The Unsustainable Truth Behind Burning White Sage and Palo Santo

The smoky scent that characterizes meditation and yoga studios alike may be costing the planet more than you think. Meditation Mentor and Spiritual Wellness Speaker Paige Pichler dives into the problem with the recreational burning the sacred plants of White Sage and Palo Santo, and how we can better respect the traditions these rituals came from. 

Everywhere you turn, there seems to be a new way to clear your energy. As the modern wellbeing movement gains following, the act of burning sacred plants and healing woods such as White Sage and Palo Santo has become a widely adopted practice. With more people becoming spiritually curious, their recreational use has skyrocketed and the wellness market is flooding with different variations of the plants. 

Originally, native populations used White Sage and Palo Santo in sacred rituals to perform in a deeply respectful, meditative state. Today, it seems to be devolving into the exact opposite. With the wellness world latching onto their energy-clearing benefits, these plants are becoming increasingly endangered and over-harvested. The original practice of smudging has not only lost its intent, but it is starting to bring about devastation to the plants’ natural habitats.

From sage bundles found at pharmacies to local markets selling Palo Santo, the increased demand for both of these sacred plants has deteriorated their once-sustainable cultivation practices. Although native populations still use sustainable methods to harvest White Sage and Palo Santo, many consumers aren’t buying from these sources. A certain brand has even jumped on the trend to create a “witch kit” with bundles of sage and, you guessed it, it’s not from an indigenous source. 

“With an exponential increase over the past five or ten years for burnable, ritualistic herbs such as White Sage, the market has changed,” explains Jennifer Seagle of Garden Apothecary. “Unfortunately, less eco-conscious companies are using wild-harvested plants from locations where the plants are indigenous. This may seem holistic, but with zero regulations, it quickly becomes an issue of over-harvesting and unethical practices.” 

As social media and consumer culture attribute a picture-perfect aesthetic to modern spirituality, this increased demand has also worn down the original purpose for the sacred practice. “We see countless images of people burning a White Sage on social media. This tends to make people think that it’s a common habit, losing sight of the fact that this tradition is a sacred tool reserved for intentional use,” Seagle adds. 

Burning sacred herbs was traditionally reserved for contained ceremonial occasions. Instead of burning these plants whenever a feeling of discomfort arose, native peoples performed the centuries-old practices within community to remove stagnant energies and welcome in the new. Arti Jalan, Founder of Forage and Sustain, a sustainable living blog explains that “Palo Santo and White Sage have opened the doors for a ritual that can be easily conducted and that conveys a sense of meaning, without being overly religious or needed to be studied.”

Without being grounded within a revered practice or ritual, ceremonial burning of sacred plants has given way to commodification and thus, overharvesting. “This is problematic because it allows people to dip their feet into sacred spirituality that has very significant and deep meaning for many indigenous groups, without requiring them to understand, learn about or even acknowledge that significance,” Jalan says. 

Today, Palo Santo has been added to the Convention on International Trade’s Endangered Species List due to the increased demand. This tree requires proper harvesting methods, which includes allowing the trees to die naturally then laying them on the forest floor. Traditionally, farmers only collect fallen branches and twigs of the trees while local governments regulate this practice to prevent overharvesting and unethical growing procedures. Unfortunately, regulation has given way to illegal harvesting and cutting down of these sacred trees to meet the demand. 

However, many growers do offer sustainably harvested Palo Santo that is cultivated with respect for the traditions from which the rituals came. “For those who aren’t particularly mindful of these growing practices, the least we can say is to buy from reputable suppliers who work directly with the farmers who sustainably and properly harvest the trees,” Jalan adds. 

So, what is the sustainable and ethical way forward? Having respect for the tree or herb, the people who harvested it and the land that it grew on is an inherent part of the traditions and rituals that involve both Palo Santo and White Sage. Without these, burning the plants not only promotes deforestation and unethical harvesting practices, but it also negates their original intent.

If you do want to burn Palo Santo in an intentional ceremony, Jalan suggests two brands that utilize ethical farming practices and show respect towards local communities, which also remain active in helping reforest areas where Palo Santo grows. Sacred Wood Essence and Ecuadorian Hands offer sustainable and ethically-grown Palo Santo to use in an intentional energy-clearing ceremony. In addition to these options, Mountain Rose Herbs offers Palo Santo from Ecuadorian farms with environmentally-friendly harvesting practices as well. 

When looking for a sustainable alternative to White Sage, both Seagle and Jalan recommend growing your own, using Earth-friendly harvesting practices. “The most sustainable way to use sage would be to grow it yourself – this ensures you know that no one was hurt in the harvesting process, that it hasn’t changed multiple hands that are all looking to make a cut, and that the plant was sustainably harvested,” Jalan adds. “Benefit also lies in the nurturing and tactile act of caring for a plant in soil.”

But instead of adding to the ever-increasing demand for White Sage and Palo Santo, you can also clear your space by burning lavender or other sustainably grown plants that don’t face extinction. Seagle explains that “you can use almost any plant to clear energy, it’s mostly about honoring the plant and creating an intention around the ritual you are wanting to perform. I find it best to work with plants that grow locally in your area, or that you grow yourself.”

When looking for an alternative tree or herb to burn, the most important thing to do is check that it isn’t endangered. Along with other highly fragrant trees, Frankincense of Oman and Yemen and benzoin, natively known as ‘tabok haminjun’ are also in dire straits,” says Summer Rayne Oakes, author of ‘How to Make a Plant Love You’ and host of ‘Plant One On Me.‘ “Frankincense is getting over-exploited much like Palo Santo and all of these regions are experiencing high rates of deforestation.”

With more people looking to cultivate self-care rituals grounded in spiritual science, sacred plants and trees are left with the repercussions. Knowing this information, it’s up to consumers to respect the traditions from which these rituals came and find sustainable options to perform them with reverence at the center of their practice. From growing your own to finding reputable growers and suppliers, countless options offer ways to clear energy that don’t involve deforestation or disrespect of indigenous observances. 

Clearing energy is a practice that spans different cultures, time periods and even continents. By using sacred plants to effectively clear out the old and bring in the new, populations have connected with the Earth and given thanks during these rituals for hundreds of years. Today, we can still maintain the reverence and dignity that both White Sage and Palo Santo ceremonies represent while honoring the greatest source of all – Mother Earth. 

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