Sustainable Smudge – Growing White Sage on the Canadian Border

By Michael Pilarski

Most of us are familiar with the smell of burning white sage smudge sticks – a Native American tradition which has spread far and wide. What percentage of the smudge sticks are wild crafted and what percentage are from cultivated sources? How many people are growing white sage to relieve pressure on the wild stands? I don’t know the answer, but suspect that almost all of it is wild crafted.

White sage (Salvia apiana) is a 3-6 foot tall shrub which only grows in a relatively restricted natural range in southern California. It is found in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego counties and the adjacent 5 counties, and into Baja, Mexico. White sage is a component of the plant community known as “Southern Coastal Sage Scrub”. There are a number of other Salvia species found in various parts of the coastal sage scrub principally black sage (Salvia mellifera). Black sage tends to be nearer to the coast and white sage more in the interior parts of the coastal sage scrub range. White sage hybridizes with the other species where it comes in contact with them.

I have successfully grown white sage as an annual for the last 5 years in Washington State just south of the Canada border. All the plants I have planted in the ground die in the winter. However, I have been able to over winter plants in pots in the greenhouse in this interior NW location as well as on porches in Bellingham on the Puget Sound coastline.

In early spring the seeds are sown in a flat and subsequently the seedlings are pricked out ot 4” pots and grown on in the greenhouse. After the danger of frost is over they are planted out in the field or garden. I have been pleased with how much growth the plants make in one growing season. Each year I grow more plants. This year I grew 91 plants, mostly planted out 18” apart in rows 3 ‘ apart.

Here in the Twisp River Valley on the east slope of the North Cascades, we have hot dry summers. White sage likes this climate in the summer. With irrigation my tallest plants have gotten up to 30” tall with multiple shoots. The biggest plant has 14 shoots over a foot long with some single stems being 24” long. The fresh weight of all the shoots combined is over a pound. They can be made into at least 4 large smudge sticks or up to 12 or more smaller bundles. Mind you, this is the largest plant. Because of too tight a spacing in some areas, the average yield of the plants is about 4 major shoots 15” or longer and 6 small stems in the 9-12” range, with the average weight of stems being about ¾ lb per plant. This would mean that the 91 plants would have about 68 pounds of fresh weight stems (about 900 stems).

As I write this article in September we have made about 150 smudge sticks so far this season and we still have more to harvest. Some of the leaf is stripped and dried as loose leaf. Some whole stems are dried as well. These are for sale as medicinal herb. So far I had one order for fresh white sage from a tincture company and I hope to sell more in the future for medicine. It has many useful medicinal applications. Two of the best sources for medicinal use (and other) information are Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West by Michael Moore and the UpS book, Planting the Future.

It turns out that white sage is relatively frost- hardy in the fall. The leaves remain green and growing through the first frosts and even after a number of hard frosts. The oils must be some kind of antifreeze. Eventually the frosts wear it down and the winter finally kills it. So, I harvest after the first light frosts and before too many hard frosts.

Initially I top the young plants to make them bush out with multiple shoots. This year I did not top several of the plants and I like their growth form much better than the topped ones. Without being cut the main shoot gets tall and very bushy with good development of axillary’s shoots at the leaf nodes. The lowest sets of leaf nodes on the trunk become long side shoots and they also have good axillary’s shoot development. In contrast, the more numerous stems of the topped plants have longer leaf internodes (and relatively less leaves per foot of growth) and less axillaries shoot development. The total weight of leaf looks to be higher in plants allowed to develop a central leader. I plan on letting most of my plants develop more naturally in the future.

Large smudge sticks have their place, particularly in large group ceremonies, but small smudge sticks are a more economical use of a currently limited resource. I also like selling people small bags of loose leaves for smudging. For many purposes just burning one leaf will suffice. It is a potent, fragrant smoke. Although my one-year plants may not be as powerful in constituents as the older and more drought-stressed wild white sages in their native habitat, my cultivated leaves are very fragrant and strong-smelling and they were grown with love.

Several people who supply wild crafted white sage sticks commercially have told me that the second year of drought in California (2002) was so severe that many of the white sage bushes dropped their leaves and even where there were leaves there was little or no shoot elongation the following year. The white sage stick supply was light that year, with very short sticks. Drought, of course, is no stranger to white sage and its range has shrunk and grown numerous times in the past. A lot of white sage habitat has been developed in Los Angeles County in this century as well as in the surrounding counties that constitute its sole range. If climate change brings longer and deeper droughts in the coming decades, that will also reduce its range of suitable habitats. Alongside these two major threats (development and climate change) wild crafting is likely a relatively minor threat. But does anyone really know for sure?

If you are concerned for white sage’s welfare and like to use white sage for medicinal or spiritual reasons, then consider growing some plants next year. Seeds and seedling plants are available from a number of the usual herb seed and plant sources.

Michael Pilarski can be contacted at: Friends of the Trees Wildcrafted Botanicals, P.O. Box 252, Twisp, WA 98856 (509) 997-9200; www.friendsofthetrees.net