Many of you have probably come across “smudge bundles” made from leaves and twigs of various plants that, when burned, produce aromatic smoke that some Native American peoples use for ceremonial cleansing and purification. Since the 1960s, when hippies wished to emulate aspects of Indigenous culture, and furthered by the New Age movement’s idolizing “natural” products, smudging has become increasingly widespread among non-Natives. In a classic example of cultural appropriation, the practice is now widely promoted in movies, TV, magazines, social media, and other popular venues to buyers who think it will bring spiritual benefits. Smudge bundles are now being sold worldwide — not only in small local herb shops and yoga studios but in chain retail stores (World Market), supermarkets (Whole Foods, Bristol Farms), big-box stores (Walmart!), and through huge online enterprises (Amazon and Etsy).
Do any of the buyers who think they will gain health and spiritual benefits from smudging ever think about where the smudge bundles come from? Most of these now-ubiquitous products are made from native plants, particularly Great Basin sagebrush and white sage, which are almost entirely harvested from the wild. Sustainable farming of these species, while theoretically possible, is currently all but nonexistent.
The only place in the world that white sage (Salvia apiana) grows naturally is in our region, from San Luis Obispo County to northern Baja California. Nearly half of its original habitat has already been lost to urban development. As with many other native plants, remaining populations are threatened by climate change, drought, and wildfire, but the most immediate impact to white sage is large-scale, illegal harvesting of wild plants to make smudge bundles for commercial sale.
Native people have told of arriving at their traditional sage-gathering grounds to find whole hillsides stripped bare. Poachers sometimes stretch a chain between two trucks and drive across the landscape, ripping every plant out of the ground. Rangers at one preserve in San Bernardino County estimate that in the past five years, more than 20,000 pounds of white sage have been stolen from that land they are trying to protect. Similar plundering is taking place throughout Southern California.
The ecological damage is horrific. The disrespect to Native people and traditions is equally shocking.
Anyone who intends to use store-bought white sage smudge bundles or essential oils (which consume large amounts of plant material in processing) should be skeptical of claims that these are made from “sustainably wildcrafted” plants. “Wildcrafting” means gathering plants from the wild. In most cases, given the multiple threats that native species and habitats already face, coupled with the enormous market demand, claiming to harvest marketable quantities of wild sage sustainably is implausible.
Furthermore, it is illegal in California to take wild plant material from any roadside or public land without a permit, or from any private land without the owner’s express written permission (https://wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Plants/LawsCalifornia). Individuals can apply to the appropriate government agency for a permit to gather plants on public land but only for their own personal use.
White sage is a handsome plant that is easy to grow at home, even in containers. Local nurseries, including the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, sell or can order it. Advocates say that rather than going to Amazon or Walmart to buy the impersonal product made from plants callously ripped from the wild, one who raises one’s own sage develops a direct relationship with the plant, will respect and appreciate it, and therefore will be more likely to experience meaningful spiritual and health benefits. This can be a gateway to planting more native species in our domestic landscape.
I deeply love California’s native flora. I’ve worked for more than 40 years to understand the complex interrelationships that California’s Native people have long had with plants. It wasn’t until I read an article in News from Native California in spring 2020 (see https://roseramirez.wordpress.com/) that I learned of the white sage problem. Then on January 11, a California Native Plant Society presentation built upon that earlier work really opened my eyes to how extensive this devastation has become. That talk is available online for a short time (https://lasmmcnps.org/). Even after that recording is taken down, you can go to https://www.cnps.org/conservation/white-sage for more information about the situation and ideas for action we can all take. The California Native Plant Society and Indigenous partners are actively working together to produce a documentary film that I hope will be widely seen.
Most people probably don’t think much about the wider implications of those little dry bundles of tied-up leaves in packages on store shelves. It’s time we did. Please, spread the word.
Jan Timbrook is curator emeritus of Ethnography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.