Adventures in Wortcunning: Embracing the White Sage

Adventures in Wortcunning: Embracing the White Sage August 21, 2015

Native bee on White Sage blossom / Anne Duthers
Native bee on White Sage blossom / Anne Duthers

Drought is nothing new to California summer — or, as the locals call it, fire season. And, my garden plants are now drought tolerant perennial, culinary, and physic herbs with native hedge collections and of course, my ever present roses. As I write, a CDF helicopter cruises the skies looking for stray wafts of wildfire smoke.

New friends are coming over and I prepare not only the house, but also give a glance or two regretfully at the garden. I have not had time to keep it well this year, relying upon Benign Neglect to reign in this drought-y summer season.

This is not the first year we have danced for rain at midnight. In recent years, as the reservoirs got smaller, so did our vegetable garden. I lost enthusiasm for the frequent watering required to grow thirsty lettuce, watermelons and large sunflower seeds, cultivating my first love, native and medieval European medicinal herbs, instead.

Still, when I am feeling overwhelmed, frustrated or blue, I like to spend time in the garden not thinking. Instead, I listen to the garden. By observing the plants, soil and insects of the garden I can learn a great deal. In this way, I sometimes commune with the plant divas.

Plants have each their own divas with personalities quite distinct from one another. If you cannot see their faeries, the difference is often noticeable as a scent or peculiar habit of growth. They will make friends with one another, and can even take a distinct dislike to their neighbors. How awkward would that be?

White Sage / Anne Duthers
White Sage / Anne Duthers

For instance, in my garden, Lemon Verbena has a crush on White Sage. It’s true, but frankly, I don’t blame her. The first time I met White Sage was in the demonstration garden of my alma mater. I rounded the corner and heard angels sing as the sun opened the clouds and touched the softly rounded, large white leaves adorning Sage’s sturdy thigh-high stalks. For years after I sought and coveted this velvet soft touch and scent.  Two years ago, I planted White Sage beside Verbena, and she has understandably become quite wanton in her affections.

Wanton Lemon Verbena / Anne Duthers
Wanton Lemon Verbena / Anne Duthers

Herbs, bound in bundled ‘smudge wands’ and allowed to dry, are a marvelous magickal aide. White Sage is particularly favored for this purpose, and is sadly often poached, denuding its native California hillsides to satisfy the magickal and New Age market. Fortunately, this herb is easy to grow and available from nurseries for planting in your garden, where it will likely do well. Especially if it is not over-watered. If you use this herb, please grow it or know where it is grown.

Like most California Native plants, and most perennial herbs, White Sage is drought tolerant. This does not mean it can go forever without water — but neither can it live in a mud puddle or in poorly drained soil. It means the plant will use the water it receives from Mama Earth, wisely. Salvia is the plant family name of this herb, and this means Saviour. Yes, in that capitalized, biblical sort of way. But, maybe here it just means “the One who saves” as in, water.

The stems are long and woody, with a hollow center that makes it easy for the plant to grow tall using less water, the way bamboo does. At the end of summer, as it grows tall, sage plants grow leggy and begin to fall over. It will root along the stem with sufficient contact to the Earth.

This plant, and many others, may be propagated this way in a technique called “French Layering”. Like french kissing, it comes rather naturally. Just place a clod of soil over the portion of the adventitious vine, or branch, you wish to propagate and allow time for the roots to grow.  Make sure to include the leaf/root bud that is generally located at the leaf joints or plant nodules. Use a sharp shovel to cut the newly rooted branch from it’s mother plant after the first growing season. You will find a hopeful baby plant in your spade.

It has recently been shown, by authoritative scientists in lab coats, that the smoke from white sage smudging can cleanse the air surrounding contagious people, making it safe for loved ones and care givers to be near.  Maybe Arthur C. Clark was right and magick is just science we don’t understand, after all.

As I pass along the garden paths I am confronted by the outstretched flowering limbs of our White Sage. The leggy branches are long and purple. Most of the leaves are gone. I pick up the branches and, asking permission, stand for a moment in their midst. I am surrounded by love. Excuse me… Love.

White Sage / Anne Duthers
White Sage, with arms outstretched / Anne Duthers

Even when hugging a tree, I have never had one hug back. This plant reached out and wanted to give me a bear hug. It was hard to remember that I was gardening. Hard to remember that people were arriving. I didn’t know how to hug back. I stood and stroked the flowers, branches and leaves in wonder.

With flowers spent and seed heads ready, I trimmed the leggy limbs and found another couple of places in the garden for new plantings that may grow here. Perhaps in time I will learn to return the embrace of the White Sage.


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