making perfumes with palo santo essential oil


Musings on making perfumes with Palo Santo essential oil: holy smokes is this oil interesting! I had no idea! It’s totally given me a whole different appreciation for this oil as a perfume ingredient.  In doing the research for this post I realise that my sample of Palo Santo is from the flowers but I’m finding that most oils are harvested from the heartwood. So of course I now need to try the heartwood version. Researching this oil led me to some interesting revelations into my perfume project and what to trust in myself as I develop this art. Since my thoughts were to profile Palo Santo as a possible addition in the heart of my perfume I really focused my attention on what it expressed between 1-3 hours. This material is incredible!  This is a long profile but well worth it, trust me:

Common name: Palo Santo, (Holy Wood)

Genus name: Bursera Graveolens

Supplier: Neroliane  (obtained by hydro distillation from the flowers of the plant)

Note: Top to Heart

Family: Wood

Diffusion: 6

Dilution: 10%

Blends well with: jasmine, grapefruit, cedar wood oils, frankincense, sandalwood, myrrh, vetiver, champa flower, white sage, patchouli, lavender, neroli, rose, ylang ylang, benzoin, iris root, oakmoss, tolu, tonka, vanilla, cistus, oudh.

Chemical components: limonene 58.6%, a-terpineol 10.9%, menthofuran 6.6%, carvone 2%, Germacrene D 1.7%, y-Muurolene 1.2%, trans-Carveol 1.1%, Pulegone 1.1%. Neroliane has this particular version containing also: b-bisabolene, para-cymene and forneol.

Interesting bits: the tree belongs to the same family as Frankincense and Myrrh. Palo santo is a wild tree native from Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula to Peru and Venezuela. The aged heartwood is rich in terpenes such as limonene and a-terpineol. Chemical composition, as reflected by aroma, is variable. It’s use reportedly dates back to the Inca era.  The aromatic wood of palo santo has also been used in South America to make barrels for ageing wine and beer. (Wikipedia)

The genus Bursera is named after the botanist Joachim Burser, who lived from 1583 – 1649; graveolens is Latin for “heavy, penetrating odour”. The natives say that the tree can live for 50 years without water! The tree does not have a long tap root, but instead has superficial roots that allow it to absorb water quickly; this is similar to frankincense, which in some cases has no roots at all, just a base that attaches to rocks. Palo Santo is obtained from the wood after the natural death of the tree, or from pieces found on the ground. To retain its special properties, the dead tree must lay on the ground for another 3- 6 years before harvesting the wood for its “holy” properties.  The wood is then cut into sticks or ground into sawdust to form incense cones.  Essential oils can be extracted from the tree but will only produce any essences if the tree goes through the process of natural death and resting for 6-10 years. After a natural death, the Palo Santo tree will remain standing for several years. In Peru, Palo Santo wood is harvested under government supervision by the natives of the Peruvian jungle. In Ecuador for every tree used for the oil, about forty new trees are planted.During the first part of the distillation the oil is a light yellow colour has more top notes of citrus.  At the end of the distillation the oil is more gold in colour and has more of the base notes of the wood. In the regions where Palo Santo grows poverty was endemic but the gathering of the wood, distillation of the oil and handicrafts made from the wood provide income and livelihood for local communities. One large tree can give up to 20 litres of oil, which is worth about $4,000.00 USD wholesale to international clients; it will also provide about $2,000.00 in medicinal sticks and another $1,000.00 in incense.   This is enough to support seventeen families for one month on normal wages.  This is especially significant for women who are the majority of the people working with Palo Santo. (

“To harvest palo santo oil, only dead trees that have been left lying on the ground for a minimum of two years can be used. The resin is driven into the hardwood when the wood dies and matures, thus developing its unique and powerful chemistry. The average life of the Palo Santo tree is between 80 and 90 years.” (Floracopeia)

Their nose: citrus with resinous wood notes, fresh, soft, gentle, musky (Floracopeia) Woody, sweet, with citrus and mint undertones (Eden Botanicals) Aromatically speaking I find this material challenging as the top note is an utter whirlwind of strong fragrance types and you can never be sure what will greet you first. The notes I detect are; yellow biting lemon, entwined with honey and marshmallow sweetness, fresh water mint with Catnip idiosyncrasies and creamy notes I associate strongly with Pemou and santal austrocaledonicum. Also I must add I find every individual note is somehow encapsulated within a light spice and delicately charged herbaceous bouquet. A drop on my wrist lasts 30 minutes and I only detect water mint and creamy wood notes for the final twenty minutes. Perfumers this is fascinating experimental material that in trace amounts will provide a rebellious and outlandish edge to herbal, culinary or creamy wood compositions. (Adam at Hermitage)

My nose: this opens with a top note that is sharp and terpene-like; wet, shiny, menthol quality, bracing, like the wind at sea, uplifting, spirited. 10:15 all I can smell is the terpene flash and menthol, but there is definitely a sweet aspect hanging out somewhere in the background. It’s like sucking in a lung full of cool night winter air when you’ve been house-bound for days! 10:30 It’s alive! Expressive, still terpenic and I can still smell mint (menthol) bright, vibrant. Do I smell spices, here?! But there is a nuance of black pepper or something spicy. 10:45 the terpenic facet is now subsiding, leaving a minty, cold impression – woody is not the first impression I get from this material. It’s enigmatic, abstract almost. 1hr and the heart opens into an assertive space, it’s lost the opening terpenic pitch so now it’s settling down into contemplation, but it’s not lost its radiance. 2hrs later and oh, its heart simmers beautifully, like liquid gold. There is a hint of citrus, lemony note in the heart, sort of a jagged dry down, but bright still. After 3hrs ahhhh, the sweetness is the main greeter here, wonderful change from top to heart, more smooth, elegant and less brash now. 7hrs into the dry down and there’s a balsamic, sweet, vanilla tolu-like quality to Palo Santo, more sombre and relaxed, but with a nod to its youthful exuberance of the top notes.  After 12hrs it’s light and airy and I can still pick out the citrus note, galantly holding its own even after 12 hours! Still perceptible as a whole. It’s got grip! 24hrs on and Palo Santo even though almost gone now, is beautiful, creamy, candy sweet with a hint of mint; it has a soft dry down.

12/24 comparison: the 12hr strip still has the terpenic qualities and it’s still has sharp and jagged edges. The 24hr strip doesn’t. It’s more rounded and has almost disappeared.