Three California Natives that Double as Culinary Herbs

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In my perfect world we Southern Californians would cast off our topiaried Home Depot shrubbery in favor of California natives and a few carefully chosen Mediterranean plants. No more petunias, leaf blowers or fake lawns either. Imagine if all our residential, government and commercial spaces had climate appropriate landscaping? Native insects, birds and other critters would explode in population. It would be a paradise.

It would also be a huge culinary resource. Grow these plants in your garden and you can dodge the controversies of foraging in the wild. Towards that end, I thought I’d look at three easy to grow California natives that look great in a garden and double as culinary herbs.

White sage (Salvia apiana)
If you can grow this one you should. Like most California natives, when used as a culinary herb, it’s much stronger tasting than its cultivated cousins. You need to use it sparingly when cooking with it. Our neighbor has one that made it through our multi-year drought without a drop of water. When you grow it in a garden it’s best to prune it back every year to prevent it from getting rangy looking. You can use the cuttings as smudge sticks or dry them for use in the kitchen. White sage is over-harvested in the wild for the crystal shop smudge stick market which is another reason you should grow this one in your garden.

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Black sage (Salvia melifera)
Our black sage plant has become a giant blob that threatens to take over the backyard. The Chumash people made a tea out of it that functioned as a pain reliever. Like white sage, you can use it in cooking (again, sparingly because of the strong taste).

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California sagebrush (Artemisia californica)
When I imagine of the scent of our local mountains it’s this plant that I think of most. It was the Cahuilla people’s DayQuil. Using it as a culinary herb brings the taste of California to your food. Bees love it too.

You can make a tea with all of these plants and you can dry them for use as a spice herbs. And a reminder that if you’re in a hurry you can dry herbs in a microwave by putting the leaves in one layer between two paper towels. Microwave for one minute and let the leaves cool. If they aren’t brittle, microwave for another minute.

Pascal Baudar (a guest on episode 89 of the Root Simple Podcast) has a phenomenal spice herb blend that uses all three of these herbs combined with some garlic salt. I made a batch last week and have already used it on salmon and popcorn. You can find that recipe on page 158 of his amazing book The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir. I also strongly suggest taking one of Pascal’s classes.

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5 Comments

  1. I’m not in your state or your zone but I too grow white sage in my PNW (Pacific Northwest) Zone 8b garden. Horsetail fern is very invasive in the acidic soil here and I have worked to curtail it by going from an acidic to alkaline soil, but still it persisted….until I planted white sage. I started the sage from seeds in pots and when they were large enough I planted them in and noticed that when the horsetail grew close to it; it became deformed and stunted. When I cut the sage back I chopped & dropped it on a warm day and watered it in to release the natural oils. The Horsetail fern still made appearances here & there but it became much easier to remove it, cut some fresh Sage and add it to that area. Last spring I did a light lime treatment with charcoal & ash and lightly worked it into the soil. The Horsetail fern did not make an appearance at all, again I followed with another Sage cut-back chop & drop after bloom time. Companions with Sage are strawberries, carrots, tomatoes, and cabbage but I do grow it near my fruit trees to attract pollinators. Thank you for this wonderful post on Sage and I’ll be looking into Black Sage and see if I can grow it here. Cheers!

  2. I understand the value of Horsetail Fern and it’s incredible history of evolution on this planet,it’s one of our earliest ferns; but here in the PNW it is “Jurassic” in growth, just like our massive Madrone trees to the more dwarf Manzanita of your area. Many homeowners here use chemical weed killers to deal with horsetail fern but year after year it comes back from it’s soft trailing root system. My neighbor’s do not understand the concept of changing the chemical composition of the soil and planting “plants” that discourage horsetail fern. We have no frogs, salamanders, crickets or snakes because of all the chemical weed killers that have been used here. Night’s are deadly silent. Everything we need was give to us in a very special garden a very long time ago. My lesson about White Sage was purely accidental, I put a plant in a spot and made a discovery about it’s usage. I give all glory to God, and love it as a tea and cooked if full leaf form in a meal! Cheers!

  3. I once used safe for field expedient toilet paper….yikes! It stung and my gas still has an herby smell to this day

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