Sage advice: An illustrated guide to smudging herbs

Sage Advice

Once upon a time, there were only three kinds of smudge sticks in most witchy shops: Small, medium, and large.  These days, you can choose from a vast array of smudging herbs, each with a different energy, aroma, and cultural history.

In this article, I’ll walk you through the plants that are most commonly used for smudging. (We’ll limit it to smudges that are derived from woods and leaves. Resin incenses are divine—but that’s a topic for another article.)

The variety of smudging herbs is incredible. But you’ll also notice some similarities. First, most of them come from the leaf and stem parts of bushes and small trees. (Fruits and flowers make wonderful sachets, baths, and teas, but lose all their charm when burned.) Second, most smudging plants grow in desert and mountain regions, where the soil is poor. Plants in these climates tend to be short and shrubby, and they rely on fragrant oils as a way to keep insects and other animals from munching on them to get to their water and nutrients.

You’ll also notice that many excellent smudging plants come from the genus Salvia (true sages). There are several hundred distinct species of Salvia, but only the most aromatic varieties are used for smudging. Many other varieties grow wild, or are cultivated as hardy ornamentals. Sage’s reputation as a beneficial plant is ancient and well-deserved. The Romans named the plant Salvia after the Latin verb meaning to save, redeem, or heal.

So where can you find these delicious-smelling plants? Well, just about any New Age store will have smudges for sale. (White Sage, at least—you may have to search online for some of the more exotic varieties.) Also try health food grocers, yoga studios, artisan and farmer’s markets. You may even want to consider growing smudging plants in your garden, or gathering them in the wild.

A quick warning: The plants listed below are not harmful or dangerous under normal circumstances. Still, they can cause irritation and allergic reactions in some people. If you have asthma or respiratory problems, burning anything may not be great for your health. (Consult a doctor or herbalist if you have concerns.) Burn smudges in a well-ventilated area—coughing and choking on the smoke will not enhance their effects! Always be mindful of fire safety, especially indoors and in dry climates.

Finally, please don’t rely on herbal remedies as a substitute for medical treatment. When I describe an herb as healing, I mean only that it will contribute to your general well-being—not that it will cure cancer, toenail fungus, or anything in between. I always recommend that you store herbs in labeled packages, out of the reach of children and pets.

White Sage (Salvia apiana—also known as Bee Sage, California Sage, Sacred Sage)

For many people, “smudging” means one thing only—White Sage. (Its Latin name refers to its main pollinator, the honeybee.) White Sage is the bread and butter of any smudging kit. Versatile and effective, it’s suitable for most any smudging ritual—cleansing, healing, protection, meditation, and so on. When mixed with other herbs, it makes a wonderful base for a custom smudging blend.

White Sage grows wild across the American Southwest in bushy clumps. (The strongest-smelling product comes from the western fringes of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.) The plant has been gathered for thousands of years by Native Americans, particularly the Chumash. It is regarded as a sacred plant—an important source of food, medicine, and benevolent Spirit.

White Sage is herbaceous, sweet, and slightly astringent.  It's rather similar to Eucalyptus, but more complex. Some people say it smells like Marijuana when burned. (To me, burning White Sage just smells like burning White Sage—but the similarity is something to keep in mind if you’re going to use it in public.) The smell of White Sage is so strong that just rubbing its fuzzy leaves between your fingers is enough to release the scent.

Almost all of the White Sage on the market comes from California. Most of it is wild-gathered and hand-tied by producers large and small. There really isn’t much difference in quality between brands. However, if it matters to you, you may want to seek out a producer who gathers Sage with the proper prayers and observances. It’s even possible to buy White Sage that is harvested by American Indians according to traditional practices, just as they have done for centuries.

Because it is the most widely available smudge, you can buy White Sage in many sizes and formats. Small Sage wands (3-4 inches) are ideal for small spaces, solitary practice, or to keep handy in a ritual kit. The big boys (8 inches and up) are best reserved for outdoor use and large group rituals—unless a wailing smoke detector is part of your space-clearing strategy! You can also buy the loose leaves and stems by the ounce or pound. This lets you control the amount you use, and allows for blending with other herbs.

White Sage is affected by periodic droughts, meaning it has years in which the harvest is smaller. The price and quality fluctuate accordingly. Still, there’s no need to pester your local New Age emporium about the vintage year of their stock. Freshness isn’t a huge consideration, either. The volatile oils in dried Sage will dissipate somewhat over time—but I’ve used Sage sticks that were hiding in my altar cupboard for years and no one was the wiser. Buy it, it’ll burn just fine.

Common Sage (Salvia officianalis—also known as Garden Sage, Common Sage, Green Sage, or Kitchen Sage)

Many a hard-up Witch has wondered if it’s okay to use culinary Sage—the kind that goes in turkey stuffing and breakfast sausage—for smudging. The answer is yes! Common Sage is a close relative of White Sage, and has many of the same beneficial properties as its superstar cousin, White Sage. Common Sage originates in Europe, and its medicinal and folkloric uses date back to the Middle Ages. For those involved in the European traditions of Witchcraft, it may make more sense to smudge with Common Sage than one of the North American varieties.

Besides, not everybody has a metaphysical store that they can rush to for supplies, and a good Witch knows how to improvise. The main advantage of Common Sage is that it grows in many climates, and is readily available in fresh and dried form at most supermarkets. Will Sage ward off bad vibes when used in food? I don’t know, but I’ll take another slice of Sage Derby while I mull it over.

Not everyone agrees that the smell of burning Common Sage is pleasant. A little goes a long way. Also, the herb must be quite dry to smolder effectively. If burning Sage doesn't work for you, remember that you can still use the plant to cleanse and bless your space. Add the essential oil to sprays and washes, or put the leaves in sachets, witch bottles, or mojo bags.

Blue Sage (Salvia clevelandii or Artemisia tridentata—also known as New Mexico Sage, Desert Sage, Grandmother Sage)

Blue Sage is a hardy bush found in the deserts of the Southwest. It’s named for its abundant blue flowers, but the leaves also have a blue-ish cast. It has thin leaves and a fragrance that is both herbaceous and floral, similar to Lavender.

A close relative of White Sage, Blue Sage is also good for healing and cleansing rituals.  Its soothing, relaxing smell can be used to aid meditation, or burned simply for enjoyment. It’s not as pungent as White Sage, and is more agreeable to some folks who find the strong, bracing scent of White Sage overpowering. You can find Blue Sage in smudge sticks and in loose-leaf form.

Another pale sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata, is pictured above. It goes by the trade name "Blue Sage," but is not a member of the Salvia clan.

Lavender Sage (Salvia leucophylla or Salvia mellifera)—also know as Gray Sage, Purple Sage, Wild Lavender)

Yet another far-flung member of the Salvia family, Lavender Sage is a sun-loving plant that grows in southern coastal California. It’s named for its clusters of purple flowers—the leaves are rounded, green, and fuzzy like Common Sage. (They darken to gray when dried.)

Lavender Sage is unrelated to the flower Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). However, it physically resembles Lavender (especially when in bloom) and has a similar clean, flowery fragrance. As if that wasn’t screwy enough, some artisan producers do use true Lavender as an ingredient in smudges, and they don’t always make it clear which plant is meant.

Lavender Sage is known for its calming, peaceful, and sedating effects. It inspires love and relieves anxiety. Because of its irresistible scent and natural beauty, a Lavender Sage smudge is a great choice for your spells of attraction. Lavender Sage is often combined with White Sage for a killer duo. Like a 2-in-1 shampoo, this pair will cleanse and condition in a single step!

Black Sage (Salvia mellifera, Artemisia nova, Artemisia douglasiana and others—also known as Mugwort, Magical Sage, Black Sagebrush, Dream Weed)

Used to encourage dreams and visions, Black Sage is an herb of introspection and inner healing. When burned before bedtime, it aids in restful sleep and pleasant dreams. Black Sage is used for astral travel, shamanic journeying, and for protection during such excursions. One Pagan priest I know begins group trance workings by smudging the participants with Black Sage.

Black Sage is like the mystical, shifty-acting cousin of the Sage clan—so shifty, in fact, that people can’t even agree on what plant it is! There are a few different products sold under the name “Black Sage.” I found this out when I noticed that the Black Sage I ordered for the store looked different from month to month. I called my supplier, and he confessed that the exact composition of the smudge changes based on availability.

A true Sage, Salvia mellifera has long leaves that are dark green on top and silver underneath. It is found in the mountains of the West Coast from California north through British Columbia. The plant can be difficult to identify because it resembles other species. The leaves only darken dramatically in times of drought. To add to the confusion, there are several cultivars, and Black Sage readily hybridizes with Purple Sage and Blue Sage plants.

Other Black Sage products come from shrubs in the genus Artemisia. They are commonly called sagebrushes, but these dark-green plants are more closely related to the Daisy than to true Sage. When dried, Artemisia tridentata has a lighter, straw-brown color, and may also have small crowded blossoms on its stalks. But Artemisia douglasiana (shown in the photo above) is leafier and easy to mistake for dark Sage such as Salvia mellifera.

Why does it matter? The metaphysical properties of both plants are similar, but Artemisia-based smudges may also contain small amounts of thujone. This mildly trance-inducing compound is best-known as the active ingredient in traditional absinthe liqueur. Black Sage contains less thujone than the common herbs Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Black Sage won’t cause you to “trip” or wildly hallucinate. At most, it may intensify your efforts at visualization and vivify your dreams. Even so, some people (like pregnant women and straight-edgers) should avoid using Black Sage.

Desert Sage (Artemisia tridentata or Artemisia californica [pictured]Desert Magic, Mountain Sage, Grey Sage, New Mexico Sage, Sagebrush Smudge)

This aromatic shrub thrives in the windswept deserts of the Santa Fe/Taos area. It has skinny, branched leaves and a light brown color. Desert Sage shares some common nicknames with Blue Sage, and the two plants are sometimes sold interchangeably. (Are you noticing a pattern here?)

Desert Sage has a warm herbaceous aroma that is a bit peppery (think Bay leaves or Mint tea). It is used for cleansing and purifying, protection, and inner strength. It is said to bring pleasant thoughts and relieve headaches and anxiety.

Desert Sage is available both loose and in smudge sticks. It blends well with most other smudging herbs. Desert Sage produces a dense, straw-like bundle that is sometimes sprinkled with resin incenses for an especially rich combination. Desert Sage laced with Dragon’s Blood or Copal is just delicious!

Dakota Sage (Artemisia ludoviciana—Badlands Sage, Silver Wormwood, Old Man Sage, Silver King, Western Mugwort, Dakota White Sage)

Another Artemisia smudge, this one grows all over the badlands of South Dakota stretching all the way south to Louisiana. Dakota Sage is rarely found in commercial Sage products, but I’ve included it because it’s easily gathered in many places across the United States. The aroma and appearance of Dakota Sage is very similar to that of Desert Sage. However, the fragrance is usually less intense.

Piñon Pine (Pinus edulis and others—also known as Pinyon Pine)

The Piñon Pine is a generous evergreen tree from the foothills of the American Southwest.  The nuts were an important food source for early Americans--these days, the tree is best known for stocking chimineas (Southwestern patio stoves). Piñon has a smooth, woodsy scent that's especially powerful, thanks to its high concentration of pine resin.

Piñon is an excellent all-purpose smudge, and a capable stand-in for White Sage, if you prefer to avoid the latter. Its energy is cleansing, healing, and strengthening. Oh, and it repels insects, too.

Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens [California Incense Cedar], and many other species)

Cedar is an ancient tree, one of the oldest beings still thriving on the Earth. Cedar trees look much the same as they did when dinosaurs roamed the land. Back when other trees were trying out those newfangled “leaves,” Cedar said “I’m good” and stayed with the tried and true.

The smell of Cedar is woodsy and fresh. It recalls ancient forests, and invokes their protection and wisdom. Both the wood (in the form of chips or shavings) and the foliage make effective smudges.

Cedar smudges carry a medicine of protection. Cedar is often used to cleanse a home or apartment when first moving in, inviting unwanted spirits to leave and protecting a person, place or object from unwanted influences. 

Along with Rosemary and White Sage, Cedar is one of the most aggressively cleansing smudges you can choose.

Juniper (Juniperus communis)

Juniper has a sweet and spicy "Christmas tree" fragrance and abundant blue berries.  Like Cedar, Juniper is probably one of the most ancient plants. Juniper is said to have a masculine, protective energy, and is used in spells of cleansing and prosperity.

Juniper berries are popular in good luck charms, while the leaves are often used for smudging. Juniper is best used for blessing a new venture or dwelling, and inviting in abundance.

Bearberry (Uva ursi)

Bearberry Leaf

Bearberry is a low-growing North American shrub in the Heather family.  As its name suggests, it is a favorite of foraging bears. It is used for smudging, animal magic, shape-shifting, and other shamanic work. Native Americans traditionally mix it with Tobacco leaf to create a ritual smoke blend (called kinnikinnick), said to carry prayers and bring visions. Sometimes the leaves come mixed with peppercorn-sized berries.  Don't throw these out—the Bear spirit is said to appreciate the offering.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalus)

A culinary herb with an assertive fragrance, this woody perennial may also be used for smudging. It clears negativity, inspires confidence, and invigorates the mind and body.

Some people prefer to avoid herbs associated with Native American cultures out of concerns about cultural appropriation. Rosemary is an Old World herb with a long history of use in incenses, and so makes a guilt-free alternative for Western practitioners.

Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata or Anthoxanthum nitens—also known as Seneca Grass, Holy Grass, Vanilla Grass, Mary’s Grass, Bison Grass)

Sweetgrass braid

Sweetgrass is a long, fragrant grass that grows wild across portions of the American Great Plains. It's frequently braided or tied in bundles, then dried. 

Sweetgrass is sacred to several Plains tribes. They have traditionally burned it to drive out evil and harm, and allow benevolent spirits to approach. Ancient lore states that Sweetgrass is the hair of the Earth Mother, and invokes love, kindness, and honesty.

A relative of American Sweetgrass was known in medieval Europe. Sheaves of the sweet-smelling grass were strewn across thresholds, especially of churches, where it would release a gentle aroma when trod upon.

Sweetgrass smells of fresh hay with hints of warm vanilla. It induces a mellow, almost soporific state when burned.  (It contains coumarin, which is thought to be mildly psychoactive.) Some say the proper way to burn Sweetgrass braids is to shave small portions off with a knife, allowing them to fall on hot coals.

Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon glutinosum and Eriodictyon californicum—also known as Holy Herb, Mountain Balm, Consumptive’s Weed, Bear Weed)

Yerba Santa ("holy herb") is a sweet-smelling plant that grows in the arid hills of the Southwest.  It got its common name from Spanish monks who were impressed with its healing properties. Yerba Santa is burned to honor ancestors, increase psychic powers, and bring healing and protection. It is also a traditional remedy against coughing and many other ailments.

Yerba Santa grows wild only in certain areas of California and Northern Mexico—a true regional treasure.

Tobacco (Genus Nicotiana)

The health hazards of Tobacco are well-known, so much that its sacred uses have fallen by the wayside. Wild-growing and cultivated Tobacco had a place in the rituals of many Native American tribes. Aleister Crowley considered Tobacco a consummate herb of Mars. And it is said that Faeries particularly enjoy offerings of the stuff. (Along with other human vices, like whiskey and sweets!)

Commercially packaged cigarettes are full of reconstituted crud, chemicals and additives that make them unsuitable for magickal use. If you’re going to burn tobacco ritually, the best option is loose tobacco leaves, but they aren’t easy to find. The next best thing might be a shredded pipe tobacco that is additive-free.

Palo Santo (Bursera graveolens—also known as Holy Wood)

Palo Santo (or “Holy Wood”) is a sweet-smelling tropical wood that is a natural incense.  Palo Santo is said to clear out negative spirits and energies, increase relaxation, and bring joy and harmony to the home. It is in the family of trees that produces Frankincense and Myrrh, but is native only to Ecuador, Peru, and the Galapagos Islands. Its aroma is smooth, aromatic and spicy. (I think it smells a bit like gingerbread!)

The holy reputation of Palo Santo dates back to the time of the Incas, who used it in their ceremonies of healing and cleansing. When the Spaniards arrived in South America, they couldn’t easily obtain their preferred church incenses, so they substituted the local equivalent. To this day, Palo Santo is used there for Catholic holy days and processions.

Palo Santo comes from a slow-growing tree that is in danger of over-harvesting. Both Ecuador and Peru have laws on the books designed to protect this rare species. Reputable importers use only fallen limbs and strive to minimize waste. Sticks, chips and even sawdust are sold by the ounce, with the scraps being compressed into incense cones or distilled for their essential oil.

Sticks of Palo Santo can be lit on one end and burned just like any other smudge stick, but in humid conditions charcoal may be required. The chips and powder are best burned over charcoal.

Mixed smudges

Sometimes you may want to use a smudge with multiple ingredients, combining the aromas and properties of two or more plants. Mixed smudges come in a huge array of combinations, some laced with resins or flowers—far too many to list.  A Black and White Sage smudge (pictured) combines the psychic openness granted by Black Sage with the protective qualities of White Sage. However, it's worth noting that in some Native American traditions, the Four Sacred Medicines (White Sage, Cedar, Tobacco, and Sweetgrass) are never mixed.

Hope you've found this tour of smudging herbs useful and enlightening. Happy smudging—and for godsakes, open a window!

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