Watch our documentary Tending The Wild on KCET TV, February 7 at 9:00 p.m.
This article includes discussion of Native Californian peoples' traditional use of plants as medicine. It is intended for cultural and environmental education purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice.
There are few plants as important in the Native Californian medicine cabinet as white sage. Its aromatic, waxy leaves have long been used to treat a variety of ailments and to promote general health. Traditional Native Californians before contact found white sage so indispensable for everyday life that a bundle of its leaves was a standard gift. Native tribes living well outside of the natural growing range of white sage valued it too, and the leaves were traded across much of the west.
There are also few Native medicinal plants whose popularity among non-Native people contributes so much to their increasing scarcity in the wild. Demand for those little bundles of white sage leaves has generated a substantial wildcrafting industry. In those parts of the mountains of Southern California closest to cities, it is increasingly common to come upon once-prodigious stands of white sage sheared to the ground. Not only is that ecologically problematic, but it’s also considered disrespectful; many California Indians hold that white sage is supposed to be a gift, not a commodity that’s bought and sold.
The good news is that the backdoor trade in white sage is unnecessary, because it’s startlingly easy to grow white sage in the cities at the base of those mountains. All you really need is a sunny, dry spot and a small amount of patience.
White sage, Salvia apiana, is one of a group of closely related Salvias native to California, including chia, Cleveland sage, and black sage. White sage was used ceremonially in the fashion with which most urban Californians of a certain bent are familiar these days: burning to fill the air with the leaves’ pleasant-scented smoke. But it was also used internally, with teas taken for digestive complaints, sore throats and bronchitis, and to ease menstrual pain and symptoms of menopause. There may be some explanation for that last use in the plant’s healthy supply of phytoestrogens, plant chemicals similar to human sex hormones. As for the respiratory effects, white sage’s eucalyptol content would explain those, and it’s possible that eucalyptol, along with tannins, is also the reason the tea was (and is) used externally on sores as a mild antiseptic.
Many Native people, and others, use white sage internally for those same complaints today. The leaves do contain a potentially toxic chemical called thujone that can cause anxiety, confusion, and kidney problems, so — as with many herbal teas — small amounts are the way to go unless you’re consulting with a health care professional.
In the garden, white sage is a tender perennial that will come back from frosts as cold as 10°F or so. That means that most California gardens outside the alpine zone are suitable from white sage. Hard frosts will kill a white sage plant to the ground, with new growth arising from the root system once the soil warms. In warm-winter parts of the state, you may have to trim your plant aggressively to keep it from dominating a small garden, unless you like that sort of thing.
And white sage is tailor-made for California gardens in an age of drought. Enthusiastic watering can actually kill it, especially if your soil has slow drainage.
It’s easier and easier to find white sage in nurseries these days. When choosing a container-grown white sage, it’s good to err on the side of smallness: plants in containers larger than one gallon are a bit more susceptible to transplant shock, and the one-gallon plants will catch up to their bigger siblings within a year or so.
Fall is the best time for planting white sage from containers; it’s the start of the species’ typical growing season, and it’s also the time of year when rain has the best chance of falling on the soil right when the plant needs a little water to get established in its new home. (You should count on giving white sage a few deep waterings during its first fall and winter, especially in drought years. That’s still less water than a Japanese maple would need.)
If you’re a more adventurous gardener, or if (like me) you’re painfully cheap, you can also grow white sage from seed pretty easily. Seeds should be planted in spring if you’re growing your small plants in a seed tray or small containers. (Larger containers will stay wet longer, increasing the chances that a fungus will kill your seedlings.)
To germinate, simply sprinkle the white sage seeds on the surface of the soil, then wet them down with clean water from a plant mister type spray bottle. The seeds need light to germinate, and should be kept somewhere between 70° and 85°F. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. (That mister bottle is the perfect tool for this.)
Germination should take two to three weeks, and somewhere around half your seeds will germinate. (If you’re using little pots, six-packs, or peat pellets, that’s why you should put a few seeds in each one.) If you’re using a seed tray, you can start thinking about transplanting the new sages into pots after they develop their first pair of true leaves, which come after the “seed leaves” that first emerge at germination.
Maintain your potted sages until fall, then transplant them into their permanent digs.
When your sage has settled in for a year or two, once it's growing vigorously, you can harvest its leaves by pruning the plant's top growth just above a "node," a joint in the stem from which leaves are growing. Sometimes those nodes will already be sending out side branches; sometimes they're waiting for your careful pruning to stimulate those side shoots.
Don't wrap those leaves into bundles right away unless you live in the desert: dry the leaves for a couple weeks first. That will help keep the leaves from developing mildew, which no one wants.
One last idea: if you really want to grow white sage the old-fashioned way, take those seeds and scatter them on the ground in the garden patch you have in mind. Many of the germinating seeds will be eaten by insects or other animals, but with enough seed, you’ll probably still have more sage than you need.