Enjoy your own white sage and sweetgrass. -
By Brook Elliott
Incense. Right now it’s riding a crest of popularity.
Numerous plant materials have been used as incense because
of their fragrances, but two native plants stand out:
sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) and white sage (Salvia
Richo Cech of Horizon Herbs in Williams, Ore., describes
the smell of sweetgrass as “vanillalike or new-mown
haylike,” and attributes the scent to the
plant’s coumarin content. White sage, he says, is
penetrating, spicy, camphoraceous — and slightly
As an incense, white sage is burned to purify people and
places, and its use sometimes is accompanied by prayer.
Loose leaves often are burned, and a traditional ritual
method for smudging the body calls for spreading the smoke
by “brushing” it with a feather or bird wing.
An alternative is to bind several stems together into a
smudge stick. Either way, the leaves smolder, rather than
burn with an open flame.
Due to growing demand, commercial development in both
plants’ native habitats and improper management of
remaining wild stands, white sage and sweetgrass are both
“The biggest stands of wild sweetgrass are in Canada
where most of the commercial dried braids come from, but
wildcrafting is hurting them,” says Craig Dremann,
owner of Redwood City Seeds in Redwood City, Calif.
“Dried sweetgrass leaves contain very important soil
nutrients. The phosphorus and other minerals removed with
the harvested leaves are not being replenished, and, I
believe, the subsequent diminished soil fertility is
causing stands to decline.”
The situation for white sage is bad, too. The plant is
native to just a small strip of coastal Southern
California, where development is intense. The
sustainability of wild populations of white sage may be
adversely affected by development, overharvesting and
unfavorable weather, although the plant is a tough
contender in drylands and in rough, unsettled country.
Fortunately, both sweetgrass and white sage can be easily
grown at home, and Cech says, in the garden each
contributes a beautiful and cleansing presence. By growing
them, you can provide for your own incense needs and
perhaps have enough to sell. A thriving market exists for
sweetgrass braids and white sage smudge sticks and dried
leaves. Local farmer’s markets and the Internet are
primary outlets; they also sell well in bookstores,
galleries, jewelry stores and souvenir shops.
Sweetgrass grows wild in the northern regions of North
America and Europe. Because most sweetgrass seed is
infertile, stands are started from root plugs, available
from various suppliers.
Cech, who also is the author of Making Plant Medicine and
Growing At-Risk Medicinal Herbs, says, “Actually,
fertile seed is sometimes available, but empty seedcoats
are common and, even when germplasm is present, it is
loaded with germination inhibiting compounds.” So the
plant is more easily grown using other methods.
Plugs should be planted in potting soil using shallow, wide
plastic pots, and kept in the shade for a couple of weeks
to develop new roots, according to both Dremann and Cech.
Young plants can be grown in the pots until they fill out;
then they should be transplanted into the garden, spaced
about a foot apart. Do not use clay or peat pots; in both
containers, the roots can dry out too quickly.
Sweetgrass prefers rich, moist, slightly sandy soil and
full sun. It’s important to keep it constantly moist,
but not soggy. Dremann says the plant is a heavy feeder, so
fertilize it at least twice during the growing season with
blood meal and bone meal for best results.
There are two types of stems: stout ones, which flower from
June to August, and lanky, non-flowering stems.
Traditionally, both are harvested for braids by pulling
them out of the base sheath: Support the base of the plant
with one hand while pulling the longer blades out of the
basal sheath. This way the roots are undisturbed, which
allows the plant to regrow, and leaves the blades at
maximum length for braiding.
Lay out the cut stems in the sun to dry in batches no more
than an inch thick. Periodically, turn the stems so they
dry evenly, and when they’re almost dry, braid them.
The braids add a rich vanilla aroma to their surroundings,
and generally are kept as is, rather than being burned.
Growing White Sage
Also known as Grandfather sage and bee sage, white sage is
considered a sacred plant by many Native American tribes.
It burns with a penetrating, slightly skunky pungency, Cech
A perennial that grows 2 to 5 feet high, white sage has
gray-green young leaves that turn a dramatic white as they
mature. The flowers, which bloom during the summer, are
silvery white with a lavender tinge. The seed has a natural
low germination rate — about 15 percent — so if
you decide to try seed, sow it in very sandy soil or a
commercial cactus mix, and water daily; average germination
time is 14 days.
White sage is cold-hardy only as far north as Zone 8b (15
degrees); outside of Southern California, Arizona and New
Mexico, it should be cultivated as an annual or brought
indoors for the winter. Repot seedlings into ceramic pots,
using the same cactus/soil mix, and move them to the
garden, or transplant them, about 2 feet apart, to a dry,
sunny area. Good drainage is essential; most sages do not
like wet feet and white sage won’t tolerate it at
P.O. Box 69
Williams, OR 97544
Redwood City Seed Co.
P.O. Box 361
Redwood City, CA 94064