I am writing this in Crestone, a small community nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. The terrain here is very dry and virtually desert-like, but in early summer a multitude of high-altitude flowers erupt from the sandy soil like so many jewels. Most prolific amongst the aromatic species found on these vast plains are the Salvia and Artemisia species, both of which are used for ‘smudging’, a custom traditionally employed by Native Americans.

A ‘smudge stick’ is a bundle of dried herbs, which can be composed of a single herb or a combination of several different ones, that is burned ceremonially for it’s aromatic fragrance. Using scented smoke in sacred rites is an element common to many religions and cultures, but the plant that is most commonly used for ‘smudging’ is White Sage (Salvia apiana), a plant native to the south-western US and north-western Mexico.

According to this tradition, ‘smudge sticks’ are used to purify or bless people and places where the smoke from the burning herb acts to cleanse the body, an object or a place from any negativity. In the Plains Sweat-Lodge ritual, the floor of the structure is traditionally strewn with White Sage leaves for the participants to inhale their fragrance and to rub on their bodies during the sweat. In the Sioux Nation, the sacred pipe is kept with a bundle of White Sage, as are other sacred objects like peyote wands, to protect them from negative influences or entities.

Traditionally, Native Americans have used the leaves of White Sage, also known as ‘Sacred Sage’ or ‘Bee Sage’, to make a tea and as a remedy against coughs, colds and respiratory infections of the sinuses, lungs and throat. Like other Salvia species, the herb has powerful analgesic, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and expectorant properties.

White Sage is also very rich in essential oils: the principal constituents being 1.8-cineole (aprox. 65%) with alpha + beta-pinene, camphor, beta-myrcene & limonene. Thus, it is has a pungent, camphor-like herbaceous aroma when you crush the leaves between your fingers! A study performed at the University of Arizona in 1991 demonstrated that the essential oil of Salvia apiana was effective against Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Candida brassicae. The oils of White Sage and Common Sage (S. officinalis) have also been shown to have potent anti-oxidant properties (Al-Hazimi 1986). Although the essential oil of White Sage is not commonly produced, it shares many of its properties & constituents with Spanish Sage (S. lavendulaefolia) which is more widely available.

It is interesting to note that the genus commonly called ‘Sagebrush’ which is also found growing wild throughout this region is actually an Artemisia species. There are two major varieties of Artemisia found in Colorado: Common Sagebrush (A. californica) and Mugwort (A. vulgaris). But there are also many other varieties of Salvia and Artemisia that can be found growing here which are all used for smudging (as are cedar & sweetgrass) although the culinary or Common Sage (Salvia officinalis) is only employed in smudge sticks by non-Natives.

The essential oils of White Sage & Spanish Sage should both be used with care and in moderation in an aromatherapy context, and should be avoided altogether during pregnancy. Yet both can be used in a vaporizer to good effect in much the same way as the dried herb is used for smudging, for purifying the environment and to combat respiratory complaints. However, all essential oils derived from the Artemisia genus are contra-indicated for aromatherapy purposes due to their high toxicity levels: see my book ‘The Encyclopedia of Essential oils’ for further information.

If you want to try ‘smudging’ for yourself, simply burn some clippings of dried sage in a brazier or if the herb is bound in a bundle, just light the end of it until it smolders, then direct the smoke with your hands over the person or object you wish to cleanse; alternatively, put a few drops of sage essential oil in a vaporizer or oil burner. For purifying a house, or when moving into a new place, enter every room making sure the smoke or scent penetrates every nook and corner of the house. Smudging should always be done with reverence for the significance of the authentic tradition… I have done it many times myself using White Sage ceremonial bundles bound with string, bought from local markets in Colorado.