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Palo santo – how does the “sacred tree” help?

Palo santo – how does the “sacred tree” help?

Palo santo... under these magical words lies an equally magical power. Referred to as the "sacred tree" by the indigenous inhabitants of the coasts of South and Central America, the plant has extraordinary properties. We, mateists, most closely associate it with the yerba mate drinking vessel, but this is not its only use. How does palo santo work and where does its magic come from? Let us explain!


  1. Magical power from America. What is palo santo?
  2. Use of the sacred tree
  3. How to take care of a palo santo mate gourd?

Magical power from America. What is palo santo?

Palo santo in Spanish means “sacred tree”. The term refers to several species of trees, the most popular of which appear in botanical taxonomy under the Latin names Bursera graveolens and Bulnesia sarmientoi (or rather Gonopterodendron sarmientoi). The former grows in tropical forests, in an area stretching from the Yucatán Peninsula in Central America – Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, through the northern areas of South America: Colombia, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, to the northern part of Argentina. Bulnesia sarmientoi, on the other hand, is mainly found in the Gran Chaco, a land straddling the border between Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. The term “palo santo” is also often used to describe the wood of the Guaiacum officinale, which grows in Central America. What all these trees have in common is that they produce very hard, durable wood that contains highly aromatic resin, which is a source of “magical” properties. Due to these properties, palo santo has been of great importance to the indigenous people for centuries and is now gaining enormous popularity worldwide.

Palo santo in danger of extinction?

Palo santo has been known in history for centuries. The properties of the miracle tree were probably used by the ancient Incas. Indian shamans used palo santo for magical rituals and mystical ceremonies. Lit woods, from which fragrant smoke rose, were part of the purifying ayahuasca ceremony. The sacred palo santo tree has become increasingly popular over the years. So much so that its existence was threatened. Overexploitation greatly reduced the palo santo's resources and caused the governments of some countries to place the trees on endangered species lists. For some time it was strictly forbidden to cut palo santo trees for industrial purposes. The only way to obtain wood was to collect dead, fallen branches. Although today most palo santo tree species are no longer threatened with extinction, this way of harvesting wood has remained. Branches that fall to the ground and dry for several years without human intervention become even more valuable. Numerous chemical reactions take place in them, the wood changes colour and valuable juices are released, which contribute to an even stronger aroma. Harvesting rather than felling the wood is also a show of respect for the sacredness of these magnificent trees.

Use of the sacred tree

The wood from the trees that are referred to as palo santo has two distinctive characteristics. Firstly, the resin it contains gives off an incredible aroma that is impossible to imitate – woody, slightly sweet, with a hint of vanilla, yet pleasantly refreshing and citrusy. You can smell the tropical forest, nature in its pure form. Secondly, palo santo is one of the hardest, toughest and most resilient woods in the world. The resin in it, not only smells beautiful, but also contains numerous oils that make the wood highly resistant to rot and various external factors. Due to its hardness and strength, as well as its original aroma, palo santo has found a wide range of applications in many areas.

Palo santo

Palo santo – yerba mate vessel

The hard and durable palo santo wood is used to manufacture a variety of items. Among other things, it is used in the construction industry – it is perfect for shipbuilding, for example. It is also a good material for making furniture (e.g. cabinets or tables) and smaller everyday objects, such as jewellery pieces or utensils (jugs, bowls, mortars for grinding herbs and seeds). In the USA, “Palo Santo Marron” beer is produced, which is matured in barrels created from the sacred wood. Palo santo occupies an important place in the mateist world. The sacred tree is certainly very well known to yerba mate lovers, as it is often used to make palo santo mate gourds – special vessels for preparing an infusion made from the leaves of Ilex paraguariensis. Brewed in such a vessel, yerba mate tastes much better than in an ordinary ceramic calabash. It acquires completely new, original taste and aroma qualities. Under the influence of the high temperature of the water, resin is extracted from the wood, which completely changes the taste of the brew. Mate gourds made from palo santo are small works of art. They are not mass-produced – each piece is the result of human hands. They are unique and, in a way, magical. The resin that exudes from the thick walls not only smells beautiful, but also has disinfecting properties. It makes the palo santo vessel highly resistant to mould. The wood, under the influence of temperature and moisture, "works" and cracks may appear after some use. The sap that palo santo gives off makes the vessel "magically" repair itself.

There are many types of palo santo vessels for yerba mate – with different shapes and functions. Some have reinforcing metal fittings, others are hand-decorated. One of the most interesting mate gourds is "Pampeano". It has thick walls with evenly sized channels. In this type of vessel, the brew is prepared in a slightly different way. The dried mate is poured in the standard way, into the centre, but the water is poured into the channels rather than directly onto the dry leaves. In this way, the water soaks the dried leaves gradually, from the outside. The infusion slowly becomes more potent, in a more balanced way, and one portion of the dried leaves lasts longer. To experience the magic of palo santo even better, it is also worth getting a bombilla made of the sacred wood. We recommend special yerba mate sets made from palo santo.

Sacred tree – the tree of life

The sacred tree is not only used to create objects. Palo santo has many more uses. It is not without reason that the sacred tree is also called the tree of life (lignum vitae). Palo santo was used in folk medicine as a remedy for various ailments. The resin was used to produce an oil to combat pain and rheumatism. Crushed pieces of palo santo wood were added to the infusions – this concoction had a beneficial effect on the digestive system. The inhabitants of the areas where palo santo grows assure us that it can be used to clear the mind, give us energy or help us enter a meditative state. Shamans used palo santo during ritual prayers and ceremonies. They would decorate the ceremony sites with smoke from palo santo wood set on fire to protect them from evil spirits. They believed that the scent of the sacred tree had a beneficial effect not only on evil spirits, but also on people, bringing them good luck. To this day, you can still buy woods in herbal shops that are used as incense sticks. When lit and then extinguished, the wood not only diffuses an amazing aroma in the room, but, above all, palo santo is valued for its effect – it calms and soothes the senses and relieves stress and tension. It is excellent for aromatherapy.

How to take care of a palo santo mate gourd?

A mate gourd made from palo santo is a unique vessel, but it requires proper preparation and care to make it last as long as possible. The wood is an organic material, and although palo santo is strong and resistant to rot, it needs to be properly protected before it is used for the first time. The process of preparing the mate gpurd is called curado. First, it must be rinsed with cold water and left to dry completely. Then its interior is lubricated with oil. The oiled vessel should be left to dry for about 48 hours. During this time, the fat is absorbed into the structure of the wood and preserves it. Then the mate gourd needs to be rinsed – this time the water can be warmer, but not hot. In such a prepared gourd you can already drink yerba mate, remembering not to leave the wet residue of the dried product in it for too long. You can read more about curado and taking care of your yerba mate vessel on our blog.

Source of information:

  1. Wikipedia: Bursera graveolens, Bulnesia sarmientoi, Guaiacum officinale.
  2. The IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species.


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