The Ceremony & Science of High Desert Sage by Beth Barbaglia
As an afternoon storm passes over Taos Mountain, I feel and see the warm Southwestern sun reappear through the clouds to the West. It glows down on the land, creating a certain magical sparkle as the light reflects and refracts off the raindrops that now cover the high desert plant life surrounding me.
This stormy moment brings with it another special gift; a particular scent—one that’s fresh and earthy, and for me, feels specific to New Mexico. It’s the pleasant smell of the rain mixed with the sagebrush. The strong winds carry this fragrance through the air, and it incites a deep, calming breath in me. It feels soothing and brings me a sense of peace. Sage has always had this effect on me. The instant I smell it, I feel calm.
In the last many years, there seems to have been a surge of interest (here in the Western part of the world anyway) in spiritual and energetic healing practices like smudging . People are purchasing bundles of various types of sage left and right, with the hopes that it will bring a sense of peace and calm into their lives and homes as well.
But do we really understand the uniqueness of this special plant and how to work with it? Or is it simply one more trend people have latched onto? Is it just one more “thing” humans are unconsciously consuming without any reverence or regard for its history or where it came from?
My own journey with healing and spirituality has taught me a few things about working with sage as a tool—my teacher has passed on much potent guidance regarding the practice of smudging, so I do have some specific personal feelings about it, and intuitive ways I relate to the plants and Mother Earth. Yet, I wanted to explore this topic further and see what else I could learn.
“It’s really important to be clear what we’re talking about,” the co-owner of Taos Herb Co., Rob Hawley, says to me as we sit down to chat about what we’re all casually calling sage. “People call lots of things ‘sage’ that aren’t actually sage,” he explains.
Having been devoted to his study of plants and herbal medicine for multiple decades, it’s easy to trust Mr. Hawley’s knowledge and wisdom as he delves into the science and specifics of sage.
He explains to me that sage is an English word that we’ve come to use in our everyday lexicon to describe many different “grey/green, smelly plants.” He continues on, breaking down all of the various genus and species names and where they came from…it’s almost hard to keep up, yet I am also totally geeking out over all these details. I love learning things about the Earth.
Here in New Mexico, the most common type of sage we see growing is what’s called Artemisia Tridentata, otherwise referred to as sagebrush or desert sage. The genus, Artemisia, was named for the Goddess Artemis, in reference to her glowing colors in the moonlight. The species name, Tridentata, comes from the shape of the small, delicate leaves, as each is accented with three dainty points at the top.
Most everything in New Mexico that’s called sage comes from this Artemisia genus, which is of the family, Asteraceae. Here’s where the differentiation comes in—interestingly enough, this family is an entirely different “bloodline” than that of actual sage. True sage, the type we use for cooking, comes from a family called Lamiaceae, the genus being Salvia, which is the same greater plant family as that of mint.
There is one type of sage you’ve likely seen used for smudging, which does come from this Salvia family, called Salvia Apiana, or White Sage. Traditionally, this sage would’ve only been used ceremonially in areas where it grows naturally—mainly around Southern California and Northwestern Mexico. For the majority of Indigenous tribes, however, it was the Artemisias that were most commonly used for smudging and blessing, and each tribe also subsequently has their own name for each plant, from their own Native language.
When I spoke about sage with a dear friend of mine from Taos Pueblo, Dominic Beau, he shared with me that in their language (which is called Tiwa), the name they have for the sagebrush that’s abundant around here (the Artemisia Tridentata), translates to English as Rabbit Sage.
Dominic mentions that at Taos Pueblo they do use the White Sage nowadays as well, and he goes on to share a bit about how he was brought up working with sage in his tribe’s tradition. He clarifies, “For us, burning sage—and cedar too—is not just a practice, it’s a way of life.”
He and I each share our perspectives about what it means to us to work with plants as medicine in spiritual ceremonies, and how it’s important to have an active relationship with the plants themselves—a reverence for Mother Earth and the other elements (Air, Water, Fire) that also contribute to the process. We agree that it’s not just about the burning alone and that what makes the plants medicine is the energy you put into them through blessing them as well.
For Indigenous peoples, there is a full-cycle relationship with the sage from start to finish. There are offerings made to the Earth first—to create an energetic exchange and expression of gratitude. Then the harvesting takes place, at very specific times in conjunction with the moon’s cycle. Next, there is great care taken for the plants during the drying time, and once dry, the herbs are blessed before they are burned. This is what makes them sacred, and medicine—both energetically speaking as well as physically.
Dominic describes how the burning of sage starts first thing in the morning, every day, so as to begin the day with clarity of mind. He describes, “You add a prayer, begin by acknowledging each of the four directions, then start the smudging at the doorway; go clockwise around the home from there, then again in reverse.”
The cycle completes with gathering the extinguished embers, ashes, and remaining plant parts, and returning them to the Earth. Again, with a prayer, you sprinkle the ash mixture in a clockwise direction around the land.
This cycle and process happen to be congruent with the way I’ve personally been taught to work with sage. However, in my conversation with Rob Hawley, he mentioned he is cautious to get specific on “how” sage is used ceremonially because he cannot personally represent how all Indigenous peoples use any plant. I agree this is an important point for us all to respect and recognize.
The use of plants as medicine is specific to each culture—from the Indigenous peoples of the U.S. to any other Indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world, and to any European traditions as well; and because ceremonial traditions are both familial and tribal, they cannot be generalized. Hawley explains further that of course ‘plant medicine’ has its general chemical and therapeutic aspects, but there are also belief systems, ceremonial traditions, religious practices, and a myriad of spiritual medicines as well. Thus, the uses can vary widely.
There is one area we can speak a bit more generally about ceremonial sage though, Hawley says. When it comes to the Artemisias and Salvia Apiana, “Both are considered to be medicines that are cleansing and welcoming of Spirit.”
Herein lies the common theme that’s shared amongst the different cultures that burn sage (and other plants) ceremonially—this being the belief that when you burn something, you begin with the physical, and by adding the fire it then becomes smoke. This smoke is seen as the evidence of Spirit within all things. This symbolism is important and spans the various beliefs and practices of each individual tradition. Another aspect that seems to be generally shared in indigenous ancient traditions is that some version of a meaningful relationship with the Earth is taking place amidst all this as well.
Some years ago, I learned that on the other side of the world, in a desert climate similar to ours here in New Mexico—in another place with strong spiritual and cultural roots, and an ancient relationship with the Earth and Her medicines too—they have a name for that delicious smell after the rain. “Earth’s Perfume” they call it, or Mitti Attar. This fragrance is so beloved by the people of India that they’ve even developed a unique distillation process for recreating it so it can be bottled as a water essence. (Here’s one I highly recommend if you’re interested.) It seems to me that we as humans have long been wooed and swept off our feet by the wonders of the Earth—She never ceases to appeal to and amaze our senses.
Along with the nourishing sensory experience, and its spiritual medicine, our New Mexican sagebrush contains powerful herbal medicine as well. Dominic recalls as a young boy, any time he was ill, his grandmother would boil sage and cedar in water, making a medicine to drink. The leaves of the Artemisia Tridentata shrub are both antibacterial and antifungal, and the White Sage has antimicrobial properties as well. This means these plants can keep infectious bacteria, viruses, and fungi at bay, making the drinking of sage as a tea very beneficial in treating colds and flu. So, there’s also straight-up science-y science behind this sage medicine too!
As I reflect on all my thoughts and the new information I’ve learned, I am somewhat awestruck. This special plant we call sage—that again takes many, many forms—exists here as a gift from our great Mother Earth. Just like the countless other plants and life that grow from Her, the sages, and ones we call sage, are one more miracle that holds the exact medicine our bodies need to heal—in more ways than one. The reverence I already felt for this sacred plant has deepened a great deal, and for that, I feel grateful and inspired.
It is now days later, and in the perfect synchronicity, another storm is passing over Taos as I finish writing about my exploration of sage. To add to the serendipity of this moment, I happen to be sipping my favorite blend from our oh-so-special local tea maker, tea.o.graphy, called High Desert Sage. And as I write, drinking my sage tea medicine, I also wait. I wait for the rain to pass, so I’ll get to step outside, and again have the chance to breathe in that invigorating, distinct scent of the high desert sage after the rain.
About Beth Barbaglia:
Beth is the Founder of Held In The Heart, an online community and support space for spiritual truth-seekers and those on a journey of self-exploration, personal growth, and healing. As an Intuitive Soul Guide, Teacher, and Writer, Beth is devoted to illuminating a path of emotional and spiritual freedom for all who desire to feel whole and connected to Life.
Beth shares her work internationally through 1:1 guidance, healing retreats, online programs, and live workshops. She is based in Taos, New Mexico.
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