What Is Palo Santo? Meet the Mystical Peruvian Wood

“Sorcery—which palo santo is traditionally associated with—is in vogue,” proclaims Yana Wolfson, beverage director of New York’s Mexican café, ATLA. But what exactly is palo santo?

For years, Wolfson has served a cucumber-yuzu agua fresca made with a palo santo-infused water. Wolfson is one of the many chefs and bartenders who are looking back to move ahead by “sourcing and celebrating ingredients of the past,” of which palo santo is one. Native to South America and Mexico, the wood is prized for its antibacterial properties and inviting citrusy-pine aroma, and was once burned during ancient ritualist ceremonies in Ecuador and Peru. 

“Palo santo was burned by the Manteños, in the Manabí region of Ecuador,” explains Sacred Wood Essence founder Erik Suarez, referencing the country’s pre-Columbian civilization that dates back to circa 850 CE, one of the earliest known records of palo santo use. “There is evidence of it being burned in ceramic bowls, most likely during ceremonies or rituals.” According to Ecuadorian history, when the Spanish arrived to the country around 1500, they discovered the tree’s myriad health benefits—its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and its ability to treat respiratory ailments, among others—and so they named it palo santo, which translates to holy wood in Spanish. 

Lately, it’s begun to appear in beauty products—one of the first brands to embrace it was natural haircare brand Rahua, whose founder Fabian Lliguin explains that as a hairdresser of Inca descent, he’s been familiar with the wood since childhood, prizing the wood for its medicinal benefits and mysterious aroma. Now, palo santo is making its way onto restaurant and bar menus. To see just how one can use this magical herb, below are the four best benefits of palo santo. Read on to see which one piques your interest most. 

Atla’s cucumber-yuzu agua fresca made with a palo santo-infused waterPhoto: Courtesy of Atla

Palo santo is known to ward off bad spirits.

Palo santo’s most well-known use is a spiritual one. According to Sudha Nair, naturopathy expert and wellness manager at Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai, Hoi An, the belief that it can ward off evil spirits is rooted in cultural and spiritual practices for many cultures, particularly for indigenous South Americans. “The smoke produced when palo santo is burned is believed to have the ability to clear negative energy and purify a space,” Nair says. “This cleansing effect is thought to dispel negative influences, including bad energies, creating a more positive and harmonious environment.”  

Paula Benedi, integrative health practitioner and founder of Synergised, agrees and says that burning the wood as incense is the traditional practice; releasing the purifying smoke dispels negative energy.