The fragrant leaves of White sage (Salvia apiana), also known as bee sage and sacred sage, have been used ceremonially for centuries in what is now known as Southern California.
Welcome back for the third installment in our series about common salvia plants in Southern California. Many sage plants are native to California, including White sage, and they make beautiful, aromatic additions to the garden that are water wise and attract pollinators and other beneficial fauna. Each week we will take a look at one of the common types of salvia in the Los Angeles area, and how to care for them.
This week we take a look at one of the most beloved, and in some ways most widely used, salvia plants – Salvia apiana, the White sage!
An 1898 illustration of white sage in the San Gabriel Valley
White Sage (Salvia apiana) basics:
- Perennial herbaceous shrub
- 3 – 5 ft tall, 3 – 8 ft wide
- Mounding, rounded form
- Moderate to fast growth rate
- Semi-deciduous in Summer
- Pleasant fragrance
- Flowers: white
- Blooming season: winter, spring, and summer but mostly April through July
White sage is native to the coastal regions of Southern California and Baja California on dry slopes in coastal sage shrub, chaparral, and yellow pine forests below 5000 feet elevation. In the US, it can be found naturally from San Luis Obispo to the Tijuana border; from the beach to Joshua Tree National Park. White sage is a true native to our area, long used by indigenous communities in Southern California for its highly fragrant leaves. White sage belongs here and is an important keystone plant in our shrub and chaparral habitat. This is a plant to be revered and respected.
The Cleveland National Forest in Southern California (Anza-Borrego desert in the background), is an example of upland slope chaparral, where white sage can be found.
Wild white sage populations are under intense danger of suburban development throughout Southern California. As our metropolis grows, white sage’s natural habitat is often stripped bare and levelled. Additional threats come from smudge stick poaching (more on smudging below), climate change (yes, it is happening), drought, and wildfires, which are becoming more intense and frequent. The human population will grow, and houses will be needed, however we must develop smartly, saving as much of our natural ecology as we can.
Riverside County chaparral (Lake Elsinore in the background) is another example of white sage’s natural habitat, an area under intense development for suburban communities. This is our home, and we must care for our home.
White sage is an important food source for bees, butterflies, birds, and therefore, the entire ecology of our local region. Large bees, such as carpenter bees, are the chief pollinators of white sage, along with honeybees.
A honeybee collecting pollen on white sage. When you see a bee, you should always thank her and let her bee on her way.
The silver-white fragrant leaves of white sage (usually 1 to 4 inches in length) are covered in downy hairs, making them soft to the touch. These hairs trigger oil glands that release resins when rubbed, releasing a strong aroma.
White sage has clusters of whorled white flowers with lavender streaks.
Highly noticeable are the long flower stocks (3 to 4 ft in length), sometimes pinkish color, that grow beyond the foliage throughout spring.
Salvia apiana, like many salvia plants, has low water needs, naturally evolved for our local climate. This makes salvia apiana a great addition to a water wise landscape, whether it is strictly a native garden or not. Salvia apiana is a hardy plant, able to withstand temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
- White sage needs full sun
- Very low moisture requirements, often not requiring any supplemental irrigation for survival after establishment (however occasional supplemental water will make it lusher – but do not overwater!)
- Summer irrigation should be at maximum 1x per month once the plant is established
- Prefers a medium to fast draining soil, but can tolerate a variety of soil types
- Usually prefers sandy loam and even gravelly soil (soil PH of 6 – 8)
- White sage can be used for soil bank stabilization, groundcover, and mounding hedges
- It is deer resistant and great for pollinator (hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees, including carpenter and bumble bees) along with seed feeding birds
- Fertilizer is not needed
- Propagation is by seed and no extra treatment is necessary; sow outdoors in early fall
Salvia apiana seeds
Maintenance: spent flower stalks can be removed after bloom in late summer and the sprawling branches can be pruned off at any time.
Traditional Uses of White Sage
Salvia apiana has been used for centuries by the indigenous peoples of Southern California for food and healing ceremonies. The seed is a staple food ground and mixed with flour and sugar to make meal and biscuits. The leaves and stems are also edible, and have long been used by the Chumash people.
The dried or fresh leaves can be made into a tea for ceremonial purposes and even shampoos.
White Sage in Ritual Ceremonies
White sage is commonly used by indigenous peoples to purify or bless people and places. Often, white sage is dried and bundled. These bundles are burnt and the heat releases highly aromatic resin from the leaves as smoke. This practice comes from sacred ceremonies passed down by tribal elders over centuries. The burning incense can also help to keep mosquitoes and flies away.
Man with a smudge pot. This picture is likely not from Southern California, but it gives an idea of how white sage can be used to deter flying pest insects, such as mosquitos.
Members of the Xolon Salinan tribe in a smudging purification ceremony in Fort Hunter Liggett, California. The feather is being used to waft sage smoke onto a tribal elder.
The use of dried white sage bundles in ‘purification’ rituals has become more common among non-indigenous peoples. Often called, ‘smudge sticks,’ these bundles are usually poached en masse from public, or private, lands without permission or care for the damage done to the local ecology. If you ever see bundles of smudge sticks sold in new age stores, or anywhere for that matter, do not buy them. The over-harvesting of wild white sage is a serious ecological concern.
Smudge Sticks are not always sourced from ecologically damaging theft, however they usually are, so do not buy them.
What’s in a Name?
We covered the name ‘Salvia’ in our first Salvia blog post – the Hummingbird Sage – check that out towards the bottom of that page.
The species epithet, ‘apiana’ comes from the Latin word, ‘apianus,’ meaning something similar to ‘belonging to bees.’ The Latin root word, ‘apis’ directly translates to ‘bee.’ As discussed earlier, these plants attract a wide variety of bees, making this a fitting name. If someone has an intense fear of bees, it can be said that they are apiphobic, or have apiphobia.
There is a lunar crater named Apianus (pictured below). This crater was named after the German mathematician and astronomer, Petrus Apianus (1495 – 1552). His birth name was Peter Bienewitz, ‘Biene’ being German for ‘bee,’ hence the Latinized name that was given to him, ‘Apianus.’
Thank you for joining us again in this week’s horticultural adventures. Please come back next Wednesday for our next blog post, and, as always, contact us for all your landscape needs!