Types of Sage and Its Traditional Uses

Latin Name: Artemisia tridentata
Botanical Family: Compositae (daisy family)

Latin Name: Salvia spp.
Botanical Family: Labiatae (mint family)

Sage

The ancient Romans associated sage with immortality, longevity, and strong mental capacities. The Latin verb sapere, from which the common name derives, means both “to have a good taste” and “to have good sense,” thus linking the plant with wisdom. Artemis, the Greek goddess of forests and hills, inspired the genus name Artemisia, which is also the Latin word for mugwort.

Most of the herbal and ornamental sages fall into two great camps: the genus Salvia, which lies within the great Labiatae (Lamiaceae), the mint family, and the genus Artemisia, which belongs to the compositae, or asters. The dominant sage across Europe, a Salvia, differs markedly from the American prairie sage, or sagebrush, an Artemisia.

Artemisia includes about two hundred species of aromatic annual, biennial, and perennial herbs and shrubs native mostly in dry, stony areas of the Northern Hemisphere. Many species create their own colonies, or eco-niches, quickly taking over disturbed ground in the wild. They are grown as ornamentals and for their medicinal, insecticidal, and aromatic qualities, and we know them mostly as the sagebrush, mugworts, wormwoods, and fragrant annies. Southernwood, absinthe, dusty miller (beach wormwood), and garden tarragon are striking Eurasian species of Artemisia familiar in many of our perennial gardens. Their small flower heads are generally in spikes or racemes of tiny disk-like flowers that can range from white to yellow-green, and even brownish to purplish. The alternate leaves can be lobed or dissected, and most have unusual fragrance.

The most common species west of the Mississippi River – and the most sacred smudging herb – of the rugged, attractive native sages growing in dry areas of North America is the classic sagebrush, A. tridentata. This rounded evergreen shrub can grow up to ten feet tall, and its silvery-gray foliage and branches are highly aromatic. Nineteen species of sage are native to the greater California – West Coast regions. Sand sage, A. filifolia, can grow to five feet tall in the desert Southwest regions, while Alaskan sage, A. frigida, is a more prostrate, mat-forming species, which grows south into Kansas and Arizona. The highly aromatic white sage, A. ludoviciana, found across the West, has been hybridized into garden varieties called Silver King and Silver Queen. This native herb was first collected in the Louisiana Purchase regions in the eighteenth century – a bit of history reflected in its Latin species name.

The genus Salvia embraces more than 750 species of herbs, some growing as shrubs, widely distributed throughout the world’s dry, stony regions. Salvia comes from the Latin salvare, meaning “to cure,” and these are certainly healing plants. Some Salvias are cultivated as ornamentals and for culinary, perfumery, and medicinal uses. Our native scarlet or Texas sage, Salvia coccinea, is one of the most widely cultivated ornamental sages, along with the aromatic native pineapple-scented sage, S. elegans, which can grow to more than three feet tall.

Common (culinary) or garden sage, S. officinalis, is the familiar Mediterranean herb we use in cooking and some teas. This species was a favourite ancient potherb, cultivated for many centuries. Attractive cultivars grown today in varieties of purplish-red variegated leaves are purpurascens and purpurea along with the gold/white/green tricolor and the albiflora, which are favoured in many of our kitchen gardens and are welcome additions to any garden. A California native, the aromatic blue sage, S. clevelandii, is often recommended as a substitute for culinary sage.

Many more native Salvia species are used ceremonially and medicinally, especially the southern California greasewood or white sage, Salvia apiana, which can grow three to eight feet tall, with oblong leaves covered in white hairs and white to pale lavender blooms. The Great Plains blue sage, S. azurea, has been naturalized in the East and hybridized into several showy varieties. The white woolly Mexican bush sage, S. leucantha and the tall rosy-leaf sage, S. involucrata are stunning southern perennial shrubs. In the Northeast, our native cancerweed, S. lyrata, is a diminutive perennial with noted medicinal uses. Wide-ranging historical uses for these herbs span the broad spectrum of human needs.

Traditional uses:

Indians throughout the Americas extensively use numerous species of native sage. For example, in the Artemisia genus, many western tribes use Alaskan sage, A. frigida, and sand sage, A. filifolia, medicinally and ceremonially. Rocky Mountain sage, A. arbuscula, and California sage, A. Californica, are collected and dried for ceremonial smudging, and their leaves are chewed for relief of congestion and sore throat. Native peoples have long exploited Salvia carducea for its aromatic qualities and cooling, fever-reducing principles, along with gray or purple sage, S. leucophylla, the West Coast gray ball sage, S. dorrii, and the stout thistle sage. Some sage species are now commercially grown to meet the growing demand for their use in sacred and ceremonial rites.

Dried sage leaves, stems, blossoms, and seeds have long been used as sacred smudging herbs, and many tribes traded for favourite species to use for medicinal teas, sedatives, insecticides, and fumigants. Special clothing, especially ceremonial apparel and masks, was often packed away between layers of dried sage to protect it and keep it fresh. The spirits associated with ceremonial items were and are blessed with sage, and these items were often tied with a sprig of sage for strength and respect. Sage was and is one of the foremost sweat lodge herbs, used by American Indians to banish all negative spirits and emotions and to smudge over the fire. This beneficial herb has long been important on tribal and personal altars and carried in the medicine bag and the car.

Modern uses:

Today, herbalists around the world use the sages to relieve many problems. Chinese red sage, Salvia miltiorrhiza (dan shen), is traditionally used for heart and circulatory problems. Many of the European and native American species serve similar needs and also as digestive tonics, gargles, and a valuable hormonal stimulant for women throughout their childbearing years and menopause. Culinary sage, S. officinalis, is also a traditional treatment for asthma, and is drunk as a tea to clear the mind and stimulate thought. Many of us wear a sprig of sage in the garden as an insect repellent.

Cautions:

Some individuals can suffer respiratory problems, such as hay fever, and some may even experience slight dermatitis from handling certain species in these two large families. Yet many people rub sage leaves on their bodies to ward off insects and never have any skin problems.

Growth needs and propagation:

Most species of sage tolerate sandy, alkaline soil that is well drained. They flourish in rich soil and full sun. Plants do not seem to come as well from seed as they do from root and stem cuttings; they take a good two years to come to maturity from seeds. Once mature, the blossoms and leaves can be clipped repeatedly for ritual or medicinal use. Check them carefully for plant pests, and spray with an organic soap mixture if you detect spittle bugs or spider mites. Sage has many antibacterial properties and usually remains pest-free.

Companions:

Sage grows well with other gray-leaved herbs that like slightly alkaline soil, such as coneflower, evening primrose, yarrow, rosemary and lavender.

The Great Spirit is our Father, but Earth is our Mother. She nourishes us; that which we put into the ground she returns to us.

– Big Thunder, Wabanakis, Maine

Sage tea is an excellent remedy for sore throats, because Sage is antiseptic and astringent. This astringency also makes sage useful for diarrhea. The Sage herb is also used as a digestive stimulant – in Chinese medicine, it is a yin tonic used for nerves to both calm and stimulate the nervous system.

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