Salvia Means Salvation: White Sage

Salvia apiana, photo by Stan Shebs

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Today I was lucky enough to be able to take part one of a two part class taught by Cecilia Garcia and James Adams, Jr., authors of Healing with Western Plants at the Theodore Payne Foundation. I’ve blogged about their book before, and was thrilled to be able to see them in person.

Cecilia is a Chumash healer. James is a professor of pharmacology and a botanist. In both the book and in person they do a wonderful tag-team act, delivering both the Chumash message and the Western scientific take on various plants. Not that they’re doing a Scully and Mulder. James is very taken with the gentleness and efficacy of these plants and repeatedly said he wished western medicine would reconsider their value.

I thought I’d give you a taste of today’s lessons by telling you a bit of what I learned about white sage, Salivia apiana, we’wey (waykway) in Chumash. The most fragrant and beautiful of all Salvias.

Flower of Salvia apiana, photo by Stan Shebs

White sage is a native Californian plant which is grown in many places, as long as it can grown in dry conditions (overwatering will kill it quick) and the winter temps aren’t too cold. See Plants for a Future Database for details. It has beautiful soft silvery foliage and white to pale purple flowers that bees adore. We’ve got two planted and are looking forward to having our own homegrown supply. After today, I want to find a place for another plant.

Even if you think you don’t know this plant, you do. This is the stuff that New Age types like to burn in their smudge sticks–because it smells good, and has a sort of fuzzy reputation as being sacred or protective or cleansing. This, unfortunately, has led to over-harvesting in the wild to meet the demand. Cecilia had a long, funny rant about smudge sticks. Suffice it to say she does not like them, because, at very least, they are wasteful. They’ve been getting larger and larger, as if bigger = more mojo. All a big smudge stick does is keep more precious white sage leaves unavailable for any purpose other than burning.

She said that if you felt the need for the smoke, you should burn a single leaf, and pray while you do it. She said that white sage should never be burned thoughtlessly, like incense, because it is their most sacred plant.

A better use for white sage is in your water bottle. 

Cecilia recommended that we (the class, aka people with interest in plant healing) drop a single white sage leaf (dry or fresh) into our water bottles and so drink a bit of its essence every day. She uses does this herself and takes it further, keeping a leaf in the 1 gallon bottles she uses for cooking, as well as in her water bottle, so she is ingesting a tiny bit of her most sacred plant on a daily basis.

Why? To keep you calm, to repair your soul.  As she says in the book:

It is our everyday plant. It is a spirit plant. If you don’t have it, everything is going to bother you. You drink it by putting a leaf in cool water every day. You are going to be calm enough to be rational. It will enhance any medicine you take and protect you from the toxicity of medicines. It tickles your spirit, your conscience, and helps you keep your integrity. If you drink it every day, you won’t’ get as many colds.

 Does it work? Well, I’m willing to try it, because I love sages and have a deep affinity for them, and trust my experience with garden sage and colds enough to believe in the medicinal qualities of any Salvia. I’ve been sipping my sage enhanced water bottle all day.  Don’t know if it’s making me calmer, but it does lend a pleasant taste to the water.

As to the mental/spiritual effects, I cannot speak with any authority. James does note that it contains a compound called miltirone which may act like Valium to relieve anxiety. My purpose here is not to convince skeptics, nor to get all “woo-woo” on you, but to present traditional wisdom as it has been told to me.

White sage has a multitude of medicinal uses*, which you can read about in their book, or elsewhere. But I will share with you is Cecilia’s advice on using it as a hot tea, as her instructions were quite specific. White sage is very powerful, so if you wish to brew a hot cup of tea to address a cold or other illness, you should prepare it this way:

Put one leaf in one cup of cold water. Bring the water (and the leaf) to a gentle simmer.

• Do not let it reach a full boil.
• Do not sweeten the tea with anything.
• Only drink this tea at night, before bed, never during the day.
• Do not drink more than one cup a night.

Oh, one last note of interest. She firmly believes that essential oil of white sage is dangerous and discourages its use strongly–not only for internal use, but external use as well, even mixed into massage oil. This is holds for any of the native plants. They are powerful on their own–their properties do not need to be consolidated. As she and James say, for her, the standard dosage is 1 leaf per day. Think about how essential oil is made: a huge armload of foliage (or more) will yield a teeny tiny bottle of oil. Each drop of that stuff equals god knows how many leaves. She made this point many times during the class, so I’m passing it on.


* ETA: After some comments have come in, I’m thinking I should clarify something here. Salvia apiana is very powerful stuff. Many sources say it should not be used medicinally. Obviously the Chumash disagree. But you can see from the very strict guidelines around the tea recipe that Cecilia takes its strength seriously.

All salvias have medicinal qualities. Plain old culinary sage can make fantastic medicine and is much safer to play with, especially if you’re just starting out with herbs. If you have access to white sage, I’d encourage you to try the white sage leaf in the water bottle–just to experience where that sort of relationship with a plant might lead you. But for other purposes I’d recommend you stick to culinary sage, unless you’ve studied this plant, maybe have Cecilia and James’ book, and are clear on what you’re doing.

Here’s a quick overview of the medicinal properties of regular sage from herbalist Susun Weed:

Leave a comment


  1. I have white sage seeds and this post just re motivated me to get going on those seeds!! I love white sage as a way to cleanse the body, mind, and house! I have burned sage sticks to cleanse the energy and did not know they were over harvesting the plant, so i shall plant my own and just harvest that! : )

  2. (er, you probably meant “salvia is salvation” not “saliva is salvation” unless there’s some interesting sage-chewing techniques you didn’t mention…)


  3. @anon, parsimony: Oops! That’s embarrassing! Thanks for pointing it out.

    Though actually, seems Cecilia is a big fan of using spit in poultices, etc…so maybe saliva is salvation after all?

  4. Woo! I am going outside to pluck a few leaves right now 🙂 The tea at night sounds like a good way to ensure restful sleep, and I really like the idea of the leaf kept in a gallon of water for drinking, for cooking, etc.

    Smudge sticks annoy the hell out of me, btw, so it made me giggle to see Cecilia’s opinion of them.

    This is pretty easy to grow, btw. My planting instructions from Bountiful in Willits suggested that sometimes the seeds are more willing to germinate if you scorch the ground over them a bit, as in lay down some dry leaves and pine needles, and light that, but I omitted that step and got good germination a couple summers ago. I’m up in eastern Contra Costa county, where the summers are hot, and the winters quite cold, but my plants winter over pretty well.

  5. My white sage looks like this BUT has slight serrations on the tips. and does not have the scent that this (photo) variety does. Still use it as a smudge mixed with lavender. Its also invasive growing by root propogation. Will ahve to try it in the water bottle. Grow several salvias, as well as some Artemesias (often called sage also) for their usefulness as well as their flowers.

  6. @Sara: I don’t know if you should drink it just to relax if you’re not otherwise ill. I got the impression from her that it is serious medicine. The calming properties are to calm someone who is anxious *because* they are sick. I think I should rephrase that part in the post. For general relaxation I think she’d say it’s enough to sip the leaf water all day.

    She’s got us working on these herb blends that you breathe for restful sleep–thing is I don’t know all what’s in them. When I find out next week, I’ll post about those.

    It’s great that your sage is doing so well!

  7. @Mrs. Homegrown, as it happens, I have high blood pressure and just got diagnosed with asthma after having this ridiculous cough for eons, but thanks for the clarification. I think sipping a bit of the water could calm me down at work, for starters.

    Salvias in general are just friendly plants, I find.
    And those herb blends sound fascinating 🙂

  8. @Lauren:

    I don’t know if I’d do the water bottle thing with any other sage. White sage is incredibly important to the Chumash, spiritually, so in a way keeping it in your water bottle is like taking a daily sacrament.

    But other sages have medicinal value–all Salvias do. I make strong sage tea (garden sage) to drink when I have a cold/flu, and I also make sage honey. If you want to play with sage as medicine, I’d definitely play with common culinary sage.

    Here’s a short article about sage that might be helpful:

    Interestingly, in it the author says that white sage should not be used as a medicine–it’s too strong. Experts disagree, I guess. But it is very, very strong. That’s why Cecilia is so firm about how to make the tea, and that you can’t have more than a cup a day.

  9. @Sara: Apparently Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon crassifolium) was the Chumash lung herb–used for asthma and any other breathing complaint. Actually, James said it was used by western medicine to treat TB prior to modern drugs.You might want to check it out. It’s a So. Cal plant, so don’t know if it will be where you are, but their book says Eriodictyon californicum is closely related and is found all the way up into Oregon.

  10. LOL…maybe exchanging spit is kin to a spiritual experience. Once I saw the initial “saliva,” I just did not see you spelled it right every other time.

    As for using yerba Santa to treat tb, Mammoth Cave and the caves near me were also used as a sanitorium for tb patients because “modern” medicine of the time proclcaimed that fresh air and sunshine were deleterious to the declining health of tb patients obstructed healing. The constant temp and humidity of the caves were supposed to be beneficial. Soooo, I never listen to the opining of early healers without further investigation.

    It may seem counterintuitive to what I believe about alternative medicine and natural remedies, but I distrust any herbal medicine that I have not thoroughly investigated by medical doctors and scientists because I have so many allergies to plants. However, I am sure some of the chemicals that I willingly swallow are just as bad for my health. It is a quandary.

    That said, I am a believer in natural remedies. Okay, this was all brought on by tb treatment. Not a rant, I assure you.

  11. This is an awesome post! Thanks for sharing. I feel like I am growing in my appreciation for the sacredness of different plants every day. The idea of placing one in your water, or burning just one leaf, reminds me of the idea of flower essences or homeopathy- less is more. I also think it’s really interesting that she doesn’t feel the essences are useful. Some herbalists I know talk of respect for the whole plant, not just isolating a single component. I love that idea and wonder if we get so obsessed with “extra strength” that we forget.

  12. great information~ i heard an interview w/ James on the “Herbal Highway” a while back, and it was the information about S. Apiana and the “one leaf tea” that made me decide to start growing it. that and the fact that finding out about any medicinal plant that is *native* to SoCal, makes me want to immediately invite it into my garden!

    i do occasionally burn white sage ritually, and would like to confirm that a little goes a looong way. lighting the edge of the leaf and just letting it burn out after a few seconds seems to be sufficient to get things “off to a good start” as it were. it also ensures that even a single leaf will last a while.

    thanks for posting this!

  13. WOW – last night took a cup of salvia apiana tissane. One leaf in hot water. Had been to the dentist, 3 teeth and three different rounds of lidocaine injections for stubborn nerve. Aching and discomfort gone in 20 minutes from just a single cup. Thanks

  14. White sage, Salvia apiana, is strong but far less so than Salvia officinalis and much safer. The essential oil is mild and absolutely divine! I make it myself. The sage is cut from the roads by a masiccator where I live and Im so happy to carefully and respectfully harvest it before they do that so as to use the leaves for essential oil. After being clear cut by the forest service it grows back abundantly and flourishes!! It loves being pruned. How bout that? Anyhow, white sage is a sage and it is special because its a medicinal wonderful plant and should be used as a local plant to treat respiratory disease among many other ailments.

  15. interesting article! Been looking for white sage but am having a hard time finding it! I could certainly use one of these plants or even some seeds…..

  16. Pingback: Salvia apiana ~ “White or Bee Sage” | California Wildflowers in the Spring, 2013

  17. Pingback: White Sage ~ Salvia apiana-Jeps | peachyhiker

  18. Pingback: White Sage and Bees and our other sage friends | Root Simple

  19. Pingback: Picture Sundays: White Sage | Root Simple

  20. Thanks for posting this. I have a question, since I live in Italy and cannot get her book, but I do have some sage which was given to me by a California (I used to live in Los Angeles, and collected the white sage periodically)friend and I would like to start drinking the sage water. You say to put one leaf fresh or dried in a bottle of water. How big should the bottle be and how often should one change the leaf? Your answer would be immensely appreicated. Thanks.

    • It is not a precise measurement. 1 leaf, fresh or dried in whatever size bottle you drink from — maybe 1 litre? More or less does not matter, for Garcia, it would be the presence of the leaf, or more precisely, the presence of the plant spirit which matters, not the quantity. I only let the leaf sit in a bottle for one day before changing for a fresh leaf. This is not so much about spirit as it is about mold!

  21. OLI

    I’ve pulled your comment. You have every right to think what you wish about herbal medicine, or Chumash religious belief, but you can’t express your opinion so profanely and unconstructively on this blog. Also, Cecilia Garcia has passed away since I wrote this post, and in that light, your comment was even more hurtful. She helped many people on her path, and she will be missed.

Comments are closed.