By Paula Urtecho
In arriving at a subject for this month’s What’s in your Watershed article, some colleagues and I were talking about ways of healing following this awful year and someone mentioned burning sage, or “smudging”, as a means of cleansing and renewing. Sage is a plant material that is often used for smudging and it got me thinking about the Salvia species that are found in bay area watersheds.
Black sage (Salvia mellifera) is one of the most widespread of the California Salvia species, ranging from the coastal ranges in the bay area to Baja California. It is a “keystone species” of coastal sage scrub and chaparral plant communities, meaning that it is a species which many other species within those ecosystems depend upon. If it were to be lost, there would be a domino effect of additional species losses.
Black sage seed is a favorite food for quails and other birds and small mammals and its whorls of white to pale lavender flowers are a favorite nectar source for bees and other pollinators. The species name mellifera is derived from the Greek melli, which means honey and ferre, which means to bear, thus black sage is “honey-bearing sage.” It is indeed a very sought out nectar source by beekeepers as it produces delicious honey.
It’s easy to see how black sage, with its strong aroma and resinous leaves and stems, would be effective as medicine. One specific example is that they contain diterpenoids, which are chemical compounds that can alleviate pain and treat respiratory and stomach ailments. The Chumash people (the original land stewards of the coastal region spanning from Malibu to San Luis Obispo) make a strong sun tea of leaves and stems and rub it on painful areas or soak the feet in the tea. The indigenous peoples of the land extending from Baja, Mexico to San Diego, the Kumeyaay peoples, bathe in a tea to treat the aches and pains from flus, rheumatism and arthritis. More locally, the Rumsen and Mutsun language speaking Ohlone people of the Bay Area use the leaves in a few ways: In a decoction that is consumed as a cough suppressant and as a pain reliever for earaches by placing warm leaves inside the ear. Fresh green leaves are chewed to alleviate gas pain and can be wrapped around the neck to treat sore throats.
Black Sage, and sages (Salvia spp.) in general, are plants for healing. The Watershed Project does not sanction the collection of plants in the wild as we are advocates for habitat preservation and restoration. The Watershed Project also advocates for cultural preservation and conservation, and we acknowledge the peoples’ indigenous homelands on which this plant naturally grows and their effort in preserving cultural traditions. For those of us who call the Bay Area home but who are not original stewards, we do highly recommend getting out in nature and “cleansing” through the simple act of being outdoors and experiencing all its sensory wonders, including the beauty and wonderful, healing aroma of black sage.