Favored as the best form of sage for smudging, white sage stands out from the other varieties of sage due to its rarity and complex mystical symbolism.
White sage is an intriguing herb. Native only to a small portion of Southern California, it has become a primary symbol of the Native American traditions, even from tribes that had no contact with it originally. The leaves can also be used for cooking and medicinal teas, as well as to make smudge sticks. The seeds and roots are also edible.
Appearance of White Sage
White sage is a perennial desert plant. It grows between 2 and 5 feet tall and can throw flower stems up to 6 feet. The leaves grow in florets atop long stems, sometimes called sage wands, and appear tinted white due to the fine hairs that cover them. The flowers of the white sage range from white to lavender. Seeds develop in shiny, brown, nut like pods which tip over when the seeds are ripe. The white sage has a distinctive dusty, smoky smell.
Growing White Sage
Being a desert plant, white sage needs sandy, well draining soil and lots of sun. Shade and humidity will result in mildew. Over watering will kill a white sage plant. The best method of watering is to give the plant a deep soak every two weeks at the most.
Choose a location with sun and means of keeping the plant warm. South facing walls will collect and reflect heat from the sun to the plant. Mulch of sand or rocks will also gather light and heat, keeping the soil warm. White sage is only hardy to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, so consider options to keep the plant warm in winter in colder regions. Options include covering the plant to retain heat in cold months, treating the plant as an annual and planting a new one each year, and transplanting it into a pot in the winter to bring it indoors.
Growing White Sage Seeds
The germination rate of white sage is very low, 15% or so. To get any plants it is necessary to sow heavily and begin the plants indoors to give them the best chance of germination. Try a cactus potting soil for starting, and a container with excellent drainage. Light has been shown to help with germination as well, so sow the seeds no deeper than ¼ inch or just sprinkle them on the surface. Soak the soil once the seeds are added, but only water lightly as needed until the seedlings appear. This should take 2 to 3 weeks. What seedlings surface should only be transplanted after they have 2 to 4 leaves. Plant them at least 2 feet apart to provide space to grow.
Harvesting White Sage Leaves
The leaves of the white sage grow in florets atop long stems. The tops of the stems are fleshy and the lower stems are more woody. This woody section is what is known as a white sage wand. The stem can be cut either high or low, but if cut low the stem will not produce new leaves. If the stem is cut high, in the fleshy area, it will produce two florets next year.
Always harvest with sharp, clean shears to produce a clean edge.
Uses for White Sage Leaves
The leaves can be used to season food, fresh or dried. The florets can be hung upside down to dry in a room with good air circulation, to avoid rot. Once dry, the florets can also be bunched to form smudge sticks. Dried leaves are also good for teas. White sage tea is known to decrease sweating, milk secretions, and mucous secretions of the sinuses, throat, and lungs. For this reason it has long been a treatment for colds. It is also good for sore throats and upset stomachs.
Harvesting White Sage Seeds
The seeds develop in a brown, nut-like fruit atop the flower stems. Collect these pods before they tip to release the seeds. Store them in an airtight container for later use in food or next year's planting.
White sage is a precious commodity, both for its mystical uses and health benefits. It is an important browsing food for many animals in its native ranges. Unfortunately, due to commercial consumption, white sage is becoming more and more rare in the wild. Growing white sage at home is a good way to keep this useful herb available and minimize the damage done to the Southern California ecosystem.