Palo santo is a tree that grows along the coast of South America — in Spanish, the name means holy wood. Its uses are varied: It relieves, apparently, symptoms of the common cold, anxiety, inflammation, headaches, and depression. It cleanses like sage, and its smoke is used to keep away mosquitoes. It’s native to Mexico, the Yucatán Peninsula, Peru, Venezuela, and also, as of the last couple years, to every charming homeware store in Brooklyn.
Not the whole tree, readers! Just bundles of its wood, twined together and sold in pretty paper boxes by Incausa, a Greenpoint-based incense company that stocks sticks of palo santo in 40 stores in Brooklyn alone. They — like their brethren, Marvis toothpaste and Group Partner boob vases — have reached Ubiquitous-in-Brooklyn status, which is probably why I received two packs of the stuff when I made the move from an apartment in East Williamsburg (where there are no shortage of shops with Incausa sticks) to a slightly strange-smelling apartment in Fort Greene (where there are, also, no shortage of shops with Incausa sticks).
I was wary of the incense, as I am of all scented things — I get migraines, and even the mildest candles and perfumes make my head swim. But, eager to conceal the lived-in smell that clung to my new place, I decided to try it out. Like a velvet couch or cashmere pajama pants, the scent is cozy: It’s smoky and piney and, if you march around the perimeter of your apartment with it, the whole place will soon smell faintly, yet powerfully, woodsy, like a spring hike after a rainstorm. Another nice thing is that it needs no incense accoutrements — it can be lit and then set on a table or chair to smoke away, all on its own. And it lasts — the pack that was gifted to me in December, and which I have lit near daily since, seems like it might have another couple of months’ worth left in it.
I would be remiss not to add that the incense makes a near perfect hostess gift — in fact, if I were a more organized person, I would likely order a couple dozen packs of it. “Oh, this,” I’d say, handing the box (which is pretty enough that it needn’t be wrapped) to the casual acquaintance who has apparently invited me to her housewarming party. “It smells wonderful.” At this point, having pleased my imaginary friend, I’d probably drop this fun fact: “Before the business picked up, the owners used to sell it off a folding table on Bedford Avenue on sunny days.”
All said, I love this incense and I’m glad this tree(’s scent continues to) grow (in popularity) in Brooklyn.
More Incense That We Like
“As their name implies, Incense Matches are books of matches that are also incense sticks. They come in 16 different fragrances, like coconut, musk, Goddess of Egypt, and sandalwood. Light one, burn it down a quarter of an inch, and it emits a few smoke tendrils of scent before it extinguishes. It’s a brief wisp of fragrant smoke. No need to turn your bathroom into a donation-based yoga studio.” —Margaret Rhodes
“The scent was delicate but powerful. Not in a nose-singeing, throat-scratching, dorm-room patchouli kind of way, but more like I’d stumbled into a dewy meadow or sun-dappled timberland and inhaled with all my might. Whisper-soft, warm and woodsy, mellow, calming. It’s what I imagine those #forestbathing Instagrams would smell like if they were scratch-and-sniff. More impressively, the scent lingered in the air for hours. I could light a stick at 9 p.m. and still smell it the next morning.” —Ashlea Halpern
“When burned, it gives off the invigorating, pleasantly rustic aroma of a campfire or fireplace, with no perfumey or musky qualities. The scent is strong enough to linger for a day or two, but not overpowering or occultish. And, because they require at least 30 seconds of exposure to a flame to catch (and sometimes need to be relit), each brick of Incienso de Santa Fe comes with the opportunity to feel (a degree of) the satisfaction of starting and tending to a fire on a camping trip. It’s like a quick jaunt to Vail, only you get to stay inside.” —Caroline Bankoff
“There is no mystery to this incense. It’s a fire in a cabin in the New England woods — almost literally. The company has been making incense since 1931 in Auburn, Maine. The website’s “About Us” page tells how “local woodsmen” bring balsam branches to the factory, which are dried and placed into incense molds. On that same page is a slightly pixelated vertical shot of one of the two company dogs, and a tribute to Terry, the octogenarian most-valued employee. The design is that of an old product that suddenly finds itself cool. And instead of spindly sticks, this incense comes in 40 squat little logs that fit seamlessly into a round hole cut into a square of unfinished wood that serves as the incense stand.” —Belle Cushing
“A friend of mine who was a sound artist and also a Japanese incense dealer (which sounds like he sells drugs) would come over to sell all these different kinds of incense. Of all of them, this one stuck in my head because I realized it’s the same exact one that they use in the R by 45rpm store. I smelled it and said, “Oh my god.” I literally can’t live without this stuff. I travel with it. It’s how my apartment smells. I use a little incense holder that I’ve probably had since Reggae Fest 1985 in San Francisco.” —Carlos Quirarte
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