Anecdotal stories of the uses of desert sage among the aboriginal inhabitants of the western United States, as well as among the European settlers abound. Many of these stories and traditions have been documented by anthropologists and ethnobotanists. They form a very interesting picture of the vast variety and quantity of uses that desert sage had in times past. In modern herbalism, desert sage has largely been neglected. (19) It is my desire that this collection of remedies will inspire further research.
The literature suggests that desert sage has qualities that are analgesic, antirheumatic, antiseptic, diaphoretic, digestive, disinfectant, emollient, febrifuge, poultice and sedative. (20)
Desert sage first and foremost had spiritual healing qualities. It was often used as an aromatic and a diaphoretic during sweat lodge rituals. “Native people enter the sweat lodge backwards to prevent evil spirits from sneaking into the lodge behind them. This part of the native ritual is easily understood and practiced; because the sweat lodge is a place for cultivating only positive, constructive attitudes, reminding you to banish hostile or unproductive thoughts and to concentrate on the imminent cleansing, strengthening powers of the lodge. Sage was burned at the beginning of ceremonies and it was important inside the sweat lodge where it helped to clear the sinuses, and purify the bodies and souls of the sweaters. One could expect a plant so materially versatile and medicinally integral to Basin cultures to have ritual significance. All sagebrush foliage was considered fortunate and formed some part of the medicine man's costume.” (21)
The spiritual healing qualities of Desert Sage are also expressed in the following excerpt from Survival Arts of the Primitive Paiutes. “When your head not feel good, when you not feel good, talk to the sun and say, 'help me!' We use sagebrush, put 'em in the water and shake 'em all over. Then just pray to the sun. Not take off clothes, just dressed like this, early in the morning-sometime noontime too. Just any kind of water. Five days do that, and when you get through then stick sagebrush in the bush. Sagebrush dry up. Don't take (remove) it, just leave it there. Every morning my grandmother she always pray to the sun. I hear it. When the sun go down it put (carries) the sickness to the cold place. In the morning when sun come up, it (is) clean again and the sickness not show up no more.” (22)
Desert sage was also frequently used as a burning smudge to drive out evil spirits in a sick room, or after a baby was born. It was thought that the spirits were waiting to enter the body of the infant through the cut umbilical cord, and that the smell of the burning sage would drive them away. Some modern healers use the sage smudge sticks in the same way. (23)
Joseph VanSeters tells of an experience he had with Desert Sage: “One time when I was living with the Indians, I asked the Chief's wife about sagebrush. She told me about a favorite dog she had that had gotten sick. She said the dog had laid around for two or three days and that the dog wouldn't move. She was inspired to gather a lot of sagebrush and put it in a wash tub of real hot water. When the water cooled down enough, she carried the dog to the tub and put him in it. She propped his head up on the side of the tub, and the dog just laid there. She checked him every little while, but the dog didn't move. She said she was sure she would lose him. Just before dark an old truck drove past their place. She heard a dog barking and chasing the truck. She looked out and the sick dog was now well enough to chase that old noisy truck, thanks to sagebrush.” (24)
Dr. Wes Larsen has done a great deal of research on the ethnobotany of the southern Utah region. He says: “From prehistoric times the Indians of the west used the plant (sagebrush) for colds and congestion. They chewed the leaves of sagebrush to ease stomach gas and bowel disorders. Sometimes dried leaves were added to hot water for soaking legs and feet. Also, dried leaves were used without water as a chest poultice. Green leaves were wrapped in a cloth and used to stop external bleeding in both men and livestock. A. tridentata contains no santonin or quinine like other species of Artemesia, but the presence of tannin in the plant makes it effective in lowering body secretions. An infusion of the leaves was useful in treating gum and mouth diseases. ...The dead leaves were used for diaper padding.”
“During the birthing process and menstruation the women used a sagebrush stick as a headscratcher, any other kind of wood would cause the hair to fall out and the face to wrinkle.”
Dr Larsen goes on to tell how the sagebrush was used in pioneer times. “This species, although never used officially as a drug, has been prized as a tea substitute, general tonic, a hair and eye wash, in treating colds and sore throat, stopping diarrhea, an antiseptic, and even for bullet wounds. It made a poultice for bee stings and was thought to cure night sweats.”
And further, Larsen gives us an excerpt from the 1883 journal of Phil Robinson. “What a pity sage brush-the “three-toothed artemisia” of science- has no commercial value. Fortunes would be cheap if it had. But I heard at Leadville that a local chemist had treated the plant after the manner of cinchona, and extracted from its bark a febrifuge with which he was about to astonish the medical world and bankrupt quinine. That it has a valuable principle in cases of fever, its use by the Indians goes a little way to prove, while its medicinal properties are very generally vouched for by its being used in the West as an application for the cure of toothache, as a poultice for swellings, and a lotion (“sage oil”) for erysipelas, rheumatism, and other ailments. Some day, perhaps, a fortune will be made out of it, but at present its chief value seems to be as a moral discipline to the settler and as covert for the sage hen.” (25)
The versatility of desert sage is highlighted in Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs.
It was “widely used among American Indians, especially for colds and fever. Green leaf tea used for stomach complaints; in larger doses to induce vomiting. For head colds, branches were burned and fumes inhaled. Green leaves poulticed for chest colds or placed on gums for toothache. For pneumonia, leaves were boiled in water with a pinch of salt and given in tablespoon doses each time the patient coughed. Branches were burned on top of stove as a fumigant for rooms after an illness. Stems and leaves burned to purify the air in both homes and sweat houses. For headache, tea from branches was taken internally and also used to bathe the head, fumes from burning plants were inhaled, and crushed green leaves applied as poultice to the forehead. Tea of branches was taken to relieve diarrhea, stomachaches and stomach cramps, laryngitis, and tuberculosis. Leaf tea used as antiseptic gargle for sore throats and as a wash or poultice for cuts, wounds, sores, or pimples. Leaf tea drunk for gum and mouth diseases, pneumonia, fever, and colds with coughing or bronchitis. Dried leaves were finely pulverized and used as talcum powder for babies. The plant was used both internally and externally for rheumatism. Some tribes chewed and swallowed the leaves for coughs, indigestion, and gas.” (26)
“Doctor-brush, we call it', a Nevada Western Shoshone medicine woman said of sagebrush, for it has been and still is used in the Great Basin as an all-purpose curing plant. The old, dead, black leaves found under the bushes were powdered and placed on skin rashes, especially baby rashes. A poultice of green leaves, mashed or chewed, or a strong tea was used to thwart bleeding of cuts, promote healing, relieve muscular bruises, aches and pains, and rheumatism and to treat gum and mouth diseases. Sage poultices on the chest and throat, and tea taken internally, relieved lung congestion and served as a general cold remedy and tonic.
“Sage leaves were also chewed to relieve indigestion and gastrointestinal disorders; as one old-time author put it, 'chewing the leaves relieves the gripes and flatulence resulting from meals hastily prepared and quickly swallowed!'” (27)
The Indians also commonly used desert sage as a poultice on the abdomen to induce delayed menstruation, relieve colic, and treat intestinal worms. (28) The genus name “wormwood” does suggest anthelmintic properties!
Dietary tannins, which are contained in desert sage, are being studied. “The antimicrobial activities of tannins are well documented. The growth of many fungi, yeasts, bacteria and viruses was inhibited by tannins. We have also found that tannic acid and propyl gallate, but not gallic acid, were inhibitory to foodborne bacteria, aquatic bacteria, and off-flavor-producing microorganisms. Their antimicrobial properties seemed to be associated with the hydrolysis of ester linkage between gallic acid and polyols hydrolyzed after ripening of many edible fruits.
Tannins in these fruits thus serve as a natural defense mechanism against microbial infections. The antimicrobial property of tannic acid can also be used in food (storage). Tannins have also been reported to exert other physiological effects, such as to accelerate blood clotting, reduce blood pressure, decrease the serum lipid level, produce liver necrosis, and modulate immunoresponses. The dosage and kind of tannins are critical these effects.” (29)
“Recent research (also) indicates big sagebrush also has antifungal activity, making it useful for athlete's foot and other related fungal infections.” (30)
A few additional uses are reported: “A poultice of the steeped leaves is applied to sore eyes. An infusion of the leaves is used as a hair rinse, it treats dandruff and falling hair. An infusion of the plant repels insects, it is also disinfectant and so is used for washing walls, floors, etc.” (31)
And finally, a modern use from the field is given: “When he read that sage leaves put in the nasal passages would relieve or prevent colds, a student in one of my field classes wandered about for two days with bushy sprigs of sage leaves protruding from his nostrils like a leafy green mustache. His suspected cold never materialized, so he became a believer.” (32)
Clearly, Desert Sage has many uses for those with an active imagination!