Blue Sage: beautiful, uncommon and cherished by Indian people
Land of Four Seasons
April 15, 2023
Wet, bountiful winters like we've just experienced benefit the irruptive wildflowers that bloom in profusion, like annual California Poppies, Hillside Daisies, Goldfields, Popcorn Flowers, and more.
But generous water deliveries in the form of rain and snow are also helpful to perennials, of course – those hardy plants that persist year after year through freezing winters and long dry summers.
One of the most beautiful and interesting of these perennials found in the Tehachapi Mountains is not abundant anywhere, but it does thrive in arid conditions, attracting hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators. This loveable plant is Blue Sage (Salvia dorrii).
Found throughout the Sand Canyon area and other east side canyons, like Jawbone, Pine Tree and Red Rock, as well as along the desert edge, Blue Sage is a perennial shrub, sometimes referred to as a subshrub because it seldom exceeds two feet in height, with small, grayish leaves that are shaped like kayak paddles.
Blue Sage sits in dry environments, slow-growing and unobtrusive with its pale foliage, until winter and spring rains bring forth the lovely tubular blue flowers that are the source of this plant's common name. These flowers are pretty in their own right, but they are enhanced by the colorful bracts that surround them.
Bracts are specialized leaf structures that typically surround a flower, sometimes becoming larger and more colorful than the flower itself, thus helping to attract pollinators.
Most people think of Indian Paintbrush, for example, as being a red flower, while in actuality the reddish portions of a flowering Indian Paintbrush are bracts and the flowers themselves are small, narrow yellow flowers. Poinsettia and bougainvillea are two common cultivars in which the biggest, most colorful portions of the plant are actually bracts, not flowers.
Blue Sage also has showy bracts that help draw attention to the petite blue flowers, which grow in whorls on woody stalks. Blue Sage bracts are thin and papery and start out pale green and pinkish, and then darken to a reddish purple as the blooming season progresses. It is these bracts that gave rise to another common name for Salvia dorrii: Purple Sage, which is the source of the country rock band name New Riders of the Purple Sage, a band that once included Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead.
This band name can be traced to Riders of the Purple Sage, a 1912 Zane Grey book that has been called "the most popular Western novel of all time."
Other common names for Salvia dorrii include Desert Sage and Great Basin Blue Sage. This plant is most common in the Great Basin and the higher elevations of the adjacent Mojave Desert.
The Nuwä (Kawaiisu or Southern Paiute) people of the Tehachapi Mountains and nearby desert know Blue Sage by the name tugubasidä, pronounced too-goo-bah-SID-uh, meaning "sky sage," in reference to the blue color of the flowers, and this was traditionally a treasured plant. Blue Sage was used medicinally, both as a wash to ease a headache and also brewed into a tea, a half-cup of which was said to relieve a stomachache.
A more frequent usage, however, was more ethereal – Blue Sage is burned as an incense to keep away inupi, pronounced in-NUH-p, or evil spirits. Most humans find the smell of sage smoke pleasant, while bad spirits are said to strongly dislike it.
Many people today are aware of the American Indian practice of burning White Sage (Salvia apiana) smudge sticks for purification and cleansing, and Blue Sage was used in the same way. White Sage is not native to Kern County.
Nectar feeders like hummingbirds, butterflies, sphinx moths and other insects are drawn to the delicate flowers of Blue Sage, which contain fragrant drops of nectar at the base of their elongated flowers.
I have spent serene moments sitting quietly near an aged California juniper in Sand Canyon, watching a Black-chinned Hummingbird whirring and hovering around Blue Sage flowers, with a brilliant blue sky above and the warm sandy earth underneath me.
If you have a sunny, well-drained area at your house, you can grow Blue Sage and the nectar feeders will come to visit. It does do best in sandy, lighter soils and doesn't require much water once established. Blue Sage can be difficult to propagate from seed and many nurseries don't carry it, but if you can find one, having this beautiful and revered plant in your garden is well worth it.
I'll be visiting the drier regions as spring progresses to see how Blue Sage has responded and is blooming after this record-setting wet winter. . .
Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.
Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at email@example.com.