ward off evil spirits, and promote healing. The smoke is also believed to enhance creativity, concentration, and relaxation.

Palo Santo is also an important part of the economy. The Palo Santo industry provides income for many families in rural areas of the country.

The wood is harvested from naturally fallen trees and then processed into incense sticks, essential oils, and other products.

However, the increasing demand for Palo Santo has led to concerns about over-harvesting and unsustainable practices.

To address these issues, some companies have established sustainable harvesting programs and work with local communities to ensure that the tree is harvested responsibly.

Harvesting Process

The harvesting process begins with gathering Palo Santo seeds in the wilderness. These seeds are then planted in nurseries and carefully tended until they are ready to be transplanted into the forest.

This process helps to ensure that the new trees are healthy and strong, and that they will be able to grow and thrive in their new environment.

Once the Palo Santo trees are mature enough to be harvested, the branches and twigs are carefully collected from the forest floor. Live trees are never cut down or damaged in any way during the harvesting process.

After the branches and twigs are collected, they are left to dry in the sun for several months. This allows the resin to develop and the wood to become fragrant.

Once the wood is fully dried, it is carefully cut into smaller pieces and packaged for sale.

Due to the growing demand for Palo Santo, there has been concern about preserving these valuable trees and protecting their ecosystem.

Fortunately, in Ecuador, measures have been implemented to promote sustainable trade of Palo Santo, encouraging reforestation and responsible harvesting practices.

These efforts ensure that this precious natural resource is conserved for future generations.

Uses of Palo Santo

Palo Santo has gained popularity worldwide due to its diverse spiritual and therapeutic uses:

Spiritual Purification

Palo Santo is considered a sacred tree in Ecuadorian culture and is used in shamanic rituals and ceremonies to purify the energy and create a sacred space.

Palo Santo is commonly burned as incense or used in smudging rituals. “Smudging” or “saging” is the practice of burning herbs or other substances (like Palo Santo) to cleanse the energy of a space or person.

It is believed that the sacred smoke of Palo Santo cleanses and purifies the environment, warding off negative energies and attracting harmony.

Relaxation and Well-being

The sweet and earthy aroma of Palo Santo has relaxing properties that help reduce stress and anxiety.

Many people use Palo Santo essential oil in aromatherapy to promote calmness and improve mood.

It is also used to enhance meditation and promote spiritual growth.

Medicinal Properties

Palo Santo is also known for its medicinal properties, such as relieving symptoms of colds and muscular pains, as well as serving as a natural insect repellent.

Its essential oil is believed to have anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and analgesic properties.

Palo Santo tea is another popular medicinal use of this tree. It is believed to have digestive and diuretic properties.

It is used to treat stomach problems, such as indigestion, bloating, and constipation. And is believed to help regulate menstrual cycles.

Commercial Uses

Its wood, leaves, and essential oil are used in various industries.

Palo Santo wood is used to make furniture, flooring, handmade jewelry and handicrafts. Its essential oil is used in perfumes, soaps, and aromatherapy products.

It is also a popular souvenir for tourists visiting Ecuador. It is sold in various forms, such as incense, essential oil, and decorative items.

How to Burn Palo Santo?

We cannot conclude this article without explaining how to use palo santo wood, particularly if you purchase it in Ecuador.

Palo santo is easily accessible; you may get it at the market, local shops, or from street vendors.

The process of burning Palo Santo is a ritual that has been passed down from generation to generation. The following are some recommendations we have learned:

  • Choose a high-quality Palo Santo stick. Look for dried and old pieces, as they have a stronger aroma.
  • Light a flame at one end of the Palo Santo wood until it catches fire. Then, let the flame burn for a few seconds before gently blowing it out, leaving an incandescent glow.
  • Once the Palo Santo has been ignited, it will generate “the sacred smoke”. You can use a fan or your hands to direct the smoke towards the areas you wish to purify.
  • With the Palo Santo still burning, make your way through the area you want to purify, paying close attention to any corners or places where you sense the energy is lingering.
  • After you’re done cleansing, carefully place the Palo Santo wood in a heat-resistant container and allow it to burn out on its own.

The same method can be used to light the palo santo and use it as an insect repellant: light the palo santo and put it in a clay pot in the area where there are mosquitos and bugs.

About the author

Hey there! We are Ericka and Stefano. As longtime citizens of this amazing country, we are honored to serve as your tour guides and offer our firsthand experiences, insider advice, and must-see attractions in Ecuador. So be prepare for an exciting journey through Ecuador’s unique treasures.

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