“All things are bound together. All things connect.” – Chief Seattle
Scientists revealed in 2010 that the Earth is undergoing its sixth mass extinction whereby over 1,000,000 species are facing extinction (1). One of the two factors primarily contributing to this alarming number is habitat destruction, fuelled in particular by monoculture, urban sprawl, and unsustainable management of land. Species directly affected by habitat destruction include essential oil-bearing plants. Approximately 9% of 400 essential oil-bearing plants traded on the world market are recognized as threatened or near-threatened (2), and this number continues to increase. In the last year alone, the conservation status for three aromatic plants were elevated, and include Salvia apiana – white sage – which was added to the United Plant Savers ‘At-risk’ list.
White sage is an evergreen perennial shrub, 1–2.5 meters tall, with a delightful aroma exuding from its pale-green leaves which from a distance, look like glistening tinsel. Naturally residing in the coastal sage scrub and chaparral habitats in Southern California, Baja California, and along the western edge of the Colorado desert, the plant is drought tolerant and thrives in high temperatures. Heat, sunlight, and naturally-occurring fire contribute to healthy and flourishing populations (3). Figure 1.
Pollinators are critical to the reproduction and gene diversity of white sage. In addition to the uplifting and bold aroma of its leaves, its fragile and soft white-to-pale lavender-colored flowers are a sight to behold. Although delicate and simple in appearance, they in fact are quite complex and specially designed with a pollination mechanism that can only be triggered by large bees of the Xylocopa and Bombus genera (4). Unfortunately, large bees including Bombus species, continue to decline in California (5), and conservation of native bee populations is crucial at this time. A reduction in effective pollinators is just one of many factors that puts white sage populations ‘at risk’.
Additional risk factors include fragmentation of coastal sage scrub habitat (which is considered extreme in California), altered fire regimes, invasive species, human-driven habitat loss and habitat conversion, and habitat loss due to climate change (6). It is predicted that climate change coupled with excessive land use alone could result in a 66% reduction of white sage’s natural habitat by the end of this century (7). Another serious impact threatening the sustainability of white sage is its high commercial demand, especially in the USA and Canada.
White sage leaf bundles used for smudging can now be purchased from Wal-Mart, Urban Outfitters, Amazon, e-Bay and Etsy. The smudge sticks are used primarily to clear negative energy from within and without; however, after it was widely publicized in 2007 that the smoke released from smudging effectively kills airborne microbes (8), the popularity of smudging spread. The practice is rooted in the ceremonial and sacred rituals of the Native American and First Nations cultures. Therefore, commercial harvesting of white sage is of great concern to these Indigenous peoples (9).
White sage leaves are also used to produce an essential oil with a fragrance profile described as fresh and light green-camphoraceous in nature (10). The essential oil consists largely of oxides and terpenes and is rich in 1,8-cineole (68.4%), b-pinene (8.0%), a-pinene (5.7%), and b-myrcene (2.3%). Collectively, these chemical constituents have been shown to have antifungal, analgesic, bacteriostatic, and bactericidal activities (11;12). A precaution to keep in mind is that essential oils high in 1,8-cineole can result in CNS and breathing difficulties in young children and should not be applied near the face of infants and children (11). Although a highly therapeutic essential oil, it is not one that should be traded on the world market alongside other commonly used essential oils (a trade estimated to be worth 11.6 billion dollars by 2022) (13).
Educated decisions and supportive actions will positively impact the protection and preservation of white sage. It is important to keep in mind that legal harvesting of the plant should only be carried out on private land with permission, and on sustainably-certified cultivated populations. Retailers and suppliers of white sage essential oil and extracts, smudge sticks and loose plant material can verify certification directly through the governing bodies. Permits are quite challenging to secure, though are frequently granted to Indigenous peoples to collect sage for cultural purposes.
It is also advisable to help lighten the heavy demand being placed on white sage by using alternative essential oils and smudge sticks when sustainable, legal and ethical sources of the plant cannot be definitively ascertained. When choosing alternative essential oils, it is important to take factors such as primary constituents of the chemical profile, fragrance profile, therapeutic benefits, precautions, and conservation and trade status of the essential oil into consideration. The following are suggested alternatives to white sage essential oil based on these factors.
Alternative essential oils
Salvia lavandulifolia; Spanish Sage – Chemical profile: 1,8-cineole (12-40.3%), b-pinene (5.5-7.8%), a-pinene (4.7-10.9%), b-myrcene (1.0-4.9%); Fragrance profile: fresh green-camphoraceous; Therapeutic benefits: antibacterial, airborne antimicrobial, and analgesic (8;10); Precautions: Contraindicated (all routes) in pregnancy and breastfeeding. Abortifacient. Suggested maximum dermal use level of 12.5% (11); Conservation status: Least concern (15). Figure 2.
Eucalyptus camaldulensis ct. 1,8-cineole; Red River Gum – Chemical profile: 1,8-cineole (46.9-83.7%), b-pinene (trace to 7.9%), a-pinene (1.3-14.7%); Fragrance profile: fresh-camphoraceous; Therapeutic benefits: antibacterial, analgesic, and antifungal (14); Precautions: essential oils rich in 1,8-cineole can result in CNS and breathing difficulties in young children, and should not be applied near the face of infants and children under ten years of age. Maximum dermal use level of 20% (11); Conservation status: Not yet assessed (15). Trend toward abundant populations.
Eucalyptus globulus; Blue Gum – Chemical profile: 1,8-cineole (65.4-83.9%), and a-pinene (3.7-14.7%); Fragrance profile: fresh-camphoraceous; Therapeutic benefits: antibacterial, analgesic, and antifungal (14); Precautions: Essential oils high in 1,8-cineole can result in CNS and breathing difficulties in young children, and should not be applied near the face of infants and children under ten years of age. Maximum dermal use level is 20% (11); Conservation status: Not yet assessed (15). Trend toward abundant populations.
Salvia rosmarinus ct. 1,8-cineole; Rosemary – Chemical profile: 1,8-cineole (39-57.7%), camphor (7.4-14.9%) b-pinene (5.5-7.8%), a-pinene (9.6-12.7%), and b-myrcene (0.7-1.6%); Fragrance profile: fresh-camphoraceous, green and sweet-herbaceous; Therapeutic benefits: antibacterial, analgesic, and antifungal (14); Precautions: Do not apply to or near the face of infants or children. May be neurotoxic, based on camphor content.; Conservation status: Least concern (16). Figure 3.
Alternative smudge sticks and essential oil
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) is not only an excellent alternative in the form of an essential oil, but the dried plant material too, is considered to be therapeutically and spiritually a good alternative for use in smudging. Dried Texan cedarwood (Juniperus ashei) and Virginian cedarwood (J. virginiana) leaves are also used in this way. The essential oil of Spanish sage (Salvia lavandulifolia) makes a good alternative when diffused given its airborne antimicrobial properties (10). And the best part of utilizing these plants is that their conservation status is Least concern (15); as a matter of fact, in the case of the Juniperus spp., populations are considered so abundant that they are deemed pests.
Exploring alternatives begins with knowing the conservation status of a species. This information is available through online resources provided by well-established and respected organizations such as International Union for Conservation of Nature, United Plant Savers, World Wildlife Fund, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Understanding the conservation status of a species better equips you to make informed decisions that will help to protect and preserve ecologically, medicinally, culturally, and spiritually important plants like white sage, and by default, their pollinators who also face the threat of extinction. In the words of Chief Seattle, let us not forget that “All things are bound together. All things connect.”
- Kolbert, E. (2019). Climate Change and the New Age of Extinction. The New Yorker. May 13, 2019.
- Ablard, K (2017). Essential and Carrier Oil-Bearing Plants: Conservation Consciousness. Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation. United Plant Savers.
- USDA Forest Service. (2018) SAAP2 Update 3.
- Ott, D., P. Hühn, and Claßen-Bockhoff. 2016. Salvia apiana—A carpenter bee flower? Flora 221:82-91.
- Murray, T. E., M. Kuhlmann, and S. G. Potts. 2009. Conservation ecology of bees: Populations, species and communities. Apidologie 40:211-236.
- Zedler, P. H., C. R. Gautier, and G. S. McMaster. 1983. Vegetation change in response to extreme events: The effect of a short interval between fires in California chaparral and coastal scrub. Ecology 64:809-818.
- Riordan, E. C., and P. W. Rundel. 2014. Land use compounds habitat losses under projected climate change in a threatened California ecosystem. PLoS One 9: e86487. https://doi.org/86410.81371/journal.pone.0086487.
- Nautiyal, CS, Chauhan, PS, and Nene, YL (2007). Medicinal smoke reduces airborne bacteria. J. Ethnopharmacol. Dec 3; 114(3) p.446-51.
- White sage: Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvia_apiana (Accessed July 2019).
- Mojay, Gabriel (2019). Institute of Traditional Herbal Medicine and Aromatherapy. Course notes.
- Tisserand, R. and Young, R. 2014. Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals. Churchill Livingstone; 2nd Ed.
- Sokovic, M, Brkic, D., Dzamic, A., Ristic, M, and Marin, P. (2009). Chemical composition and antifungal activity of Salvia desoleana Atzei & Picci essential oil and its major components. Flavour and Fragrance Journal. https://doi.org/10.1002/ffj.1920
- Grand View Research, Inc., 2015 (http://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/essential-oils-market,http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/essential-oil-market-size-to-reach-1167-billion-by-2022-grand-view-research-inc-531216151.html) Accessed July 2019.
- Battaglia, S. (2018). The complete guide to Aromatherapy: Vol I – Foundations & Materia Medica (3 Edn). Black Pepper Creative, Brisbane Australia.
- Allen, D. (2014). International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). www.redlist.org (Accessed April 2020).
- Khela, S. (2013). International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). www.redlist.org (Accessed April 2020).
- Photo credit: By John Rusk from Berkeley, CA, United States of America – J20161110-0061—Salvia apiana—RPBG—DxO, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83415681
Article first published, (but since then modified) in AromaCulture Magazine November 2019