Palo Santo

Bursera graveolens

Herbs gallery - Palo Santo

Common names

  • Holy Stick
  • Holy Wood
  • Mallka Waki
  • Palo De La Vida O Santo
  • Palo Santo
  • Sacred Wood
  • Saint Anthony's Wood

The palo santo tree (botanical name Bursera graveolens) has its origin in South America and it is related to myrrh, frankincense and copal trees. In Spanish, the term palo santo denotes "holy wood". People have been using the wood of this tree in the form of incense in rituals and ceremonies for several thousand years for their individual fulfillment. In several regions of the world, the wood of this tree is considered to be sacred. It is extensively used as incense as well as for therapeutic purposes.

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Palo santo is a branching tree whose twigs are fragrant like incense. For the major part of the year, this tree does not have any leaves, but with the onset of the rainy season the tree starts bearing new leaves very quickly. The bluish-green leaves of palo santo are slender with jagged margin. The fruits of this tree are olive-shaped and when they are ripe their color changes to vivid red. These fruits rupture on their own to expose the black seeds within. Palo santo or Bursera graveolens is seen growing naturally in several regions, which include Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras as well as the Galapagos Islands.

The Bursera graveolens tree yields a very potent essential oil which is said to rouse the immune system, while combating inflammation. This herb is a member of the Burseraceae botanical family, which also includes frankincense and myrrh trees. The latter trees also yield valuable oils that are rich in antioxidant content. All these essential oils are widely used across the globe for their various health benefits.

Parts used

Wood, essential oil.


Palo santo (Bursera graveolens) is an attractive aromatic tree whose wood is valued for its fragrance. The wood of this tree is used all over Central and South America in the form of incense. The natives of the region like the Inca use the wood of this tree spiritually to rinse out all impure energy and also to eliminate evil spirits, misfortune and calamity. While the palo santo tree is said to possess very potent energy, when the tree is burned, its aroma gives a sense of wellbeing, peace and relaxation. The fragrance of this tree is pleasing and fills the air with an enjoyable aroma whenever it is burned. In many places, the local government regulates the growth and felling of Bursera graveolens. Moreover, felling of living trees are prohibited in a number of countries, such as Peru. Nevertheless, strong winds often uproot many palo santo trees and these fallen trees are collected with due respect, as for thousands of years, many cultures have considered this tree to be sacred.

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You can burn palo santo wood just like incense by lighting the wood shavings. Alternatively, you can also light a stick of palo santo on fire and extinguish the flame after some time so that it generates an aromatic scent. A medicine man (shaman) in Peru often lights palo santo sticks and allow the rising smoke to spread so that the aromatic smoke engulfs the ritual participants with a view to get rid of all evil spirits, misfortunes and negative thought patterns. On the other hand, people in the Western culture burn palo santo sticks and use them as incense. The wood of this tree also yields an essential oil, which offers several health benefits. Recently, palo santo essential oil is drawing plenty of attraction owing to its seductive aroma and is being increasingly used as a natural ingredient in the manufacture of cosmetics and perfumes.

The indigenous people, who burn palo santo wood have reported that the wood has several health benefits. When burnt together with another plant called Ruta chalepensis, the smoke generated from these woods is propelled into the ears with a view to treating a condition called otitis media or ear infections. Moreover, palo santo wood can also be lighted along with yerba mate with the rhea bird's feathers. The mixture of smoke that emits from the fire is inhaled once in nine days with a view to heal "mal aire". The benefits of this process are well recorded.

Various folk medicines and medicine men (shamans) have widely collected the wood of the "spiritual" palo santo tree (Bursera graveolens) and burned it for therapeutic and spiritual benefits. They have also extensively used the essential oil extracted from the wood of this tree for several centuries, as this tree is believed to have a number of spiritual applications. Generally, palo santo wood, wood shavings or sticks are burnt in the form of incense. Similar to citronella oil, the palo santo essential oil is also used as a natural mosquito repellent, as this wood contains volatile oils and resins.

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The wood shavings of palo santo are burnt just as you would light any other incense. Mystics claim that the aromatic scent emitted from the smoke helps to get rid of spiritual "bad energy" and bugs alike. During any ritual in Peru, a shaman usually lights sticks made from palo santo wood and when the smoke from the burning stick penetrates the "energy field" in the ritual site, it is said to have several beneficial effects. It is believed that when the ritual participants inhale the smoke, it clears all negative thoughts, misfortunes and drives away evil spirits. Hence, it is not surprising that the essential oil of palo santo is considered to be a potent remedy for mental as well as emotional clarity.

Another benefit of palo santo is that this tree possesses anti-inflammatory properties and it is extensively used for this purpose in folk medicine as well as aromatherapy. In aromatherapy, the essential oil extracted from mature Bursera graveolens wood is used for massage with a view to provide relief from pain and check inflammation. On the other hand, the wood shavings of the tree as well as the essential oil are used to alleviate the symptoms associated with headaches, migraines, allergies, asthma, and various other types of pains and aches.

The wood shavings of palo santo are seethed in water and subsequently, the water containing the nutrients of the tree is strained. This herbal tea is extremely appetizing and also possesses healing properties. Alternatively, one can also add the wood shavings to boiling water to generate an aromatic steam and inhale it. This steam is effectual in combating various viruses and pathogens. Palo santo wood possesses expectorant properties, which makes it an effective remedy to loosen mucus and cleanse the lungs from various types of infections.

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Traditionally, people have boiled the wood of this aromatic tree to prepare an herbal tea, which is consumed for treating stomach aches, in the form of an expectorant and blood cleanser, and to cure rheumatism. In addition, this tea is also applied externally in the form of an antiseptic. The wood is also cut into small pieces and these sticks are burned as incense creating a delicate sweet aroma. People have been burning the palo santo wood traditionally to get rid of all impure spirits and calm the mind. One palo santo stick can be kindled several times. Moreover, the aromatic stick is kept in a drawer to refresh clothes and also to repel moths and other insects.

The essential oil extracted from palo santo wood is packed with a particular class of compounds called sesquiterpenes, which are also found in the cedarwood, myrrh and frankincense essential oils. In fact, the woody, herbal and mint-like scent of the woods as well as resins of the above mentioned trees are attributed to this particular compound. Findings of several scientific studies have revealed that these aromatic natural compounds have the potential of oxygenating the brain (supplying more oxygen to the brain) and also prevent the death of neuronal cells. Perhaps the oxygenating influence of these compounds on the brain is one of the reasons why various folk remedies have traditionally employed the essential oil of palo santo to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress. The ability of palo santo to prevent the death of neuronal cells may possibly make this natural substance beneficial for treating degenerative brain ailments like Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

As the name indicates, limonene is an organic compound that is responsible for the typical characteristic of the citrus fruits - precisely speaking it contributes to their lemony scent. This wonderful natural compound is also known as d-limonene and is present in abundance in the peel of various citrus fruits. Moreover, this compound is also present in the essential oil extracted from the wood of palo santo trees. This essential oil is an excellent remedy for detoxifying the body. Aside from detoxifying the liver, this essential oil is known to possess several healing properties and is said to be effective even in treating cancer.

The essential oil obtained from palo santo wood is loaded with antioxidants and several phytochemicals like terpenes, which include limonene and α-terpineol. It has been found that the concentrated essential oil of palo santo is useful in combating the damage caused by harmful free radical, such as oxidative stress. In addition, this oil is effective in alleviating stomach aches, reducing pains associated with arthritis, combating stress and healing several other conditions. These days, this oil is especially gaining attention and becoming increasingly popular for its role as a natural remedy for treating cancer and other inflammatory conditions.

It is said that palo santo essential oil possesses the ability to enhance creativity and also aid in preparing as well as calming the mind, thereby making it easy for one to meditate, practice tai chi and yoga exercises or simply generate a sense of relaxation of the mind.

Palo santo essential oil plays a vital role in the traditional medicine of South America, where it is used for treating headaches, stress, cold, flu, anxiety, and inflammation as well as to uplift the mood. People in this region consume a tea prepared from the wood of the Bursera graveolens to boost their immune system.

Even the fruit of Bursera graveolens is valuable. Basically, the fruit of this tree is a little black seed that is covered by reddish pulp. The fruit is enclosed in a green capsule. When the fruit is ripe, its burst open into two halves and the capsule falls off. What remains on the tree is the fruit, which is loaded with fats (lipids). This lipid is in its concentrated form and is employed therapeutically.

The odour of the ripened palo santo fruit is similar to fennel. The fragrance is somewhat sweet. This is a major reason why the local people love to diffuse the aroma of palo santo all over their homes or even use the aromatic fruit in natural cleansing products. Since palo santo also has a relation with the citrus family, its aroma has a slightly similar sweet hint of lemon, mint and pine, which all are "clean" smelling. As palo santo, myrrh and frankincense are all related, the essential oil produced by these trees offers the same psychologically stabilizing benefits. As a result, you can use the essential oil of any of these three trees as a substitute for that of the others.


Chemical examination of the steam-distilled oil of palo santo has revealed that it contains a number of major constituents such as carvone, limonene, menthofuran and α-terpineol. In addition, it also contains small amounts of pulegone, germacrene D and muurolene. The health benefits of palo santo oil are attributed to all these organic compounds.

Collection and harvesting

The Peruvian government has regulated the practice of collecting the wood of palo santo. In fact, the process involved in harvesting the wood of palo santo not only reveres the holiness of this tree's wood, but also ensures the trees' continued life. According to the prevailing rules, no one is allowed to fell down the live trees. In addition, even the fallen trees as well as their branches should mandatory be left aside for drying and curing for a period of anything between three years and five years. A chemical change occurs in the felled trees and the sap, which is usually a fluid when the palo santo tree is live, starts crystallizing and eventually forms deposits making the palo santo wood a prized item for its excellent grains that have an orange and golden hue. In fact, the essence of this tree is most intense in these rich deposits of its resin.

Collection of already dead palo santo trees also helps to clean the woodlands where they grow, thereby looking after their natural habitat in an entirely ecological manner.


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