Black sage is an herb of consequence that grows in country of consequential beauty – the California coast. It grows freely on the most conspicuous of sites. Along Route 46 not far from Hearst Castle, where the green hillsides lead to the blue ocean and the imposing outline of Morro Rock, it flowers in a thousand tourist photo foregrounds. For the native Chumash of this territory and current lovers of the earth, black sage is a health ally.
Photo by Bill Rozday
Black sage (Salvia mellifera) is native to the California coastal zone from San Jose to the Mexican border. After flowering season, its stems become tough and black; hence, black sage. Look for it anywhere from sea level to over 3,000 feet. It is one of 17 sage species that colonize the state and is distributed widely enough that ecologists use it as an air quality indicator.
The Chumash Indian territory encompasses black sage range, and this people employed it as an herbal soak to ease foot pain after long hikes. Modern research affirms anti-inflammatory compounds such as ursolic acid and diterpenoids in its foliage.
Today, black sage has entered our culture as a significant food. It grows in the form of dense bushes, which produce a profusion of blossoms that help sustain a large honeybee population. The honey they produce is considered the finest in the world, with a clear color and mild flavor.
This mild flavor, together with the trait of a long shelf life due to non-crystallizing properties, carries occasional honey samplers into the category of regular users. Its clarity and pure sweetness make it a sugar alternative of choice. Its non-crystallizing quality is a fortunate one, since black sage tends to produce honey only once every three years and the bees have it as a food source in the long spells between heavy blooms.
Black sage blooms in April, but the fragrance of the leaves identifies it in other seasons. The oil responsible for its aroma allows it to endure the dry California climate. It also makes the leaves suitable for gourmet chicken dishes, says native plant expert Penny Nyunt of Las Pilitas Nursery in Santa Margarita.
Photo by Bill Rozday
This sage colonizes a second high-profile habitat at McWay Falls, a noted attraction featuring a waterfall dropping onto a Pacific beach. It grows along the popular footpath that hosts untold thousands of photos of the falls and adjacent sandy cove. McWay Falls is situated south of Monterey, along the Big Sur coast.
For a learning experience with black sage, visit Las Pilitas Nursery. The nursery and informal nature center offers the plant for sale. It also grows wild on the adjoining property, which features acorn woodpeckers in a virgin live oak grove, western bluebirds, and occasional visits from a black bear seeking fruit from an ornamental apple tree.
Look for Bill Rozday’s High Ground Books at Virgin Pines Press.