Why growing white sage can benefit your garden, pollinators and the region

With a habitat that covers much of Southern California and extends into Baja California, white sage is essential to the region. The fragrant shrub attracts pollinators. Its seeds provide sustenance for some birds and its foliage can help shelter small animals. It’s also deeply significant to many Native American people in Southern California, where it is used in medicinal, cultural and spiritual practices.

Right now, though, white sage is in a precarious position. Human development has left the plant with less room to grow and a global trend for burning it like incense and using it in scented products has resulted in unsustainable harvesting practices and poaching.

A close-up image of a bushy white sage plant used to make smudge sticks. (Getty Images)

There’s something many Southern Californians can do to help white sage thrive, though. You can grow it at home. “Growing your own is the best way to propagate it and to protect the wild populations,” says Diego Cordero, lead environmental technician for Santa Ynez Chumash Environmental Office by phone.

There are plenty of benefits to bringing white sage into your outdoor space. One is the creatures it will attract. “When it’s blooming, it will be amazing,” says Cordero. “You’ll see native insects that you’ve never seen before. They love it.”

For those concerned about pollinator populations in Southern California, planting white sage is a great way to make your garden friendly to them. Cordero points out that, while all native flowering plants benefit local pollinators, sages are particularly useful in this department. “Because they produce prolific amounts of flowers, they really do attract many more pollinators than you would think,” he says.

Equally important is that, by growing your own white sage, you can help replenish populations that have dwindled as a result of careless human actions.

When you think of plant poaching, your mind might jump to Susan Orlean’s 1998 bestseller “The Orchid Thief,” but the issue extends beyond that particular flower. For the California Native Plant Society, plant poaching is an issue they have been working to address. They were active in building support for AB 223, the California bill to protect dudleya that was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in September.

“This is a problem with our relationship with nature, the idea that wild species are easily turned into commodities,” says Nick Jensen, conservation program director for California Native Plant Society. “It’s, in a lot of ways, putting plants at risk for the gain of a small number of people.”

Following the success of the dudleya campaign, CNPS has been collaborating with Native American groups in Southern California to address the issues surrounding white sage. The situations are slightly different. Dudleya poaching is primarily tied to plant sales outside the U.S. From what observers are seeing, though, white sage taken from the wild is broadly used for items like smudge sticks that can be found anywhere from online retailers to local brick-and-mortars.

“The picture that we have is that the vast majority of white sage that you find in these places is taken from our woodlands,” says David Bryant, director of education for CNPS.

“For many decades, particularly California Native people, have been very upset about the cultural appropriation of white sage,” says Temecula-based artist Rose Ramirez, who is Native American. Ramirez has long been collaborating with San Diego County-based artist and professor Deborah Small on documenting the uses of Southern California native plants in Native American communities. As part of their ongoing work, they’ve been researching and documenting the impact of harvesting wild white sage for commercial use.

“For many decades, particularly California Native people, have been very upset about the cultural appropriation of white sage,” says Rose Ramirez, a Temecula-based artist of Native heritage. These are traditional Native American Indian ritual white sage smudge sticks for sale at a San Francisco pow wow. (Getty Images)

“It’s really hard for people to understand the international demand for white sage. It’s escalated in probably the last three or four years, with social media fueling this global demand for white sage,” says Small.

There are steps that anyone can take to help curb the improper harvesting of white sage. “First, don’t buy it, unless you know that where you’re getting it from is a grower,” says Ramirez. She adds to make sure that the plant is grown sustainably. “Not harvested sustainably, because there really is no such thing when it comes to white sage,” says Ramirez. “There’s no way to sustainably harvest it from the wild, not for commercial uses.”

“Another aspect, from a Native perspective, is that a lot of times there is a patch that is healthy and it’s actually that healthy because it’s being tended by somebody,” says Cordero. “There’s actually somebody, usually a Native American person, that is harvesting and is gathering it and doing it in a way to allow the plant to thrive while being harvested. It’s a very conscientious way. They’re not doing it for commercial reasons.”

Conversely, what people are observing with commercial harvesting of wild white sage is that people cut back large amounts of the plant, sometimes at critical times of the year, threatening both the success of the plant itself and the delicate ecosystem of which it is a part. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to avoid harvesting wild white sage unless you’re a Native American ceremonial practitioner. “It’s difficult to control the ethical harvesting when there are so many people interested in doing it,” says Cordero.

For those who do want to grow white sage around their own homes, Cordero has some tips. First, note that this is a plant that can work in the ground or a container garden.

“When they’re really small, if you’re starting from seed, you’ll want to protect it, keep it in a place that’s a little shadier,” says Cordero. “As the plant matures, if it’s in a pot, you could definitely move it to a place with full or partial sun. They are a shrub that grows in places that are really hot and sunny, so they’ll do well in the sunny.”

If you’re planting white sage in the ground, you won’t need to worry about watering it much after its first few years of life. “It’s a hearty shrub that is adapted to this climate,” says Cordero. “At most, you would want to give it some supplemental water occasionally during the summer.”

For potted white sage, you’ll need to monitor the plant a little more carefully. “They will start to wilt if it’s bone dry, especially during the heat of the summer,” says Cordero. You’ll also want to be mindful of overwatering your plant.

Pruning is good for white sage too, whether or not you plan on using the plant for any purposes at home. Cordero says that, usually, you’ll want to do this after the plant has flowered and its seed stalks are dry and adds that pruning will help the new growth from tangling. “It will be bushier after you prune it,” he says.

Growing white sage can help contribute to solutions for the problem this plant is facing. But as California Native Plant Society’s Bryant notes, it’s also an “obvious choice” for Southern California gardens. “It’s such a great candidate to consider for your yard, for its beauty, for its ecological importance, for the cultural context,” he says.

Source: dailynews.com

Why growing white sage can benefit your garden, pollinators and the region