Looking at the environmental impacts of palo santo and white sage.
The use of palo santo originated in South America, where native groups like the Incas believed the wood held healing properties. While in North America, white sage was used by indigenous groups, like the Lakota, for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. Shamans, which can be described as a healer chosen by spirits, often would invoke the practice of smudging. They would burn the palo santo or sage, and the smoke would clean the surrounding atmosphere.
Burning palo santo and white sage has grown massively in popularity in recent years, however there is a huge environmental cost that arises from the growth of this practice outside of indigenous communities.
Both plants have started to dominate Western culture in smudging kits and are used as the trend of ‘spiritual cleansing’ which became more mainstream. Quick to capitalize on a monetizable trend, more companies have begun to offer these smudge sticks and incense products that feature palo santo and white sage.
Not only does this trend appropriate indigenous culture, it is unsustainable for the plants and their ecosystems.
For traditional use, palo santo should be harvested only once the tree has died and is resting on the forest floor, otherwise the smudging won’t be effective according to forest communities. The main problem comes from this wait time as it takes 50 years for one species of the palo santo to die, and 200 years for the other species to die. This leads to it being illegally harvested and unsustainably sourced as it is being harvested faster than it can be replaced, threatening the species and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
It is illegal in countries like Peru and Ecuador to cut down the trees, so much so that one of the species, Bursera graveolens, was added to Peru’s endangered species list. This illegal harvesting is also occurring with white sage in North America.
White sage is being illegally harvested in the United States. People harvest sage on public and private lands, with one case of four people being arrested in 2018 for illegally harvesting 400 pounds of white sage in California. They were arrested for suspicion of illegally removing plant material from a public use area. The statement by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies understood the sustainability problem too. “Picking the sage around the preserve jeopardizes the continued existence of this species and affects the habitat growth of our protected areas,” they stated to The Press Enterprise.
If the demand for these plants increases, the species can be jeopardized as it already is in Peru. The sustainable ways of harvesting palo santo and white sage should be used by more companies, and these companies should also hold conversations with indigenous groups to understand the culture behind the practice. If people would still like a spiritual practice to cleanse a space, other options include growing your own sage and herbs or using candles as a form of aromatherapy.
Header Photo: William IsmaelShare This