Safeguarding White Sage


By Susan Rothrock Deo

As we learn about traditional uses of native plants, it is important to develop a connection with the plants and their cultural legacies. “Plants are not just ‘cultural resources.’ Plants are our relatives. They’re to be treated with reciprocal respect.” (Craig Torres, Tongva, from “Saging the World,” California Native Plant Society)

In our modern world trendy ideas can ignite the popular imagination without a real understanding of their cultural or ecological significance. Recently the Los Angeles Times reported that this has happened with burning smudge sticks made of white sage. 

Unfortunately, most of the white sage being sold is poached from the wild and local populations are being decimated. White sage, Salvia apiana, is only found from Southern California to northern Baja California and this habitat is shrinking fast due to competition from humans for housing, businesses, highways. The California Native Plant Society is working with local indigenous groups to “stop rampant poaching, foster understanding and inspire action for white sage.” (See website below.)

If you want to use white sage, you can help by following these practices (See Los Angeles Times article below.):

  1. Be sure to check the source. “If your supplier can’t tell you exactly who grew the sage and where …, stop buying their product and boycott that supplier.” 
  2. Buy from white sage farmers.
  3. Grow your own sage. “You need to have a relationship with your plants, tend to them, instead of just overharvesting something you know nothing about,” says Teresa Romero, environmental director of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash.
  4. Use the leaves sparingly and harvest wisely. You only need a few leaves in a fireproof bowl to burn for smudging. Even one leaf in a gallon of water can be a strong tea. Do not cut the plant to the ground or pull it up by the roots. Avoid harvesting when the plant is flowering. The flowers are an important source of food for native bees and the seeds for birds and wildlife.
  5. Become a responsible steward of the land. Growing your own white sage or other native plants is a way of giving back to the land. “We have to go from seeing ourselves as having indisputable rights to gather plants wherever and whenever we want, to seeing ourselves as having responsibilities to take care of the landscape we have the privilege of stewarding,” says David Bryant, campaigns and engagement manager for the California Native Plant Society.

To learn more:

Poachers Are Wiping Out SoCal’s Wild White Sage to Make Smudge Sticks. You Can Stop Them. Jeanette Marantos, Los Angeles Times, April 12, 2022

Saging the World, Supporting Indigenous-led Efforts to Safeguard White Sage, California Native Plant Society

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