Salvia apiana ~ “White or Bee Sage”

By Laura Sheffield, California Wildflowers Natr 332  4/6/2013

Salvia apiana, commonly known as white sage, has a rich history of use in medicinal, spiritual, and culinary applications.

The use of white sage by Indian tribes, most noted include the Chumash, Shoshone, and Cahuilla, can be traced back 4,000 or more years, and its uses have been adopted by many other cultures. Despite its rich history and many health benefits, the Food and Drug Administration has classified it as a potentially dangerous substance. This plant is a rhizotomous herb endemic to California and the northern Baja Peninsula. Known for its fragrance, it is described as sage, pine needles, burning rubber, and skunk, as expected by a Lamiaceae. It is an Asterid in the Order: Lamiales, Family: Lamiaceae, Genus: Salvia L. (sage) and the species is Salvia apiana-Jeps. (white sage).

This perennial, evergreen, shrub blooms in August through September (USDA NRCS websites 3/2013). Spikes of flowers rise as high as five feet, with 100 or more one inch flowers in a raceme like formation, sometimes called “sage wands”. (Growing White Sage 3/2/2013) Stems are erect with panicle inflorescences whose blooms are bilabiate in shape. Flower buds are tightly arranged at the top of the stems. (Coman, Heather 3/2/2013) Each has a two lobed upper lip and a three lobed lower lip.  Petals are arranged with one lip that is long and ruffled, blocking the corolla tube that creates an obstacle for entry. Bumble bees, hawk moths, wasps, and hummingbirds still manage to pollinate sage which releases before the bloom opens.  Flowers have bilaterally zygomorphic symmetry, containing five fused petals, five fused sepals, four stamens (two long and two short), with one pistil, two carpels and a superior ovary. Blooms range from light lavender to white, and may have lightly colored spots of lavender. Developed fruits are small, light brown, cylindrical achenes.

Photo by Stan Sherbs

Photo by Stan Sherbs

The leaves grow on four sided stems, and are up to four and one half inches long, pubescent, widely lanceolate, with margins often entire, but may have irregularly toothed or lobed leaves with pinnate veination. Rugose when they open, the leaves become glaborous with maturity. With a basal arrangement of two foot mounds, leaves are a bit thicker than many plants’ leaves. They contain oil and resins that create the silvery sheen with a unique greyish green coloration.

Salvia apiana grows mostly in southern California, but a few specimens have been reported in Northern California and as far south as northern Baja Peninsula. The soil best suited to white sage is either sandy or loamy, needs to be dry to just moist, thus it prefers slopes. The pH should range from 6-8 and rainfall averages of 6-20 inches per year. White sage requires full sun and good air circulation. Natural ranges include coastal sage scrub, edges of desert, chaparral, short and tall grass prairies, and yellow pine forests under 4900 feet, although the plant is adapting to grow in riparian areas along perennial and intermittent streams.



Sage hybridizes easily, broadening its gene pool. The encroachment of civilization and over-harvest by people digging up its rhizomes are currently the greatest threats to the species growing in its natural habitats. It is being replaced “by weeds”. (Laughably, it grows among poison oak, so perhaps the thieves get more than they bargain for!) Numbers of this plant are not specified. The concerns are more about its natural habitat being diminished and how that is effecting the overall ecology. Deer, mountain sheep, rabbits, antelope and elk use it for grazing. White sage offers a high protein content. It is an excellent pollen source for bumble bees and wasps, and nectar source for hummingbirds. The species is itself abundant which I expect to increase due to marketing through local nurseries and internet sources.

Ethnobotany studies and defines the relationships between ancient men and plants.

Plants are a historical part of our environments and our need to survive or find comfort for maladies and pains. Current study includes related pharmacology, photo chemistry, ecology, culinary uses, and potential dangers.

Traditionally, white sage has been used before hunting by rubbing it all over the hunters’ bodies to disguise human scent, but also as a shampoo. As a food source, its seeds were toasted and ground, added with other grains for cereal, or made into flour, and some cultures ate the leaves too. Ripe stems were peeled and eaten uncooked. Prayers made while burning white sage are still believed to cleanse, comfort, and soothe ones’ emotional state, while the smoke lifts the prayers upward. ( Root Simple 3/26/2013) The Chumash tribes suck on a leaf or drink it in water daily to “remain calm, peaceful and healthy.”( White Sage 3/25/2013) Lists of historical uses are exhaustive for everything from delaying grey hair to getting irritants out of your eyes. Seeds placed in the eyes at bedtime become gelatinous overnight making it easy to pull any debris when removed in the morning! The word Salvia comes from the Latin word “to heal”. Its uses extend to comfort for colds, healing various stomach problems, toothaches, asthma, flu, women’s’ monthly cycles, reducing inflammation,  driving away mosquitoes, relieving itching, preventing nosebleeds, easing symptoms of rheumatism, as an astringent for eczema, and curing sores. It is known to contain “a compound called miltirone which may act like Valium to relieve anxiety”. (Adams, James 3/26/2013) The fine print is to try these things at your own risk, consulting your doctor first.

There are scientifically confirmed promising benefits of white sage.

  • It may increase the production of T-cells for AIDS patients.
  • It killed all four of the bacteria it was tested on.  It actually was the only plant tested that inhibited the growth of all four organisms tested, including Staphylococcus aureus (9-29 UA), Bacillus subtilis (2-27 UA), Klebsiella neumonia (3-9 UA), and Candida brassicae (IFO1664) at the University of Arizona. (Title: Potential anti-infective agents from Eriodictyon angustifolium Nutt. And Salvia apiana Jeps).
  • Salvia apiana is currently being studied for its ability to aid the body in managing insulin levels. (The Growers Exchange 3-2-2013)
  • It is FDA approved for eczema treatment.
  • Has anti-inflammatory qualities.
  • The Chinese military uses it for exclusively for malaria to lower fevers and kill parasites in the blood stream, with better results than pharmaceutical medications.
  • White sage does relieve cold symptoms including breaking up phlegm and congestion, soothing sore throats, and lowering fevers.

With its current, almost contagious spiritual applications being popularized worldwide, its durability, and current scientific research confirming its miraculous proven health benefits, white sage will endure.

White Sage Beverage

I put one sage leaf and a chunk of peeled fresh ginger into my pure water. Too large a sage leaf for your volume of water can be overpowering, so start small. It will flavor plastic containers. I use my metal water bottle. Adding a little lavender is good also.

Make an Effective Natural Headache Salve

• 1 cup organic light oil, such as safflower, sesame or sunflower oil
• 1 ounce fresh or dried white sage
• 1 ounce fresh or dried eucalyptus
• 1 ounce fresh or dried lavender
• 1/2 ounce grated pure beeswax
• 3 vitamin E capsules, for a preservative
• Cheesecloth

1. Put herbs in a glass casserole dish, cover them with oil and stir well. Bake in an oven at 200 degrees for 3 hours to make an herbal infused oil. Take the mixture out of the oven, let sit for 10 minutes to slightly cool, and strain the herbs from the oil with the cheesecloth, squeezing the oil from the herbs.

2. Put this herbal infused oil into a large stainless steel (not aluminum or copper) pot on the stove on low heat. Do NOT boil or burn the oil. Poke the vitamin E capsules with a fork or toothpick and squeeze the liquid vitamin into the oil. (I used vitamin E drops instead of capsules). Add the beeswax and stir on low heat until softened and mix together well. Remove the pot from heat and let it sit for 5 minutes. It will still look thin and lightly colored.

3. While still warm, pour the salve mixture into cosmetic jars (dark colored are best), letting it cool and thicken before lidding the jars. It will thicken to a nice creamy texture for a salve, not hard. Store in a dark cool place.

Rub a small smudge of white sage headache salve on temples or forehead between eyes to relieve headache pain instead of taking aspirin. For congestion it can be rubbed on the chest and across sinuses. The oils in eucalyptus and sage break up congestion and phlegm.  (Mother Earth Living 3/2013)

References for Salvia apiana White Sage by Laura Sheffield, 4/6/2013

Calflora Plant Distibution    3/2/2013

Toadstools, Eatmore   Cultivation of Plants that Reputedly Have Medicinal or Ethnobotanical Value    3/2/13

S.J. Crouthamel  Revised 2009   Luiseno Ethnobotany    3/2/13

USDA   Plants Profile Salvia apiana Jeps.   3/2/13

Dentali, Steven John  1991  Potential antiinfective agents from Eriodictyon angustifolium Nutt. and Salvia apiana Jeps.   3/2/13

Stokes, DaShanne   2/21/07   Time for a New Eagle Feather Law,  Indian Country Today, February 21, 2007 p. A2    3/3/13

Stokes, DaShanne   5/18/01   Sage, Sweetgrass, and the First Amendment,   The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 18, 2001, Sec. 2: B16   3/3/13

Flowers by the Sea   Salvia apiana   3/2/13

Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia   2/28/13   Salvia apiana   3/2/13

PFAF Plant Database   Salvia apiana white sage   Date Accessed: 3/2/13

Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia  3/18/13   Smudge Stick   3/25/13

Adam  3/16/12   White Sage   3/25/13

USDA Plant Guide  5/30/06   White Sage   3/2/13

Batchelder, Helen J.   1995    Pharmacognosy Herbal Research Publications   3/25/13

University of Michigan  Salvia apiana    3/2/13

Calflora   2013   Salvia    3/2/13

Garcia, Cecelia and Adams, James   5/11/2009  Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West – cultural and scientific basis for their use. Second edition. Theodore Payne Foundation    3/26/13

Mrs. Homegrown   9/11/11   Salvia Means Salvation: White Sage    3/26/13

My Native Spirit   About White Sage    3/26/13

Coman, Heather 3/24/10   Growing White Sage    3/2/13

Heidi Cardenas   10/31/2011  Salvia apiana  3/26/2013

6 responses to “Salvia apiana ~ “White or Bee Sage”

  1. jessthedoctor17

    I loved your present! it was very informative. I tried the salve that you made, and it helped my headache! Also, I left the dried white sage in my backpack since that class, and now my backpack smells amazing! I love the pubescent surface. I was wondering if it had ciliate margins and if the surface of the leaves were only velvety when dry, or are they pubescent when fresh. Overall, this presentation was very informative and fun! Thanks for the information!

  2. I really enjoyed your presentation. You covered so many aspects of your species. I learned about your species morphology, species range as well as species abundance. Most of all, what I found to be the most interesting, was the many, many uses of your species. I enjoyed the drink and the salve that you made. Thank you. I was very interested in the possibility of the White Sage helping increase T-cells in AIDS patients. My husband passed away a few years ago due to complications of AIDS and it is wonderful to know that there may be something to help people afflicted with this disease especially something that is natural. Very informative.

  3. jessthedoctor17, Although the surface is always pubescent, the margins are not documented as ciliate, but as entire. I have never seen this species growing first hand, so this answer is based on research. I am satisfied to know that the salve is working for people!!! Keep the recipe! Thank you for enjoying this article and replying.

  4. cindydalton2011, I am sorry about your loss and hopeful for others that this plant will become one of the answers for AIDS. It does seem to have a wide range of healing for people! I think I will use it as a preventative as well as a source of healing and comfort. Thanks for commenting!

  5. I had so much fun presenting with you! Fantastic paper by the way, totally out did mine with the fancy recipes and such! And it totally works on my eczema! I just want to say thank you and great job Laura. :)

  6. Super coherent information. Good job at narrowing in on some really exciting aspects. That must have been difficult with such an amazing plant! Fantastic presentation. “So we’ll pour some water for everyone. Is it good? Now don’t drive for a few hours… it’s a bit intoxicating.”

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