Palo santo, the sacred wood of Latin America
By Ellen Weber
Passing by houses in Peru and Ecuador it’s very common to smell palo santo. This sacred wood is burned to keep mosquitos away, but is also used to remove negative energy. Why is this wood considered to be holy? And where does it come from?
‘Palo santo!’ At the seafront of Puerto López, a fishing village in Ecuador, several vendors are selling bags of palo santo, while burning the wood in front of their shops. The characteristic smoke is to be smelled in a big part of Latin America, stretching from Venezuela and Colombia to Peru and Ecuador. The bursera graveolens, better known as the palo santo tree, grows in the Andes region and in the dry tropical forest at the coast.
Also in the coastal region around Puerto López the tree is to be found. Between huge cactuses and dry bushes without leaves the tree is recognised by its lightly shining bark. Inside the trunk and branches there’s a lot of oil. Walking by, the characteristic odour is already to be noticed.
But watch out; never cut a palo santo tree to use its parts. Only wood that fell down by natural cause, such as storm or antiquity, is used. The ‘dead’ pieces of wood mature four to ten years to obtain the specific smell. Using palo santo before this maturing process makes no sense: the fragrance won’t be good and besides that, it’s against the tradition. Nature has to be respected.
The tradition of using Palo Santo goes back long before the Spanish arrived to Latin America. Indigenous shamans already used palo santo in their rituals to keep bad spirits on a distance and bring prosperity in people’s lives. Nowadays, besides of keeping away mosquitos, it’s still used for this purpose: to bring positivity in houses and businesses. But also to relax the mind.
In a hut in the outskirts of Puerto López, three women are elaborating palo santo sticks. Solanda Macia is showing how she uses her axe to cut the trunk into smaller pieces, and continues with a machete to cut sticks of ten centimetres. ‘We have to watch out’, explains her colleague Trinidad Parra, pointing at the scars on her hand. ‘The wood is slippery because of the oil. At the beginning we hurt ourselves frequently.’ Every stick is cut by hand. On a daily basis the women produce ten kilos of wooden sticks per person.
After cutting the woods into the right size, they still have to dry in the sun before the sticks can be used as incense. The best quality sticks, which are totally clean, are even used as an infusion, which is helpful against the flu. ‘We are very happy to work with this natural product, so close to our homes. This job helps us to sustain our families. Besides this, we are always close to medicine, because palo santo is helpful for all kinds of complaints.’