Matrix and Salvatrix: Sage as Mother and Healer
I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
- Mary Oliver
Nature was my first mother.
I memorized the forest floor as I would
my mother’s body. This forest skin
smelled like pine sap and sweet rot, and
it stained my diapers green and
perfumed my hair, which was always
tangled with bits of leaves, small sticks,
- Brenda Peterson, Nature and Other Mothers
Botanical Name: Salvia spp. (Most commonly Salvia officinalis, but nearly any aromatic Sage will work, including Salvia apiana, Salvia subincisa, Salvia lemmoni, Salvia carnosa and many others )
Taste: Aromatic, acrid, sl. bitter to very bitter (depending on spp.), oily (in the more aromatic species usually), slightly to moderately astringent
Energetics: Cool-warm (variable temperature herb), dry
Actions: relaxant/stimulating diaphoretic, nervous system trophorestorative and relaxant/stimulating nervine, aromatic digestive (carminative and spasmolytic), cognitive tonic (nootropic), vulnerary, mild astringent, blood tonic, oily tonic
Specific Indications: Poor circulation with cold extremities, skin soft and relaxed, concurrent anxiety and depression, tremors or shaking, excessive fluid loss or lack of body fluids, low specific gravity urine, blood stasis or loss, overall weakness with myalgia and chronic headache, chronic sore throat
The scent of Sage has always had comforting connotations for me. Even as a child, I was well known for my tendency to use ridiculous amounts of the aromatic herb in almost everything I cooked, from spaghetti to stew to salad dressing. To me, the plant tasted and smelled like something so soothing I couldn’t get enough of it — like the strong, sweet arms of a smiling mother whose hair holds the scent of spices, rich soil and summer. In retrospect, I can see how that sensitive little girl was already stressed and in need of the nourishment and centering Sage offers to both body and mind. When I began my herb garden in my parent’s back yard, Sage was among my very first plants, and I eventually grew many different varieties of Salvia, both culinary and ornamental, simply because I was so enamored of the calming spirit of this generous species. I would often kneel in the middle of the garden with my face buried in the Sage bed, just breathing in all its concentrated store of herbed sunlight and heady warmth that grounded me back into my body and the earth.
Sage is a member of the mint family, a fact easily ascertained by its square stems, generally strong aromatics and provocative flowers. The appearance of the plant varies a great deal depending on spp. from the silver-grey pebbly leaves of Salvia officinalis to the dark blue-green and sharp-edged foliage of S. subincisa. The flowers range from all shades of blue to red to lavender, purple or pink, creating a fascinating and sensual display in any garden or wild area. We tend to think of Sage as strictly a garden plant, yet in reality, various wild species thrive throughout the world, including much of North America. Being a common culinary herb, it often brings to mind domestic scenes such as cozy kitchens and warm hearths but a closer look at the nature of this plant quickly reveals the wild spirit within. While certainly a traditionally important woman’s and cooking herb, Sage is also a denizen of wilderness and an ally of shamans. This herb is respected wherever it grows, across many continents and cultures, as an important healing plant. It is also known almost universally for its ability to clear negative energy, bad vibes or even evil spirits when its smoke or steam is allowed to permeate an affected area, it was even used traditionally by the indigenous Cahuilla peoples to clean hunting tools touched by a menstruating woman. However we interpret this, it’s simple enough to see that Sage has a calming and cleansing effect on both people and environs it is used for. The smoke of several of the most aromatic Salvias were also considered specific for fumigating areas contaminated by sick or dead people, indicating its usefulness in warding off viruses and bacteria and perhaps stimulating innate immunity.
Sage is a classic tonic in the sense of deep nourishment and foundational restoration, especially for the nervous system, digestive tract and cognitive organs. While there are many well known quotes along these lines from the herbal literature of antiquity, this primary trait does not seem to be well utilized in modern American herbal practice. In fact, Sage’s very name derives from the latin word Salveo or Salvare which means “to heal” or “to save” and according to Grieve’s A Modern Herbal was even sometimes known as Salvia Salvatrix (Sage the Savior). Traditional Western Herbalism, including European, Appalachian, Hispanic, Indigenous and other sub-groups, have made extensive use of its considerable range of healing attributes.
The Bottom Line
When reading some of the seemingly contradictory actions and indication in the description of Sage, it will be helpful to keep in mind that the herb seems to act primarily as a balancer of fluids in the body, whether there is too much or not enough. It also serves as an oily tonic, making it doubly useful in many cases of moisture imbalance. Its balancing effects include the blood, which Sage both moves and tonifies with astonishing intelligence. It also restores much needed minerals to the body, being rich in calcium, magnesium and other nutrients.
Whatever this herb does, it does it reliably, efficiently and without fanfare. Sage is a remedy filled with common sense, down-home wisdom and practicality — it gracefully does what needs be done and gets on with life, all while tasting good and filling the kitchen with its savory scent. Being a variable temperature herb and both stimulating and relaxing, it is adaptable to many circumstances and bodies, making it extremely useful in variety of situations.
Indications & Actions
Sage effectively clears both dampness and heat and is a perfect choice as a constitutional tonic in cases where there are signs of dampness (especially excessive phlegm, a wet or slick tongue, moist and/or relaxed skin or flesh and copious sweating) and heat (flushed face, a chronically sore throat, hot flashes, night sweats and a general sense of being chronically overheated.) In line with its variable temperature nature, it can also address systemic coldness (esp. in cases of poor circulation) or cases where there is general coldness but with flashes or waves of heat, usually from deep-seated constitutional dryness.
It is equally useful in acute cases where a virus has manifested in the body with symptoms of dampness and heat. This aromatic herb has a special affinity with the upper respiratory tract in situations where there is congestion, drippiness and a general feeling of having one’s head filled with soggy cement. It helps to dry up excessive secretions and soothe the inflammation of sinusitis, either taken internally or as a nasal wash. Steam inhalations made with Sage, especially in conjunction with Monarda, are excellent at breaking up congestion, loosening constriction, decreasing overall inflammation and preventing or treating any respiratory infection that might occur.
It is well known in the treatment of chronic or acute sore throats, especially if accompanied by swollen or tender glands. A favorite formula of mine for painful, scratchy throats is a tincture or elixir (with honey or glycerine added to the tincture when making it) made with equal parts Rose, Sage and Mallow. An infused honey of these ingredients is also very soothing and healing to the throat. Where there are also chronically swollen glands, it works wonderfully when formulated with Alder.
Sage is markedly helpful in relaxation and stasis of the digestive tract with bloating, gas, cramping and general atony. If the tongue is flabby and damp with teeth marks on the sides, especially in the back it is doubly indicated. Because of its variable temperature nature, Sage can be of help whether the tongue is pale or red, in cases of either heat or coldness.
As a hot tea, the herb stimulates sweating in a dry fever and can speed recovery from a virus. Taken as a cool tea instead it often lessens excessive sweating, menstruation, urination and other fluid loss, especially where there are cool extremities and a relaxed tissue state.
Sage can be of great use in systemic dryness, specifically where the flesh looks limp or somewhat withered, with a distinct lack of oil in the skin. Dryness is not only caused by a shortage of moisture but sometimes by lack of oils. Different herbs and foods will be needed in each case. Often if there is a significant lack of oil in the body, the tissues will be unable to retain proper fluids as well. Matt Wood explains it thus:
“Sage helps in the digestion and utilization of fats and oils. By building up the lipids of the body it helps the nutrition and hydration of the cells. It “plumps” up the tissues, retains water and provides a medium for the movement of hormones. ”
In the same vein, it has the ability to greatly lessen or completely dry up breast milk, so is not advisable for lactating mothers who with to continue to nurse but can be great for assisting the weaning process.
Sage is considered to be what is commonly termed a nootropic (sometimes dubiously referred to as “smart drugs”), which simply indicates that it works well to improve clear thinking, memory, concentration and other cognitive functions. It can even boost functional intelligence if the thinking process stems from weakness, debility or poor circulation. It is indicated in many cases of dementia, Alzheimer’s and other expressions of cognitive decline, especially where specific constitutional factors are also present. I have found that Sage often teams up remarkably well with a good adaptogen/tonic herb such as Ashwagandha or American Ginseng to help bring renewed vitality and sparkle to many older people or those weakened by a long illness, trauma or grief, especially if incorporated into a constitutionally appropriate formula or regimen.
I consider Sage a primary remedy in the treatment of tremors, irritability, insomnia, sensory hypersensitivity and brittleness in either acute or chronic form. I have had excellent results from small doses of the tincture (especially the tincture of S. subincisa) in the treatment of adrenal fatigue with exhaustion with chronic anxiety (esp. if accompanied by tremors and poor circulation) as well as possible depression. Both stimulating and relaxing in nature, Sage is a nervous system trophorestorative that helps modulate moods and works amazingly well for people who have concurrent or cycling depression and anxiety.
My own experiences using Sage as a nervous system trophorestorative came about quite by accident. Several years ago, I was actually looking for a patch of Scutellaria and came about our native Salvia subincisa, which is a very small Sage with dark blue flowers and a skunky smell. I didn’t find the Skullcap that trip but decided to tincture the Salvia and see how much it resembled Garden Sage in action. Back in those days, my nervous system was extremely worn down and I had chronic tremors in my hands and the feeling of constant shaking from the inside out, accompanied by intense anxiety and exhaustion. After trying every native and commonly available herbal nervine, I found that the S. subincisa was the only remedy that calmed the shaking (both visibly and internally), as well as the insistent nervousness that plagued me. A few drops would completely mellow me without sedating me or affecting my ability to think or function. I have now had the opportunity to use the herb in more than half a dozen clinical cases with similar indications and it has worked remarkably well, calming and soothing when other, much stronger herbs have had little effect. I have found that it is one of those herbs that can perform miracles when specifically indicated but may have little more than a slight calming effect on more general cases.
The smudge, tincture, tea, steam, infused oil or other aromatic preparations are excellent at helping to bring a panicked or traumatized person back into their body. There are few scents in the plant world as calming as White Sage (S. apiana) and many of its indigenous American relatives. Use specifically where there is rapid breathing or hyperventilation, a feeling of disassociation and bone deep fear.
Sage is similar in action to Lavender as a vulnerary, although somewhat more cooling in nature. Excellent for burns, swellings, sprains, rashes and other red, irritated wounds. It reliably takes down inflammation and swelling while speeding healing and protecting from or resolving infection. Additional, it works nicely externally when included in pain liniments and salves.
Also like Lavender, it can be a very effective in the treatment of many different kinds of headaches, especially those originating from tension but helpful in nearly any kind of head pain. It is also useful internally and externally for all kinds of muscle achiness from nervous tension. In fact, TCM herbalist Jeremy Ross considers it specific for “patients with recurring muscle aches or pains” especially when concurrent with “anemia and debility, and are easily chilled by exposure to cold and winds, resulting in recurrent myalgia… they have recurring headache, muscle aches, irritability and depression.” Exhaustion, depression and headache either post- or pre-menstrually are very common in these cases as well.
The picture of Sage that comes together when we look at all of its diverse actions together show it as an ideal herb for many of the discomforts common to menopause, especially if there are night sweats, hot flashes, anxiety, insomnia, irregular menstruation. Matt Wood specifically says:
“…it is suited to older women, in menopause and afterwards. It is helpful with making the transition from ‘fertility estrogen’ made in the ovaries to ‘post-fertility estrogen’ made in the adrenal cortex, as Phyllis Light explains it.”
A more unusual use of the plant is as an excellent blood mover where there is chronic pain as a result of stagnant blood or even problematic blood clots. This is better known in connection with Chinese Red Sage root (S. militiorrhizae), but the Sages of the Americas and Europe seem to act in a nearly identical way. Even some of the less aromatic Salvias, such as S. coccinea, have been traditionally used to move blood and thus relieve pain (and also calm anxiety, in this case).
Sage also make a wonderful flavoring for all kinds of foods and drinks, aiding in digestion of rich meals, calming the mind and aiding in focus on whatever is at hand, even if that happens to be a delicious dinner we need to be present to enjoy and celebrate. Its warm, classically herby taste brings extra depth and richness to many dishes, from simple scrambled eggs to nut-crusted flax bread to the fanciest cream sauce. It’s also a great addition to many homemade ales and wines, or to pestos and vinaigrettes.
Even now, whenever stress or worry becomes too intense for me to deal with, I head for a cup of Sage tea to drink and my beloved bottle of White Sage infused oil to rub into my arms and pulse points. Nothing brings me back to my center as quickly and sweetly as this plant. Sage and Rose remain my own personal rescue remedy in any time of acute anxiety, with Milky Oats added in during extended periods of stress. And I still think of Sage as a strong yet soft mother figure with wide open arms, a ready smile and wise eyes. Human projection though it is, this image has allowed me to see deeper into the nourishing, deeply restorative core of the herb I have loved since childhood, and that continues to heal and nurture me so many years later.
Sage is very amendable to many different preparations, from the sweet spiciness of the infused honey to the savory warmth of the slow-sipped tea. A stronger infusion can be made for acute needs and taken in doses of 6-8 ounces up to three times a day. The tincture is also very effective and especially useful for the small doses generally used as a nerve tonic. A mineral rich and very tasty vinegar can be made with freshly dried Sage, and of course it is a wonderful and popular spice in a variety of dishes. Externally, the infused oil or salves is very useful and warm fomentations work well. White Sage is less extractable in just water than Garden Sage, and I was taught by Michael Moore to soak the leaves in a light coating of grain alcohol before infusing in water. Don’t ever boil the herb, as the intensity of the heat will destroy the delicate aromatics so essential to the medicine. Steam inhalations are a great way to work with respiratory ailments and pastilles (especially when combined with Rose and Mallow or Elm) are great for sore or irritated throats.
Cautions & Contradictions: Not recommended during pregnancy or lactation.
References & Resources:
Double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study using Salvia officinalis in the treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease
Herbal Medicine: Trends and Traditions by Charles Kane
Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest by Charles Kane
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West by Michael Moore
The Earthwise Herbal by Matthew Wood
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood
Personal correspondence and unpublished writings of Matthew Wood
Western Herbs According to Traditional Chinese Medicine by Thomas Avery Garran
Combining Western Herbs and Chinese Medicine by Jeremy Ross
A Modern Herbal by Maud Grieve