Growing White Sage

Medicinal herbs

White sage (salvia apiana) has been used for centuries by Native Americans for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. This shrubby desert native produces silver leaves that grow in a rosette arrangement on straight stalks. Young leaves start out green and turn white as they get older and when they are dried.

White sage plant growing

The natural habitat of white sage is a small geographic area from Santa Barbara County to Baja California, Mexico. Unfortunately, as white sage has grown in popularity over the years, its habitat has been encroached from development, and the plants have been over-harvested and poached in protected areas.

How to Germinate White Sage From Seed

White sage seeds have a very low germination rate. While this may be frustrating when starting plants from seed, it’s part of the natural process. To survive its native desert habitat, not all white sage seeds sprout at the same time. Many times germination rates are only 20%. The seeds aren’t duds; they just take their own sweet time.

However, some things can help improve germination rates, starting with planting seeds indoors and using scarification, heat, light, and the right amount of moisture.

  • ScarificationScarification is the process of removing some of the seed's outer coating. To scarify white sage seeds, place them on a piece of fine-grit sandpaper and then take a sanding block and rub it lightly over the seeds. 
  • Heat. Keeping the soil and air temperature at 70 - 85 degrees is optimal.
  • Light. White sage seeds need light to germinate.
  • Sprinkle 15-20 seeds in each tray or pot. Then lightly press them into the soil.
  • Mist the seeds with a spray bottle to keep the soil moist but not soggy.

While you will have seeds germinating in as early as 7 days, it can take much longer, even up to 21 days. In nature, it can take seeds a full year to germinate. 

As the seedlings grow, they will need bright, full sunlight. Using a grow light is recommended. Continue to keep the soil lightly moist. 

After the seedlings have developed true leaves and are 3 inches tall, they can be transplanted outdoors. Once the soil has warmed and all danger of frost has passed, they will be ready to acclimate to life outside.

While there are more than 700 species of salvias with different tastes and scents, white sage (salvia apiana) is unique. As a sun-loving, drought-tolerant plant, it can grow well in a suitable climate. 

Growing your own white sage can take patience, but the harvest is rewarding.

Growing White Sage

Replicating the natural habitat of white sage will give it the best growing conditions. White sage loves the sun and grows on sunny hillsides where the water runs off quickly. The region where it grows is very mild, with temperatures ranging from 40° to 80°. The summers are warm and dry, and the winters are cool and cloudy. 

White sage is generally hardy in zones 7-9. Plants can grow 3-5 feet tall and from 3-8 feet wide and are a perennial in the right habitat. While plants are still developing deep taproots in the first year, white sage will need weekly watering. After that, the roots will usually get all the water they need from natural rain amounts and won’t require additional watering. 

Plants can be grown in pots in colder zones to be taken inside during the winter months. It does not do well in cold temperatures. However, planting it near a wall and surrounding it with rocks can add radiant heat. Also, piling sand over it in the colder months can help keep it warm and dry. No fertilizer is necessary, as white sage prefers low-nutrient conditions. Add sand and perlite to create a fast-draining soil. 

White sage is a hardy perennial, but it does have a few issues that can affect it. It can tolerate humidity but can be susceptible to powdery mildew, rust, and root rot. Sudden wilting can indicate poor drainage or root rot. Aphids, whiteflies, and spider mites can also be a problem. Neem oil can be an effective treatment but wait 10 days after applying it before harvesting.

During the summer, white sage will bloom with spikes of white flowers. Its flower spikes soar 2-5 feet above the foliage, with small white-to-lavender flowers that are beloved by pollinators, such as bees, hummingbirds, and beneficial insects. It is so beloved by bees that it is sometimes called bee sage.

Bee on white sage plant blossom

White Sage Harvesting Tips

There are simple ways to harvest white sage to keep the plant healthy and growing. The easiest way is to pick individual leaves as needed. 

When harvesting larger amounts, make sure you cut the pliable part of the stem and not the woody section. Use sharp garden shears and cut just above a node. A node is the joint in the stem where side branches are growing. Cutting this top part off will encourage the side branches to continue growing. 

Take only the top clusters of leaves and never more than 1/3 of the plant at a time. Harvest leaves and sprigs before the plant starts flowering. Spread them out and allow them to air dry before wrapping them into bundles or storing them.

How to Use White Sage

White sage is prized for its use in herbal remedies, energy work, and healing ceremonies. 

  • In traditional medicine, white sage was boiled in water to make a strong-scented liquid for washing the body. The antibacterial effect helped to eliminate body odors and decrease sweating. 
  • Dried leaves are traditionally burned as incense, known as smudging. The smudging process involves lighting smudge sticks (tightly wrapped bundles of dried sage leaves), blowing them out, and allowing the smoke to escape into the air. 
  • White sage is known for its ability to ease cold symptoms such as congestion and sore throat. 
  • Steam inhalation can relieve congestion and ease cold symptoms. Boil sage leaves for 5-10 minutes, and then with a towel over your head, breathe in the aromatic steam. 
  • Steep a few leaves in boiling water to make a hot tea with lemon and honey. 
  • White sage can be infused into oils to make massage oils, ointments, body butters, salves, and lip balms. 
  • Because of its high eucalyptol content, a strong infusion can be used as a gargle for a sore throat. 
  • Traditionally, white sage was used to reduce hot flashes, probably due to its phytoestrogens. 
  • The medicinal properties of white sage make it a beneficial addition to a hot foot soak.
White sage smudge sticks

Cautions: White sage does contain thujone - which in large amounts can cause anxiety, confusion, and kidney problems. Do not use if epileptic or pregnant. As with all herbal medicines, use caution and consult a medical professional when taking them internally.