Sacred Sage: Salvia mellifera -- the Easiest California Native
Long before the West Coast was colonized, California Indians used Black Sage (Salvia mellifera Greene) for food and medicinal purposes. Today, it often is bundled in smudge sticks used like incense during purification rituals. Another reason to consider Black Sage sacred is that, among the state’s native plants, it is one of the most important sources of nectar for pollinators.
Nineteenth century botanist and clergyman Edward Lee Greene made the plant’s botanical name official in 1892 when he was the first person to publish -- or author -- the name in a scientific journal. So, depending on level of formality, information about S. mellifera often includes “Greene” at the end of its name. Authoring the name in his own journal, Pittonia, Greene described it as “one of the principal bee plants.”
Perfume of the Chaparral
Powerfully fragrant, Black Sage abounds in California’s coastal chaparral stretching from Contra Costa County east of San Francisco down to Baja, Mexico. Similar to many Salvias, it’s the plant’s foliage that is aromatic.
When temperatures rise, the stems and long, wrinkled, gray-green leaves of Black Sage exude a resinous, herbal scent that is the central note in what some hikers think of as the perfume of the chaparral. This mix of aromatic shrubland plants includes White Sage (Salvia apiana), which is another smudge stick favorite.
Why It’s Called Black Sage
S. mellifera shares its species name with one of the most famous American immigrants, Apis mellifera -- the Western honeybee -- which traveled to Virginia from Europe in the early 1600s and now dominates pollination in agriculture. Mellifera is Latin for “honey bearing.” Another common name for the species is Honey Sage.
But why was this plant dubbed Black Sage? Photos seldom show its dark stage, which occurs after bloom time when stems and whorls of small, white-to-lavender flowers harden and turn black. In contrast, White Sage has such pale, silvery green foliage and barely lavender blossoms that it looks white from a distance.
Whatever name they call it, gardeners intent on defying drought and beautifying dry landscapes revere this tough sage because it is long blooming and one of the easier California native Salvias to grow at home. Relative to bedding plants such as Scarlet Sage (Salvia splendens), Black Sage is challenging to cultivate. Yet it adapts more readily to home landscapes than White Sage as both an annual and a perennial.
Both Perennial and Annual
Black Sage flowers from summer through fall, attracting butterflies as well as bees and hummingbirds. Due to this characteristic and the way it spreads easily to form a large-scale groundcover -- it grows 3 to 6 feet tall and up to 5 feet wide -- we refer to it as a “garden workhorse.” As a perennial, it’s a good solution for preventing erosion on dry slopes.
You’ll even find Black Sage growing as an annual outside California and the Southwest in settings where winter temperatures are too chilly for perennial growth. It’s a fine choice as an accent in gardens focused on fragrance. The key to success in growing it is to simulate home conditions. Aside from excellent drainage and limited moisture, this includes low-fertility soil and full sun exposure.
Horticultural History of Salvia Mellifera
Edward Lee Greene's life intersected with Black Sage in the 1880s. Originally from Rhode Island, he worked his way westward steadily collecting plants as a soldier during the Civil War and later as an Episcopal minister. In 1881, he became rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church near the University of California in Berkeley. In 1885, the University hired Greene as the chair of its new botany department.
In 1886, while visiting San Miguel Island in the northern Channel Islands west of Santa Barbara, Greene collected the pressed sample of S. mellifera now archived at UC Berkeley’s Jepson Herbaria, which is named for one of Greene’s former students, botanist Willis Linn Jepson.
Greene’s specimen isn’t the earliest dated sample of S. mellifera in the Jepson collection. That honor goes to pharmacist and self-taught botanist George Thurber who collected the plant in 1852 while working with the U.S. Boundary Commission to survey the border between America and Mexico.
Who knows what drew Thurber and Greene to the plant? But the fragrance of Black Sage certainly is alluring. In a 1943 essay, “Edward Lee Greene the Individual,” which was published in The American Midland Naturalist, Jepson noted Greene’s keen sense of smell as an attribute that helped him identify species.
Native American Historical Use
It’s easy to imagine California’s early native peoples enjoying the fragrance of Black Sage while collecting the plants in their chaparral and desert homelands.
The Native American Ethnobotany Database details several historical uses by the Costanoan (Ohlone) peoples of the Central Coast from San Francisco south to Santa Cruz as well as the Cahuilla, Luiseno and Mahuna tribes of Southern California. While the Cahuila ate meal ground from the plant’s seeds and made seasoning from its stems and leaves, the other tribes used various plant parts to treat ailments ranging from bronchitis to paralysis.
Black Sage also provided food for the Tongva tribe, which occupied parts of Los Angeles, Orange County, San Bernardino County and the Channel Islands.
Although it would be a worthy project to research on S. mellifera’s medicinal properties, it’s necessary to state that experimenting at home may be dangerous and we don’t encourage it. However, we do recommend this terrific plant for feeding tiny wildlife in Salvia gardens and adding chaparral perfume to your environment.
If you have information to share or questions about any of the California native sages or other American species that we grow at Flowers by the Sea Farm, please feel free to call or email us. You can also find plant descriptions of Salvias by Origin in our online catalog menu.
Open any plant description, and you’ll find a “From The Everything Salvias Blog” tab near the bottom of the page linking you to articles related to the plant. We believe in making it easy for you to learn as much as possible about our sages and companion plants.