Wild Harvesting White Sage And Sage Alternatives
amanda linette meder
When I first wrote this post in 2015, the water was a bit murky on the need for white sage alternatives.
And still, white sage is technically not endangered under the IUCN. However, in 2018, Sue Leopard reported via the United Plant Savers that four people were arrested for the illegal harvest of 400 pounds of white sage.
She doesn't list if this is 400 pounds of dry or wet plant material, but either way, that's a lot of plant material.
So I decided this post could use an update. If that continues, sage could go to the way of Ginseng, and we want to be careful of that, as these plants should be around for generations to come.
In this post, we're going to go over the continue to go over legal ways to collect plant material from wild places, because you can, along with a few updates on my favorite harvesting tools and other natural resources updates surrounding the topic.
But as we move through it, keep in mind, you can grow white sage from seed.
Fully understanding with you how fun it is to collect plants in the wild, though, let's continue.
Where Does White Sage Grow?
White sage, also known as Salvia apiana, or as I'll refer to it in this post as 'sage,' grows native in the state of California.
It comes in several variations. Different species among the Genus Salvia can be found in other states out west, too, but true "white sage" is native and located in the highlands of California.
White Sage Sustainable Harvesting Guidelines
If you choose to wild harvest your own sage, make sure you follow these guidelines:
#1 Find out where sage grows wild
Visit USDA Plants to find the native ranges of all sage species by entering the common or species name in the search bar. (hint: Salvia is the traditional Genus name of white sage, where Artemesia refers to sage brushes and European sages, like mugwort).
Not just white sage is sacred. While this post focuses on that species, there is also purple sage which has spiritual benefits, too. So say you are in Idaho and would like to harvest a wild sage varietal, know this is an option for you.
#2 Find out where and how you can legally harvest within that area
You can harvest in most public forests with rules. Public forests, not parks, are managed by the agriculture department.
I know this bothers some folks, that forests are managed as a crop, but it has some benefits. For example, as citizens, we can harvest edible food from there.
Once you find the open land places near you, the USFS has put out a sustainable harvest guide.
You can use this guide to find out what in your state you can harvest and with what, if any, permits you need. Not all states and areas require permits in all areas, especially if you are collecting only for what you need to feed your family.
If you are lucky, you may also know someone with private lands where you have permission. Usually, you can legally harvest from there with rules, too.
There are rules for plant harvesting, even in places where you can harvest because some people have overharvested.
In many rural states, the rules for wild harvesting plant material is that you can take enough for you and your family, and never the root, but check before you go any ethics put out for your jurisdiction too.
#3 Try to limit your harvest to when it’s not flowering
Sage’s active growing season is May-September. This is also the period when the plant flowers. You will want to harvest sometime at the end of the growing season after the plant has flowered if possible, but before it buds out again in spring.
Think about harvesting sage as to when you would cut back a shrub in your yard. Usually, you do this depending on when it flowers, not pruning during the bud phase, but after or before.
Some people like to harvest early spring or later fall as the plant enters dormancy.
The hypothesis on this that it's less stressful to the top part of the plant to snip during the dormant phase because its energy is below ground. Early spring, because you get the new growth. I can see it both ways.
#4 Snip new growth or tips only
Ultimately the new tips don't represent a large amount of plant material, so plants may be least stressed when you prune the newest growth.
Also, when you take just the latest growth, you’ll be snipping the most fragrant, potent part of the plant. New green growth is most delectable to insects.
So the aromatic chemicals which are either meant to detract or attract certain insects are usually sent to the tips.
#5 Snip, don’t rip!
Use a sharp blade to harvest your sage, some people like a knife, but I like plant scissors, also known as "snips." My favorite brand is Felco.
Most other horticulturalists I've met also swear by these plant scissors, too. I have other brands of Snips I love as well, such as this pair by barebones.
Whatever you choose, try to make a clean edge whenever you harvest. Jagged cuts and rips create pockets for bacteria to populate.
Plants, just like humans, have a higher risk of infection from jagged cuts. If you have a jagged tear in a plant, it's more susceptible to a disease or as they call it in the plant world, a "vector."
So keep sage plants healthy for future generations by clean cutting. Clean cutting is also an excellent excuse to buy a fun new tool.
#6 Never take more than 20%
Some people say 30%, but I feel more than 20% pruning, can increase the biological stress levels of the plant to an unsafe level.
As someone snipping plants, if you've worked with them for a while, you generally have a sense of when you are "good" with a plant and have snipped to the level of comfort.
I always get a sense when I've pruned enough, though I admit, in the beginning, you sometimes take too much, not enough, and so on.
Thankfully, plants can be forgiving and as long as you have left some green material, the plant should be fine.
At the least, you want to make sure every plant you depart still has plenty of photosynthetically dominate parts left.
At best, the plant still looks like a healthy bush when you leave it, and hey, maybe it even looks a little better, maybe a little rounder.
When I am done pruning a plant to a healthy level, I tend to get a feeling that it looks cute. Then I walk away. After a while, everyone who works with plants tends to pick up these cues.
#7 Ask permission and give thanks
This is the only somewhat-spiritual part.
There is some evidence out there that plants can sense their harvesters. The Society of Plant Signaling and Behavior actually specifically studies this concept.
So if this is true, why not tap into it?
I look around and mentally ask for permission from the eldest plant of the area to harvest. When complete, offer gratitude, show respect, and make sure to take some time honoring and exploring sage’s home environment. You’ll be glad you did.
Many wild harvesters find that if they simply sit with the sage, they receive, new insight for themselves as a thank you from the plant for honoring "her."
In spiritual communities, sage is often seen as female.
Is there a White Sage harvesting Dilemma?
White sage is becoming more and more popular among mainstream spirituality users. So among those in the botanist field, there has been a concern of over-harvesting pressure.
As mentioned above, over-harvesting could eventually lead to the plant entering threatened status in the wild.
But don't go out and harvest all the sage in case it runs out yet, we can’t let what happened at the Petrified Forest happen with White Sage.
Sage does not have to become threatened because there are many alternatives to sage.
In fact, there is a sage type plant for every ecosystem.
Meaning: there is a sacred, usually somewhat rare, cleansing, spiritual plant in every neck of the woods, prairie, mountain, forest, river, valley, and so on.
Plants evolve and adapt to humans, and people carry their sacred plants with them as they travel from region to region or continent to continent.
Sacred Clearing Plants Exist in All Ecosystems
Back in the day, people had to use the medicines they had around them. From this, local medicinal herbs were developed and found for just about every cultural group of people on this earth.
While white sage is the medicinal herb known for clearing out west, there are different medicinal herbs known for that same benefit everywhere. And you can burn them, just like sage.
For example, one of my descendants main cleansing herb is Juniper. Eastern Red Cedar, also known as Juniperus virginiana, is one of the more common Evergreen trees there is around.
Juniper is North America's most common sage alternative. But there are others.
Cultural And Ethnobotanical Alternatives to White Sage
There are spiritually clearing plants native to all ecosystems in the entire world that act as equivalent to sage.
Here are just a few sage alternatives for the United States, but there are many more:
Northeastern - junipers, birches, willows, apples
Southeastern - red cedars, pines, apples
Southwestern- mesquite species, Artemisia sages (sagebrush), eucalyptus
Northwestern- northern sweetgrasses, birch, Artemisia sages (sagebrush)
You can use each of these plants the same or similar ways you would use white sage.
Indeed, variations of Cedars, Junipers, and Pines are the most common alternatives to sage. I think they smell just as good, if not better.
So to recap, to ethically harvest white sage:
Find out where it grows native, don't be afraid to explore other species within that Genus.
Find out where you can legally collect within that area, though public lands are usually safe with rules.
Harvest after flowering/seeding but before budding.
Snip, don't rip, to maintain plant health.
Only take 20-30% to reduce plant stress.
We can collectively preserve these plants for years to come.
There are alternatives, and finding them could be fun and more appropriate to your spiritual needs.
To help preserve white sage and to get in touch with your natural area, finding the cultural, spiritual herb of your region or from your ancestry may even be more satisfying for you.
If you do buy or harvest white sage, make sure your source focuses on sustainable or a spiritually honoring harvest of the sage plant. I talk about where to purchase sage in this post, if you do decide to buy from a third party.
So, what about you? Do you ever harvest plants in the wild? What's your strategy for sustainability and harvesting edibles and medicinals? Have you ever run into an unsustainable harvester? If so, how did you respond?
For more articles on sage, check out the links below -
Amanda Linette Meder
Last Updated: 2019.09.12
Grammar disclaimer. I have lowercased “white sage” for uniformity and readability this post. Also because in horticulture, common names are typically not capitalized, unless at the start of a sentence. In spiritual fields, sometimes you will see the phrase capitalized to intend respect for the spirit of the plant. It is written that way in other posts.