Sage and Sagebrush

ChiloquinNews article 10/31/2011

Culinary sage in flower

Perhaps the most common use of the name ‘sage’ is for the culinary and medicinal herb Salvia officinalis, but in fact there are 900 species in the Salvia genus, ranging from shrubs, to perennials, biennials and annuals. Most have grayish colored leaves and are aromatic, but if you are out to buy a sage that you can eat, better be sure to look at the Latin name on your plant. Many of the Salvias are not edible and some have remarkable effects, as in this description I found on the internet ‘Salvia divinorum induces astral projection, and enhances spiritual growth instantly.’ or on a more conservative website Salvia divinorum, or diviner’s sage, is sometimes cultivated for psychedelic drug effects; the legality of its use is under review in some US states.’ There are many interesting Salvias. Salvia hispanica, commonly known as chia, produces edible seeds which are high in protein and in the omega-3 fatty acid, α-linolenic acid. Salvia sclarea, clary sage, a very pretty ornamental that does do well here, is sometimes used in perfumes. Very often, the name ‘Salvia’ is used to denote an ornamental variety and many grow well and reseed themselves in Chiloquin, but once again, be cautious if you are buying them at a nursery. There are many, mostly those with the bigger, showy flowers, that are not hardy here.

My father was a great reader of anything he could lay his hands on, and I remember when I was very small, finding a novel titled ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’. This was not the same sage that we ate in our dinner. This ‘sage’ was the sagebrush, genus Artemisia, that at one time blanketed the Western US covering perhaps as much as 240 million acres, in 16 states and 3 Canadian provinces. There are over 20 varieties of sagebrush growing from sea level to 12,000 feet.

Mexican Sage, a pretty ornamental, but not hardy in Chiloquin

The sagebrush ecosystem is home to unique plant and wildlife species. Many birds and mammals depend on sagebrush ecosystems for survival. In the last century, drastic changes have been caused by livestock grazing, conversion of lands to other uses, and the unintentional introduction of cheatgrass in the 1880’s. The result has been fragmentation of sagebrush communities throughout the Intermountain West. Cheatgrass develops and produces seed quickly, and then dries out to become a dangerous fuel for wildfires. Where cheatgrass is dominant, wildfires burn more frequently – returning to areas in less than 10 years where they used to burn once in 50 years or more. This in turn creates larger disturbed areas for cheatgrass to quickly invade, and more cheatgrass invasion results in more fire. Many plants native to the sagebrush ecosystem are not able to survive these frequent fires. Sagebrush, for example, cannot regrow after a fire, and the seeds cannot survive a fire. The seeds need to blow in from neighboring areas in order to re-establish. In my yard, I have a constant battle to keep the cheatgrass in hand, and I’ve noticed it growing rampantly all through the Chiloquin area.

Artemisia species, as the Salvias, also have grayish colored, aromatic leaves but most are very bitter.

Native Americans used sagebrush as a medicine to halt internal bleeding caused by wounds and childbirth. The plant is very toxic to internal parasites and was also used to expel worms. However, the plant oils are toxic to the liver and digestive system if taken internally, and the plant is also highly allergenic, causing dermatitis if applied to the skin, so it was not a medicine to use lightly. Now, most notable for helping to treat malaria in Africa is Artemisia annua , the source of the drug artemisinin.

The only herbivore to eat sagebrush and remain unscathed is the pronghorn antelope, which evolved with the plant. While sagebrush leaves have good nutritional value the plant oils are toxic to the symbiotic bacteria in the rumen of large herbivores. Sheep can tolerate some sagebrush but cattle that resort to sagebrush when other food is scarce in the winter often freeze to death before they starve, as they rely a good deal on the heat they generate by digestion, for warmth.

Ornamental Artemisia ‘Seafoam’

An exception to the bitter taste of most Artemisias is the herb tarragon (A. dracunculus) used extensively in French cooking. A. absinthium (Absinth Wormwood) was used to repel fleas and moths, and in brewing beer and wine. Both Wormwood and Mugwort are believed to have effects on psychic abilities. Ornamental Artemisias are renowned for their lacey silver-gray foliage and drought tolerance.


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