Sage is an aromatic plant that’s long been used for both medical and culinary purposes. Americans probably recognize the herb for its use in stuffing around the holidays, but this leaf does more than add flavor to your cooking. Ancient Romans called sage a salvation plant (literally, salvage, meaning “save” or “cure”), and sage has been used in ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Greek medicines for its natural healing properties. Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, ordered its usage during the 8th century, at the famous medical school in Salerno—the emperor reportedly favored the plant.
While sage has deep historical roots, that doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant in modern medicine. According to recent studies, sage has powerful antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory qualities, and researchers are currently exploring sage as a natural treatment for a whole host of issues, including depression, dementia, obesity, lupus, heart disease, and cancer. Dried sage, especially white sage, has been traditionally used by Native Americans for a whole host of benefits, most specifically as a method of purification, which is often what we think of when we hear the word “smudging.”
Smudging, however, is an English term used to describe the process, and most Native American groups have their own unique words to explain the practice. “Smudging is the process of burning dried plants or other natural elements and then using the smoke to cleanse themselves, objects, or even places,” explains Rosalyn LaPier, Ph.D., an award-winning Indigenous writer and ethnobotanist. “Usually the dried plants are burned over a hot coal placed in a large shell or on the ground. The person places both hands over the smoke, takes the smoke within her hands, and beginning with her head and continuing downward, ‘washes’ her entire body with the smoke.”