Instagram is abuzz with suggestions and sometimes, outright demands about what herbs you should and should not burn. “White sage is overharvested” and “Palo Santo is endangered,” you’ve likely heard some variation of these statements. Now, before you run off and start writing me an angry email, keep reading!
Are there truths in the statements above? Yes! White sage is overharvested, and there are endangered varieties of Palo Santo trees. Is this the full story? No. Like most things, this issue is not black and white. There’s a whole spectrum of grey area, and that’s what I want to discuss. While we’re on the topic of burning herbs, I’ll also talk a bit about cultural appropriation.
Notice I’m not using the term “smudge,” that’s because I’m not an Indigenous American. Humans around the world burn herbs for their healing and cleansing properties. Burning herbs are not the issue when it comes to cultural appropriation. The problem is appropriating terms from another culture and using them in a way that can be taken as hurtful and offensive. Using the term smudge for burning your herbs, as a non-Indigenous American, would be like calling every bath you take a baptism. Baptisms are a sacred ritual for Christians, just as smudging is for Indigenous Americans. Try using these terms instead, herb burning, sage stick, or herb stick.
Back to white sage and Palo Santo.
First, let’s get clear about the current status of white sage. As of today, August 6, 2019, white sage is not endangered or on the “At-Risk” list provided by UnitedPlantSavers.org. Could this change? Yes. Right now, white sage is listed as a plant “To Watch,” with a large list of other plants that are at risk including sandalwood and echinacea. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you haven’t seen any Instagram posts requesting that you stop taking echinacea.
There’s clearly, still a problem. White sage is overharvested and abused; otherwise, we wouldn’t see it on either of the lists mentioned above. Here are ways to use white sage in your practice responsibly.
How to use white sage responsibly:
- Burn less, I mean WAY less. A bundle of white sage can last a long time. The smell is strong, and it smokes easily. Instead of burning an entire bundle, take your bundle apart and only burn a leaf or two at a time. You can also purchase loose leaves of white sage.
- Burn different varieties of sage, like desert sage or black sage.
- Avoid purchasing from places that say their white sage is “wild-harvested.” Just because we want our salmon wild-harvested doesn’t mean we need our sage to be too. Purchasing sage that is wild-harvested doesn’t tell you how or where it was harvested and means it may have been unsustainably collected. So, unless your wild white sage source can give you a little more information, I wouldn’t trust it.
- Purchase white sage from people farming it themselves. Here are two great sources https://sagewinds.us/ and https://oshalafarm.com/. Are they more expensive and sometimes sold out? Yes. Because these are companies that are taking the time to replenish this plant and not just pillaging from Mother Earth.
- Even better, grow your own white sage! This plant can be tricky to grow, and you do need to be in the right climate. If you are in the right environment, go for it!
- Check the status of white sage at UnitedPlantSavers.org before purchasing.
This one is a little more tricky because Palo Santo, or “holy wood,” is an umbrella term for a few different trees. Bulnesia Sarmientoi is endangered, and Guayacan is critically endangered. Bursera Graveolens, the variety most commonly sold for burning is not listed on www.iucnredlist.org or www.cites.org as endangered. However, it could be added soon if some harvesting techniques continue to be supported.
Did you know that it is illegal to cut down any part of a living Palo Santo tree? Palo Santo is a highly protected tree, but these laws are hard to police. Due to the demand for Palo Santo, some trees are cut down prematurely. Similar to white sage, it is critical that you know the source of your Palo Santo. Furthermore, to enjoy the medicinal properties of Palo Santo, it should be dead on the forest floor for four to ten years before being harvested. If you’re purchasing from an unknown source, the Palo Santo may have been cut prematurely. Palo Santo is not only harmful to the species but also lacks its medicinal properties.
How to use Palo Santo responsibly:
- Know what variety you’re purchasing. As I said above, there are two varieties of Palo Santo that are very much endangered. If you’re not sure what kind of Palo Santo you are purchasing or know that it is an endangered variety, say buh-bye.
- Know your source. There are companies in South American doing great work to keep Palo Santo sustainable. Here are two great options www.ecuadorianhands.com/en/ and https://sacredwoodessence.com/.
- Burn sparingly and save your Palo Santo for special occasions.
- Try burning myrrh and frankincense resin; they are trees in the same family as Palo Santo.
If you’re uncertain about purchasing white sage or Palo Santo but want to cleanse your space with herbal smoke here’s a list of beautiful alternatives:
- Desert Sage
The most important thing to know when purchasing white sage or Palo Santo, is whether or not they’re practicing sustainable harvesting. I hope this has cleared up any lingering questions you’ve had on the topic of burning white sage and Palo Santo! If you want to learn more about the different benefits of sage and Palo Santo smoke, click here.
Cassie Uhl is the founder and owner of Zenned Out, a jewelry company that handcrafts jewelry with meaning and provides a community that inspires a mindful and spiritual lifestyle. Cassie grew up with a open minded, astrology obsessed grandmother and a father that would take her and her sister star gazing in the wee hours of the night. These experiences shaped Cassie and Zenned Out into what they are today by bringing spirituality and astrology into the forefront. Cassie hopes to give spiritual souls a place to feel at home on the Zenned Out blog and offers handcrafted jewelry with meaningful symbols, powerful gemstones, and mindful quotes to enable people to wear jewelry that aligns with their souls purpose.