Along the Path: The Wisdom of the Sages

Traditional Indigenous Uses of Native Plants

By Susan Rothrock Deo

“These places where our villages [were built were] right under malls and city parks. The footprint [of the original peoples] is still here…. When you’re feeling a lack of grounding,…you’re not living close to the earth, it’s important to return to those places to be able to feel oneness with them.” An indigenous healer in California

Hiking through the sage scrub or chaparral you might notice the feathery branches of Artemisia, the pale purple flowers accenting the sages, or breathe in their heady aroma. But have you ever thought about the mysteries that lie beneath? The native indigenous people of Southern California, including the Tongva (or Gabrielino) of the South Bay, had intimate connections with these plants. 

Ethnobotany is the study of the human uses of plants. We are still discovering all the indigenous people knew about their local flora. Let’s begin our ethnobotanical journey with a look at three plants from the California cornucopia.

Black sage (Salvia mellifera) Wikimedia Commons

Black sage, also called sacred or honey sage (Salvia mellifera), is the most common sage in California and an important source of food and habitat for wildlife, including nectar for pollinators. It has dark green leaves with a raised texture and white to pale purple flowers. As the stems and whorls of small spent flowers harden, they turn black, thus the common name. On hot days, the plant exudes a resinous, herbal scent, the “perfume of the chaparral.”  The Tongva ground the seeds into meal and made seasonings out of the stems and leaves. Some tribes used plant parts to treat ailments like bronchitis and paralysis. Heated leaves were applied topically for earaches and sore throats. Today, black sage serves as an indicator of air pollution. The plants are monitored for stress as they are sensitive to increased levels of ozone and sulfur dioxide, both serious air pollutants.

White sage (Salvia apiana), like its “cousin” black sage, is also a member of the mint family and a very important food and medicinal plant for California’s indigenous people. The Romans used sage for medicinal purposes too, as evidenced by the plant’s Latin genus name, Salvia, meaning “well.” The pale, silvery green foliage and light lavender blossoms make it appear white from a distance. It has astringent, anti-inflammatory properties and has been proven to kill some bacteria. The Tongva ground the seeds into flour to make mush and biscuits and they used the leaves to flavor foods. Leaves and roots were brewed into teas to treat colds, sore throats and bleeding. Dried leaves were smoked with tobacco or rubbed on the skin to reduce odor. To make a shampoo, leaves were rubbed between the palms with water. The Chumash called it their “everyday plant”: “suck on a leaf or drink it in water every day [to] strengthen your soul and remain calm, peaceful and healthy.” 

Dried leaves of white and black sage were often bundled together and burned to make “smudge,” an aromatic smoke used to anoint people and places and, in combination with prayer, to cleanse of bad associations, worry and stress. Smudge is used around the world, most often with local plants. The demand for our local white sage as a smudge herb, however, has become global and poaching is rampant. Read the accompanying article for more information about this and what you can do to help preserve this local species.

California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) is a member of the sunflower family and not truly a sage, but it has similar properties to the Salvias. It is one of the most medicinally useful of our local plants. It contains two types of potent chemicals: monoterpenoids, which relieve pain (and contribute to its strong sage-like aroma) and flavonoids, which are anti-inflammatory. Its bitter leaves are antimicrobial in nature and the fumes from burning a bundle of them is supposed to help clear respiratory tract infections. The Tongva used it ward off bad spirits, assist with childbirth and perfume the skin and clothes of girls during their coming-of-age ceremonies. Dried leaves were smoked like tobacco in the sweat lodges.  The foliage helped preserve perishable foods and was often a building material for granaries and storage facilities. Its pungent smell also makes an effective insect repellant. A tea of the leaves relieved sore eyes and stomach aches while a poultice from ground leaves was applied to rashes. A decoction of the leaves (a liquor resulting from concentrating their essence by heating or boiling) was used externally for relief of colds, cough and asthma and internally for bronchitis. Some used it as a bath for rheumatism.

These are just some of the uses of three of the plants native to our area – black sage, white sage and California sagebrush – from the hundreds that were important to the Tongva. A taste of California’s ethnobotanical riches we are only beginning to comprehend. The next time you are hiking in the coastal sage scrub, or even walking across a local parking lot, imagine the Tongva, years ago, with their natural grocery store and pharmacy right outside their door.

To learn more:

State Indian Museum Plant Reference Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to Native Plants at the State Indian Museum and their California Indian Uses. California State Indian Museum

Plant Uses: California Native American Uses of California Plants – EthnobotanyArboretum, University of California at Santa Cruz

Ethnobotany Project: Contemporary Uses of Native Plants/Southern California and Northern Baja California Indians, Rose Ramirez and Deborah Small (read about this book or order it):

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