Few plants cause a fervor in [non-plant] people. Case in point: last Christmas (which, for the record, was my first real Christmas) I woke up just before dawn at my in-laws. Their house is up on a hill, facing the east, overlooking the Coachella valley, so I threw on my shoes, and a sweater over my pajamas and went out for a walk into the desert. I wandered for a while, sat on a big rock, watched the sunrise, and gathered a big bunch of desert lavender (hyptis emoryi) for my mother-in-law. I came back inside to a mug of fresh coffee, and presented her with her bouquet. The look of joy that I was expecting was not really returned. I imagine this is how my cat feels after presenting me with an animal part, only to be placated until she turns her back and I can politely throw it away.
I thought this was the case with all plant matter, until I gave a friend some white sage.
A few days later his friend accosted me outside his yoga studio demanding to know where I gathered the white sage as he wanted some for himself. His eyes were wide and bright. His hand clasped my arm firmly. Knowing how white sage gets plundered- indeed people will rip out whole plants to sell on the boardwalk at Venice Beach- I directed him to a trail that’s completely overrun with poison oak. Being creepy and demanding by the way, is not a way to make friends or find out information.
It is, one of the things that I love about plants: sometimes things grow in the places they are needed most. Los Angeles is a terribly ungrounded city- ask anybody who moves here and the first complaint is usually how damn flaky everyone is. Add to that the obsession with ‘cleansing’ and raw food veganism and you have a dangerous formula for some crazy folk. Like the white sage guy. But I mention this case specifically because white sage is proving, time and again, to be one of my favourite herbs for grounding.
It’s a specific type of grounding- a thinking too much, nervous jitters kind of grounding. For the kind of nervy-ness that one feels after drinking too much caffeine or before public speaking, where the palms of the hands sweat and the heart is racing and one is shaking and exhausted but can’t sit still. This kind of anxiety feeling is also very common during hypoglycemic attacks- I’ll get them on occasion if I’m stressed out and forget to eat for too long- and a dropper of white sage elixir with some protein calms the palpitations and anxiety very quickly. This isn’t a property that’s exclusive to white sage- Kiva Rose writes about a similar effect with her local species of sage (which actually sounds a lot stronger in grounding effect), and I’ve experienced the same thing, though to differing degrees with other local sages. The sage causes a relaxation in the belly- I assume due to its carminative effects- and that the grounding comes from the relaxation of the nervous system.
It’s this grounding, in my opinion, that makes white sage so good at aiding concentration- especially for those nervous-type people who can’t concentrate on one thing for more than a minute, and tend towards being jittery. It gives a solid tug back down to earth, and, as paradoxical as it sounds, this relaxation facilitates better concentration. I’ve seen it work to this effect on overdramatic teenagers and menopausal women alike- the common factor being that vata-type personality: airy folk who move quickly and think quickly and get exhausted quickly and have a hard time sitting still.
This would make it useful enough already, but it also stops bleeding and facilitates healing. I had opportunity to put this to good use one day when I was miles from civilisation on a gathering mission. I sliced my thumb on my secateurs (which, handily, have a sharp knife on the outside edge) and it was gushing blood and hurt like hell. All I had to wrap it with was my white t-shirt and I really didn’t want to ruin it with blood stains, so I chewed up a sage leaf, stuck it on the wound, then wrapped it in another sage leaf and headed back towards the car. The pain relief was almost instant and by the time I was back in the car the bleeding had stopped. I switched the bloody leaf out for another one, and wrapped the whole thing in a hair-tie and went home. Two days later there was the tiniest sliver of a scab, and a week and a half later there wasn’t much sign of any injury at all. Needless to say, I now carry a first aid kit in the car, and salvia apiana goes in all my wound and pain salves. Since then I’ve seen it work over and over again to reduce pain, ease inflammation, prevent infection and speed healing.
This ability of sage to prevent infection is really important- in open wounds as I just mentioned, but also to the immune system and especially to the respiratory tract. An easy explanation for the banishing of ‘evil spirits’, which white sage is so often claimed to do, is that pathogens in the air are killed on contact with the volatile compounds in the sage leaf (probably the eucalyptol and camphor). Long before the intricacies of modern science, many diseases were thought to be caused by ‘evil spirits’, and indeed, studies done on mugwort (another popular smudge herb) have proven the mugwort to be just as effective as ultra-violet light for disinfecting an area. Smudging with sage leaves can be very beneficial in a sick room- the smoke is inhaled and has direct contact with the entire respiratory tract, aiding both the sick person and the caregiver. Luckily for those of you who don’t have immediate access to white sage, almost all other sages smudge beautifully, and plenty of other plants can do the same. Father Sebastian Kneipp, the Bavarian herbalist, wrote about the purifying properties of juniper smoke, and artemisia ludovicana was the most sacred plant of the Cheyenne Indians, who used it to purify spaces and drive away sickness. Our local artemisias here work nicely too, though I’m still quite partial to the smell of white sage smoke.
These aromatic oils are also what makes salvias in general so good as a digestive aid- assisting the body in assimilating protein and fats. In aiding digestion, sages move dampness from obstructing the middle. Sage is remarkable in this way- regulating the flow of blood, water, milk and oil alike. I think it has an affinity for body fluids in general. Fluids and the nervous system, regulating both with surprising efficiency.
This aromatic damp-moving aspect of it is what gives sage the reputation for bringing clarity. In TCM, mental issues are often seen as phlegm- indeed with people with mental issues it often seems as though there is a film obstructing clarity. It is as though, over time, the aromatics of sage help to burn away that film.
While white sage is a beautiful plant and a fantastically strong medicine, its properties aren’t exclusive- it just happens to be the sage that I work with most often, given its abundance in my local area. I’m sure that an exploration of other spp. would come up with similar findings, to varying degrees. And while it’s easy to get caught up in the hype of a plant being toted as ‘special’ or even ‘spiritual’ (as I’m sure the man who accosted me believed it to be), it really is no more special than any other plant. Sacredness is not something that we find outside ourselves- no plant can make us more connected to the universe than we already are. No plant can clear the energy of a space that we don’t want to clear, and conversely, a space can be cleared ‘energetically’ with nothing but intention. To make these properties ‘magical’ is to ignore the beauty and miracle that is chemistry. To place this power outside ourselves is, I think, a detriment to the abilities we have as human beings. The sacred is what we choose to be sacred. And much like plants, it is in all of us, not a select few.
Rebecca Altman. 2009.