The palo santo tree (Bursera graveolens, or “holy wood” in English), is found in Central and South America, from Mexico to Peru. A member of the same family as frankincense and myrrh, it produces a light, soft wood, the properties of which have been sought by indigenous peoples for countless generations.
Palo santo wood has always been used by local cultures in their medical practices. In shamanic rituals, the Incas and other societies used the oil extracted from the tree, as well as the smoke produced when the wood was burned, to purify the spirit and heal the body, and today the uplifting aroma of palo santo essential oil is used in aromatherapy. It has been found to have anti-depressive, anti-rheumatic, antiseptic and anti-stress properties, and in the forest burning palo santo can create an effective mosquito repellent.
While palo santo has been traditionally used to make incense sticks, today the increasingly rare tree is a protected species and the harvesting of twigs and branches –replacing the practice of felling the tree- is regulated by the Peruvian authorities.
In the Amazon forest, palo santo tends to grow near riverbanks, and in an environment where thousands of plant species compete for light, it relies upon a remarkable symbiotic relationship with the ants that dwell within its trunk. The palo santo is the preferred home of colonies of fire ants, so called because of their extremely painful bite.
Palo santo trees are easy to identify in the forest. They have no branches on the lower part of their straight trunk, and over a radius of several meters around this trunk, no other vegetation grows. In return for the ideal habitat the soft bark of the tree provides, the ant colony keeps the surrounding area free of all vegetation, ensuring that the palo santo will not have to compete for light with other species.
The toxic alkaloid venom released when a fire ant bites has been used traditionally as a form of punishment. Those who committed an offense against society were tied to the tree, whereupon they were attacked immediately by the colony of ants, anxious to defend their home against all comers. Cases of this practice have been reported in our own time, among communities that still impose social control from outside the formal legal system, for example in the Chapare region of Bolivia.