White sage: plant, care & effects of the sacred sage


I study organic agriculture and am very connected to plants and nature. At home, we run a small organic farm with a few animals, various crops and some forest. The production of healthy food in harmony with nature inspires me anew time and again.

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White sage is a medicinal plant that is primarily used in incense rituals. Native to the southwestern United States and north-western Mexico, it is well renowned for its cleansing properties.

white sage leaves
White sage can easily be recognized by its pale leaves [Photo: Danny Hummel /Shutterstock.com]

California white sage (Salvia apiana) has long been used by Native American peoples in traditional incense rituals. Today, it has become popular due its purifying effect. Read on to find out more about this strongly perfumed medicinal plant, including how to grow and care for it as well as how to use it.

White sage: origin and properties

California white sage (Salvia apiana) is also known as bee sage or sacred sage and belongs to the Lamiaceae family. Like common sage (Salvia officinalis), it is a medicinal plant and is native to north-western Mexico and the southwestern United States, primarily California. Nowadays, white sage can be found all over the world.

The semi-shrub, evergreen, perennial, mostly herbaceous plant can grow up to 1.3 m tall. The lanceolate leaves are 4 – 8 cm long and densely covered in white hairs. The unusually shaped flowers stand together in panicles on the upright, reddish-brown stems. The flowers are white to pale lavender and bloom from May through June. The flowers attract a variety of insects, with honeybees and carpenter bees particularly drawn to the white lipped flowers. The plant’s sap exudes an intense tart, resinous odour, which is why the plant is frequently used for incense.

White sage is primarily grown as a pot plant in Europe as it is not hardy and needs to be protected from frost.

Hairy pale leaves of white sage
White sage leaves appear white because they are covered in tiny white hairs [Photo: Zach Behrens/Shutterstock.com]

What is the difference between white sage and common sage? Botanically, white sage (Salvia apiana) and common sage (Salvia officinalis) belong to the same genus (Salvia). Both plants contain tannins, bitter compounds, flavonoids, resins and essential oils. The key distinction is in how the two species are used. While common sage is often used in cooking, white sage is more commonly used in incense rituals and as a fragrant plant. This is because white sage exudes a much more intense, tart and resinous scent. Another distinguishing feature is the leaves. The hairless and mostly green leaves of common sage can easily be distinguished from the whitish-green leaves of white sage. Furthermore, common sage is far more hardy than white sage and usually regrows from its old woody stems in spring, whereas white sage must be protected from frost. In addition to common sage and white sage, there are many other types of sage that can be used in the kitchen, as medicinal plants or as attractive plants in the garden.

Drying leaves of white sage
White sage leaves can be dried after harvesting [Photo: natalia bulatova /Shutterstock.com]

Growing white sage

White sage likes a location in the full sun. It is not hardy in temperate climates, so grow it in a pot. Use a well-draining, poor, sandy substrate and avoid excessively wet conditions and waterlogging.

When planting white sage, it is important to choose a large enough pot as it grows very quickly. The pot should be at least one third larger than the plant’s root ball; in the long run, a wide pot with at least 25 l volume is needed. Our Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost, for example, can be used as a substrate. Mix one-third sand into the soil to provide sufficient nutrients for plant growth while also providing a loose and permeable substrate for the plant roots. Add a drainage layer of clay shards to bottom of the pot to prevent waterlogging. Place the white sage’s root ball in the pot, fill with soil and press down firmly. Water well. Young specimens, in particular, grow better in warmer conditions.

Organic All Purpose Compost, 40L
Organic All Purpose Compost, 40L
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  • Perfect for all your house, garden & balcony plants
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How to sow

White sage must be exposed to light to germinate. Fill a shallow tray with our Plantura Organic Herb & Seedling Compost, for example. Then sow the seeds on the soil’s surface and press down lightly. It is important that there is enough water for the seeds to germinate but that the soil is not soaking wet. The seeds germinate at 20 to 30 °C within two to three weeks.

How to propagate white sage cuttings

Another way to grow white sage is propagating its cuttings. In spring or early summer, cut off young, non-flowering, non-woody sections of the plant at a length of 8 – 10 cm. Then remove all pairs of leaves except for the two uppermost ones and press the cuttings deeply into the substrate , leaving the leaves poking out. Place in a slightly shady spot with temperatures around 12 °C and moisten regularly. The cuttings will take root as spring progresses. Our Plantura Organic Herb & Seedling Compost, for example, is a suitable substrate for rooting cuttings as it is low in nutrients and promotes root development.

White flowers of white sage
White sage’s white flowers attract bees and other insects [Photo: Traveller 70/Shutterstock.com]

Plant care

With proper care, white sage will quickly grow into a fragrant addition to your garden.

How to water and fertilise

As white sage is used to dry conditions in its native habitat, water it sparingly. Do not allow the soil to dry out completely and avoid waterlogging at all costs.

For white sage growing in pots, use a liquid fertiliser such as our Plantura Liquid Houseplant Food every two months during the growing season. Avoid overfeeding and mineral fertilisers, as these are detrimental to the aroma. When repotting, you can give it some nutrient reserves by working in some slow-release fertiliser such as our Plantura Flower Food into the soil at the bottom of the pot.

Liquid Houseplant Food, 800ml
Liquid Houseplant Food, 800ml
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  • Perfect for a wide variety of houseplants & foliage plants
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How to prune white sage

Prune white sage in spring, making sure to only prune the herbaceous shoots and not the woody ones. This causes it to sprout more vigorously and grow more compactly. After flowering, prune it again to encourage a second flowering. Prune once more in mid-August for the final time this year.

Tip: Repotting is only necessary when the roots have grown to fill the entire pot. In the long run, choosing a structurally stable, partly stony soil is the best option. This is because it does not collapse, allowing you to go longer between repotting.

Is white sage hardy?

White sage is not hardy in the UK, so it must be protected from extreme cold and frost. The optimal location for overwintering is a bright, cool but frost-free room with a temperature of 1 – 10 °C. In addition, wrap the pot in foil to insulate it and keep it off the ground. White sage can survive light frost down to – 2 °C for a short time without protection.

Tip: During the winter months, there is a chance that aphids will infest white sage. Look at the leaves carefully before and during overwintering to prevent this from happening.

White sage smudge stick
Tie a bunch of leaves together with string to make a smudge stick [Photo: FotoHelin/Shutterstock.com]

White sage use and benefits

White sage has long been used by the Native American peoples during traditional incense ceremonies. It has a healing effect and aids in the treatment of respiratory illnesses such as coughs and colds. To make a smudge stick, tie a bunch of leaves together with string and leave to dry for two weeks. Once dried and ready, light the smudge stick with a lighter or match and let the wafting smoke cleanse your home. Burning white sage has an antibacterial and purifying effect, which is why it is often used for house cleansing. It not only helps to purify the air indoors, but it also increases concentration and brightens the mood. The smoke of white sage is thought to clear negative energy and thus make room for something new. Another use is as a cleansing infusion in saunas.

Smudge sticks of white sage leaves
White sage smudge sticks are burnt as incense [Photo: Pam Walker/Shutterstock.com]

Is white sage edible? In general, the plant is edible, but should only be consumed in small quantities, as it contains the mild toxin thujone. Especially pregnant and breastfeeding women should not consume or burn white sage. The fragrant leaves and flowers can be used to season a variety of dishes and the seeds can also be eaten raw or cooked.

White sage is a beautiful ornamental plant that enriches our garden with a wonderfully intense and resinous fragrance. It also creates a pleasant atmosphere indoors. You can find more air-purifying plants in our feature article.