Briscoe White is owner and master grower at The Growers Exchange, an all-natural online garden center that specializes in rare and traditional herbs for culinary, aromatic and medicinal use. He has been in business for more than 20 years. He is a member of many garden and nature-related organizations including the Garden Writers Association. When he's not tending his greenhouse or writing for his blog, Briscoe’s Seeds For Thought, he spends what little free time he has planning his next garden and playing with his dogs on his family farm in Charles City, Virginia.
Have you ever seen someone burn a rustic-looking bundle of dried herbs to cleanse their new home or work space? Well, that herb was most likely white sage. Though some people may find this practice a little odd, burning sacred herbs as a safeguard against evil or negative energy actually dates centuries back, to ancient Babylonian practices. In more recent history, Native Americans continued this ritual throughout North and South America, and burnt this culturally-sacred herb to ward off negative energy and rid their homes and temples of bad spirits. The botanical word for sage, Salvia, actually comes from the Latin word, meaning “to heal.” Its medicinal properties, as well as its natural ability to repel insects (like ladybugs), is probably at the root of its mystical history.
Historically, white sage’s healing powers have been traced through time and have impacted many different cultures, including the ancient Babylonians, ancient Greeks, the Chinese and a host of Native North and South American tribes who used white sage in their healing and prayer rituals. Used for everything from curing headaches, sores and snakebites to attaining mystical foresight and thwarting bad spirits, white sage is an extremely culturally valuable herb.
In more modern medicinal applications, white sage has been studied for its ability to aid the body in managing insulin levels, which could prove to be helpful for diabetics. White sage possesses antibacterial and decongestant agents that are scientifically proven to help treat strep throat, reduce mucus secretion in the respiratory system, inhibit coughing and generally boost the immune system. The USDA has even approved white sage as a legitimate treatment for eczema and other skin afflictions, after extensive tests have proved that the antibacterial properties of this “wonder” herb have lessened the symptoms of outbreaks. When made into a tea, white sage acts as a soothing, natural cure for stomach indigestion and sore throats, and may reduce sweating. It has also shown to lessen the painful effects of heavy menstruation, but should not be used by pregnant or nursing mothers as it can also decrease lactation production.
Though not as commonly used as garden sage for cooking, white sage can also be used as a culinary herb. Used in many of the same ways to flavor dishes that garden sage also improves, like lamb, stews, and breads, white sage lends a savory flavor to your favorite dish. Also significant in desert areas, like the southwestern United States, animals use this heat-loving herb as their home-sweet-home, allowing for small game to breed and become plentiful for tribes who once relied on them as a primary source of food. This is another reason why white sage is so integral to the Native American culture in particular, as it not only flavored their food, but also housed it and helped it remain in large quantity. Heat loving and water conserving, sage also created essential oases in desert areas, and many Native American tribes were known to chew the leaves to fight heatstroke.
If you plan to use white sage as a smudge stick or to smolder for cleansing, makes sure you harvest the leaves in the late summer through early fall . Spread them out to dry slightly, allowing them to wilt until the leaves become leathery feeling. Then, bind them together with string and hang in a moisture-free place to continue drying. This will ensure that your white sage smudge stick lasts longer (up to two years) and will burn slower.
Whether you are growing white sage to spice up your rack of lamb or to cleanse the energy of previous tenants from your home, this beautiful silvery herb is a lovely attraction in the garden.
Photos by Briscoe White, The Growers Exchange