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Palo santo: A fragrant wood with cancer fighting properties

South America Incense Formatted_Reuters.jpg

An indigenous man from the Pataxo tribe burns incense as he attends an assembly at Kari-Oca village in Rio de Janeiro. (REUTERS/ Ricardo Moraes)

In South America, both in urban settings and in the Amazon, I have encountered a fragrant wood used as incense and known as palo santo, which means “wood of the saints.” Appropriately named, the aroma of palo santo (Bursera graveolens) is heavenly. If you grew up attending Catholic church or any of the institutions in which incense is burned, palo santo may smell familiar to you.

Fragrant woods are not uncommon. In New Mexico, I have enjoyed many fires made of pinion pine, whose fragrance can be detected all through the streets of Santa Fe or Taos on a cold winter night. In northern India, I have smelled fires made of the incense wood deodar, whose aroma similarly wafts over the hills at night.

The tall tropical palo santo tree is related to both frankincense and myrrh, and it is widely distributed throughout much of Central and South America, as well as the Galapagos Islands. Because palo santo has become increasingly popular due to the booming Amazon tourism trade, it will eventually need to be cultivated. Otherwise, we will experience dwindling populations of these delightfully fragrant rainforest trees.

Use of palo santo reportedly dates back to the time of the Inca Empire. The heartwood of the tree is used, and you can find bundles of palo santo for sale in markets throughout South America. Burning the wood is done to clean bad energy from a place and to promote good fortune. It is typical and common for palo santo to be burned in a ceremonial setting such as a shamanic ceremony, and often people who attend ceremonies will smoke themselves and each other with this wood. Being smoked with palo santo feels fresh and invigorating.

The essential oil of palo santo is responsible for the unique fragrance of this wood, and contains resins that are rich in the sesquiterpene class of compounds, most notably limonene. It also contains the fragrant compounds non-amine and germacrene. In one published Cuban medical study, components in the essential oil inhibited the growth of a specific type of breast cancer, MCF-7. Palo santo essential oil is significantly anti-bacterial, which probably explains its traditional use as an incense wood for dispelling bad energy.

Like cedar, which is burned in the ceremonies of the Native American Church, palo santo may be chipped into fine pieces and set alight to generate fragrant smoke. Alternately, a small piece of the wood will be lit and allowed to burn – and then blown out and waved around to smoke a place. Some people perform steam distillation on the wood to yield an essential oil, which has an especially captivating aroma. The oil is worn as a fragrance, and is also added to topical liniments and balms to relieve joint pain.

Online you will see that sticks of palo santo are widely available. You can also obtain the essential oil of this tree. I burn a little bit of palo santo regularly at home and find that it leaves a room smelling clean and free of any musty odors. Once you have smelled palo santo, you will likely find it a welcome addition to the atmosphere of any space.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at MedicineHunter.com.