Tag Archives: Lamiaceae

Sage In America and the Native American Smudging Ceremony

fuzzy sage with blue larkspur
Sage is a lovely and important medicinal herb, also a sacred one. I grow several varieties and am always adding more. My garden is never without the traditional garden sage, salvia officinalis. There are some variations of this kind, the fuzzy leafed and tricolored sage, but I still like the good old standby that came to America with the early colonists. You may not realize how many varieties of sage are native to the New World, and their many uses, medical and spiritual. Scarlet sage attracts hummingbirds and is striking in the border, but there are many beautiful varieties. (*Sage and larkspur in our garden. Image by Elise)
Sage (Salvia) Common name: Wild SageMeadow Sage (S. pratensis) Scarlet Sage or Texas Sage (Salvia coccinea)Chia Sage grows throughout southern Canada and the United States, the very important chia (S. columbriae) in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California.
Meadow Sage
From Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants by Bradford Angier:

I love this book, given to me by my dear grandmother who lived to be 99 and a half. Mr. Angier has also written other volumes.
Sage is a fuzzy perennial with soft, downy hairs. One characteristic is that, when a bunch is wadded together, it clings to itself, remaining a compact mass. The erect stems are greyish with down and have, on pubescent stalks toward their bases, up to about 18-inch-long leaves.
Several wheels of tiny blue or whitish, and sometimes reddish, flowers grow in whorls of four to eight, depending on the particular species. The plants have an easily recognized strong, unique, aromatic odor.
Chia  Sage (S. columbriae)The chia variety, a distinctive annual springing up in the Southwest at the start of the late fall rains and an Indian standby, is a rough sage with deeply incised, coarse, usually hairy, dark-green leaves that grow mostly close to the ground. Three or so whirls of small blue flowers circle, mint like, in separated densities above prickly, dark-red, leafy bracts. These mature into seed-filled pods that remain like skeletons when the rest of the plant has withered, not giving the winds enough purchase to blow them free, and leaving them for the Indians to gather.
The seeds of the Texas sage (S. coccinea) are oblong, angular, or bowed, and 2 to 3 millimeters in size. Those of the annual scarlet sage take two or three weeks to emerge.
Scarlet Sage, Salvia coccineaThe medicinal part of the plant in general is the leaves, harvested during the flowering period in June and July. In the case of the chia, the vital part is the seeds, which are gathered from the then nearly dead annual in July.
Steeped like tea and in the same proportions, sage tea was slightly tonic and quieting to a disordered stomach. It’s peculiar but pleasant odor was retained in the beverage by the warmish, somewhat bitter aroma of the extracted volatile oil. It was said to benefit a ticklish and irritated throat, to quiet and expel bothersome gas, and assist the liver, kidneys, and gallbladder. Regarded in many regions as effective in treating sore throat, accompanied by fever, cankers, sore gums, mouth ulcers, and swollen tonsils, and as an effective gargle. The juice from bruised fresh leaves was credited with helping to remove warts, also pressed into service for sores, cuts, and wounds. The Indians made a salve of the crushed fresh leaves and edible lard for these purposes. Some tribes made salve from the roots of wild sage (S. lyrata).
A refreshing drink for hot weather was made by mixing chia seeds with cool water, each seed becoming separately suspended in its own white, mucilaginous cloudiness. The white, gray, and brown seeds are so nutritious that a teaspoonful was regarded as enough to sustain an Indian for a day on a forced journey.
JosephHenry Sharp-Making Sweet Grass Medicine - Blackfoot CeremonyNative American Smudging Ceremony:  The Smudging Ceremony
(The original link no longer works. I substituted a new one.)
“Our Native elders have taught us that before a person can be healed or heal another, one must be cleansed of any bad feelings, negative thoughts, bad spirits or negative energy – cleansed both physically and spiritually.,,Native people throughout the world use herbs to accomplish this. One common ceremony is to burn certain herbs, take the smoke in one’s hands and rub or brush it over the body. Today this is commonly called “smudging.” In Western North America the three plants most frequently used in smudging are sage, cedar, and sweetgrass.
Many varieties of sage have been used in smudging. The botanical name for “true” sage is Salvia (e.g. Salvia officinalisGarden Sage, or Salvia apiana, White Sage). It is interesting to note that Salvia comes from the Latin root salvare, which means “to heal.” There are also varieties of sage which are of a species separate from Salvin Artemusia. Included here are sagebrush (e.g. Artemisia californica) and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). We have seen both Salvia and Artemisia sub-species used in smudging.”
I’ve covered salvia officinalis (pictured below) in another post, but briefly: Salvia officinalis (called garden or common sage) is a perennial, evergreen subshrub, with woody stems, grayish leaves, and blue to purplish flowers. A member of the family Lamiaceae, sage is native to the Mediterranean region, though it has naturalized in many places throughout the world.
“Native Americans consider sage, cedar, sweetgrass and tobacco as the Four Sacred Herbs. Sage is found across North America, with white sage being the most potent and gray sage found in many northern areas where the gray will not over-winter. Cedar (Eastern red cedar) (Eastern white cedar) and sweetgrass also are indigenous to this continent. Tobacco can be found in many forms; however for this ceremony Nicotiana Rustica, or a similar dried tobacco leaf, native to America is preferred.”
sage herb


CATNIP: I like catnip.  We’ve grown it for years whether intentionally or not.  It comes back freely.  Yes, our cats like it but not to the point of ecstasy.  It’s a member of the mint family but has a distinctively different scent. A hardy, upright, perennial, it has sturdy stems bearing hairy, heart-shaped, grayish-green leaves. The flowers are white or lilac and occur in several clusters toward the tips of the branches. Catnip is a native of Eurasia, naturalized in North America so that it seems as if it’s always grown here.

From A Modern Herbal:

Catmint: Nepeta cataria, Catmint or Catnep, a wild English plant belonging to the large family Labiatae, of which the Mints and Deadnettles are also members, is generally distributed throughout the central and the southern counties of England, in hedgerows, borders of fields, and on dry banks and waste ground, especially in chalky and gravelly soil.  It is less common in the north, very local in Scotland and rare in Ireland, but of frequent occurrence in the whole of Europe and temperate Asia, and also common in North America, where originally. However, it was an introduced species.

History: The plant has an aromatic, characteristic odour, which bears a certain resemblance to that of both Mint and Pennyroyal. It is owing to this scent that it has a strange fascination for cats, who will destroy any plant of it that may happen to be bruised. There is an old saying about this plant:

‘If you set it, the cats will eat it,

If you sow it, the cats don’t know it.’

And it seems to be a fact that plants transplanted are always destroyed by cats unless protected, but they never meddle with the plants raised from seed, being only attracted to it when it is in a withering state, or when the peculiar scent of the plant is excited by being bruised in gathering or transplanting.

In France the leaves and young shoots are used for seasoning, and it is regularly grown amongst kitchen herbs for the purpose. Both there and in this country, it has an old reputation for its value as a medicinal herb. Miss Bardswell, in The Herb Garden, writes of Catmint:

‘Before the use of tea from China, our English peasantry were in the habit of brewing Catmint Tea, which they said was quite as pleasant and a good deal more wholesome. Ellen Montgomery in The Wide, Wide World made Catmint Tea for Miss Fortune when she was ill. It is stimulating. The root when chewed is said to make the most gentle person fierce and quarrelsome, and there is a legend of a certain hangman who could never screw up his courage to the point of hanging anybody till he had partaken of it. Rats dislike the plant particularly, and will not approach it even when driven by hunger.’

This dislike of rats for Catmint might well be utilized by growing it round other valuable crops as a protective screen.

Medicinal Action and Uses: Carminative, tonic, diaphoretic, refrigerant and slightly emmenagogue, specially antispasmodic, and mildly stimulating.

Producing free perspiration, it is very useful in colds. Catnep Tea is a valuable drink in every case of fever, because of its action in inducing sleep and producing perspiration without increasing the heat of the system. It is good in restlessness, colic, insanity and nervousness, and is used as a mild nervine for children, one of its chief uses being, indeed, in the treatment of children’s ailments. The infusion of 1 OZ. to a pint of boiling water may be taken by adults in doses of 2 tablespoonsful, by children in 2 or 3 teaspoonsful frequently, to relieve pain and flatulence. An injection of Catnep Tea is also used for colicky pains.

The herb should always be infused, boiling will spoil it. Its qualities are somewhat volatile, hence when made it should be covered up.

The tea may be drunk freely, but if taken in very large doses when warm, it frequently acts as an emetic.

It has proved efficacious in nervous headaches and as an emmenagogue, though for the latter purpose, it is preferable to use Catnep, not as a warm tea, but to express the juice of the green herb and take it in tablespoonful doses, three times a day.

An injection of the tea also relieves headache and hysteria, by its immediate action upon the sacral plexus. The young tops, made into a conserve, have been found serviceable for nightmare.

Catnep may be combined with other agents of a more decidedly diaphoretic nature. Equal parts of warm Catnep tea and Saffron are excellent in scarlet-fever and small-pox, as well as colds and hysterics. It will relieve painful swellings when applied in the form of a poultice or fomentation.

Old writers recommended a decoction of the herb, sweetened with honey for relieving a cough, and Culpepper tells us also that ‘the juice drunk in wine is good for bruises,’ and that ‘the green leaves bruised and made into an ointment is effectual for piles,’ and that ‘the head washed with a decoction taketh away scabs, scurf, etc.’