(powerful and gentle: a trait shared by fantastic herbs and humans alike) My favourite white sage patch is a long way away. A 40 minute drive from civilisation, and then a 2 hour hike through yerba santa, juniper and pinyon forests, a couple of stream crossings, through some scratchy bushes, until finally you emerge into a clearing with a big old grandmother plant, surrounded by her little babies. And their babies too. In the late spring their stalks mark their presence up and down the hillsides like little beacons beckoning you forwards. I’ll spend the day visiting each plant, pruning off a few pieces of the fresh, thick-leaved growth, filling my bag as the day goes on. Later, I’ll pick a rock, or a tree to sit up on, and unpack my lunch and sit back and watch the world around me as I eat. Somewhere along the way, on my journey out and back, I find that I’ve become as affected by the plant I’m gathering as if I’d been taking it myself. My thoughts are clear, my circulation is strong, and I’m moving more efficiently. And I think, if I were to try and define what sage does in a few words, ‘efficiency’ would definitely be one of them. ‘Clarity’ might be another. And the last would likely be ‘deep water’, since that’s what it seems to act on, and it's often good at getting you out of it...
I use white sage, because it’s native here, because it's abundant, and because I have been tending the same couple of patches since I moved to LA (and the same few out in the desert for longer than that): spreading seeds, pinching off tips, and making sure they are growing more abundant not less. Also, I have a plant in my garden, just in case. But you can use any species of salvia- from garden sage (which most of the Western herbal literature is written about) to whatever your local species might be (if you have them). You can also pick up garden sage at the supermarket, if you can’t find any local species.
Every year I make big batches of oil, tincture and elixir, then dry a whole bunch more. The oil I use both in cooking and in salves (sage, yarrow and chapparal is my current best-seller for both wounds and fungal infections); the tincture and elixir I use for medicine, for myself and clients; and then the dried sage gets put in teas, food, and burned as incense or to disinfect a sick room.
While we’re on the topic of sick rooms and burning sage, I was aghast, the other day, to read an article on the subject by a woman claiming to have learned of salvia apiana's ‘energy clearing’ properties from a Cherokee man, as it was his tribe’s sacred plant. Sorry, but no. Salvia apiana doesn’t grow in Cherokee country. It is a Southern California native with an extremely small growing range, and while it IS the sacred plant of the Chumash people, it isn’t sacred to all Native American tribes. White sage is toted as a new age panacea for any kind of ‘negative energy’ and while that’s a really nice idea, it’s stripping Southern California’s hillsides to supply the world with ‘negative ions’. If it’s bad energy you’re worried about, try salt- abundant in negative ions, and much better at ‘clearing the energy’ of a space than any plant. If its the medicinal effects you’re after (of which there are many) try either garden sage, or a sage species local to you. And if its a nice smelling smudge you’re after, try any number of the gorgeous aromatic smoking plants out there in the world. If you are desperate for white sage, and white sage alone (I don’t blame you, its a gorgeous plant and I find it to be the stronger in medicinal action than garden sage) then try growing it, or make friends with a friendly wildcrafter who lives within its growing range and do a trade. Just don’t buy it in big swollen smudge sticks from new age shops: the likelihood of it being an ethical harvest is pretty slim: there’s money involved, and people are just grabbing the entire plant and yanking it out of the ground to harvest it. Plus its incredibly wasteful to burn a big old stick when a leaf or two do quite nicely, either for incense or to disinfect the air.
And it's fantastic at disinfecting the air- all salvia species are- it kills germs, bugs, bacteria and viruses leaving your respiratory tract happy and healthy. Wondering what else you can do with sage medicinally? Here's a nifty list:
For a flu-ridden feverish sick person, make a hot sage, mint, yarrow, elderflower and bee balm tea. To be drunk hot. While wrapping up warm. Burn a sage leaf, to fill the air with that anti-bacterial smoke, and sweat it all out.
Slice yourself while out in the garden? Slap a sage leaf on it. I was out hiking once, years ago, and sliced my thumb up pretty badly. I’d been harvesting sage, so I wrapped the wound with a big sticky leaf, and by the time I got back to the car, it had formed a perfect little line of a scab, and was totally healed within a week.
For a wiry, frazzled, exhausted person with a strung out nervous system and a tendency towards the shakes, a few drops of sage elixir (maybe combined with oats and rose) can work wonders, grounding, calming, soothing and restoring a worn out fried system. Or drop a couple of sage leaves in a mug, with some rose petals and a peach twig, cover with hot water, and then add a dollop of cream and honey. Sip slowly.
After a big heavy fatty meal, brew a sage and mint tea. Stir in a dollop of honey and serve it to your guests before they fall asleep at the table: it’ll help them digest, and wake them up enough to drive home!
When in need of focus (which is quite a lot), combine it with basil in a strong tea, for a great concentration-aid (if you have gotu kola, add some of that too).
And for a hungry person, in the middle of the afternoon, who is looking for something to munch on with some fresh jam and a cup of tea, look no further than sagey oatcakes. The crumbly crispyness of the oatcakes combined with the bite of the sage is perfect for a combination of cheese and sweet things. Goat cheese and apricot jam is my current favourite, but I’m not too picky right now...
White Sage Oatcakes
1 cup steel cut oats
1 1/2 cup rolled oats
4 nice dry white sage (or whatever sage you have) leaves
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup sage infused olive oil*
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp honey
Preheat oven to 350.
Put the oats in a blender, and blend until they're smaller- the rolled oats will get mealy, and the steel cut oats will reduce in size. Probably about 15-20 seconds. Then mix all the ingredients in a big bowl. It might be a bit dry. Very slowly, start pouring in boiling water from the kettle, in teaspoon size increments, mixing it until it's doughy but only slightly sticky.
Roll them out, and cut out individual little oateycakes. I use Jam's favourite Stella glass, but you can use whatever you have on hand.
Bake for 20 minutes. Eat when cool.
*No sage infused olive oil? Take a small handful of sage leaves, cover in a pan with olive oil and heat up gently for about 40 minutes. Don't boil.
I'm sending this post into the Wild Things Roundup- this month's topic is the mint family!