Pȟežíȟota Hinápȟe: Spring sage, and Sage Tea

A shot from last spring: The first spring shoots of Pȟežíȟota (ceremonial sage, Artemisia ludoviciana) emerging in on the prairies of Standing Rock in late April 2018.

Working with this plant over the years, I have noticed that there are certain times of the year that are better to pick it for certain uses. The more mature the plant gets, the stronger the aromatic oils in it become. Early spring sage like this is not very good for smudging, as it will smell more like smoke than like sage — but its delicate flavor makes it perfect for tea.

Sage tea is a great cold remedy. You can make it from all the above-ground parts of the plant. (I don’t know if you can use the roots — I’ve always been taught never to pull them up when harvesting. This is a perennial plant that relies on its roots to regenerate each year, and also propagates by roots.) I’ve made sage tea with just the stems after using the leaves for smudging, with just leaves, with a mix of stems and leaves, and occasionally with flowers/buds.

Sage tea works best as an infusion, not a decoction. For an infusion, you boil water, and pour it over the plant material in a cup or pot, and let it steep. (With a decoction, you put the plant into boiling water for awhile to let its cell walls break down and release the medicine. Decoctions are a more typical preparation for woody stems and roots.) You can use more mature sage, harvested later in the season, for tea — but you need to be careful not to use too much of it, because it can get too strong.

I knew a guy in college who wanted to make this traditional medicine, which he remembered his uŋčí giving him as a child, to help his sick boyfriend. He was very concerned about this guy, who had come down with a really awful cold, and he cared about him a lot, so he wanted to do everything he could to make him better. So, filled with concern and good intentions, he gathered up as much sage as he could find, and put it in a big pot with some water. He boiled it for a long time, to make the medicine really strong. Finally, he gave a cup to his boyfriend. It was extremely bitter. His boyfriend was from another territory, and had never tasted our sage tea, so he didn’t know what it was supposed to taste like — so he drank it anyway. And the poor guy got even sicker. If I am remembering correctly, that extremely potent sage tea gave him bad stomach troubles, on top of the horrible cold.

So, stick with an infusion, not a decoction — and be careful not to overdose on this medicine!

I wouldn’t pick the first new leaves of a wild sage plant, because I’d want to give it a chance to grow and replenish itself after the winter — but in town in Fort Yates, sage grows on a lot of people’s front lawns. When I lived in that part of town, when I heard the tribe’s lawnmowers coming, I would get out there with my clippers and a canvas bag. I’d harvest as much spring sage as I could, knowing it’d otherwise be eaten by the lawnmower. I was amazed by how quickly the plants would grow back after each haircut, again and again — when it’s healthy, this kind of sage is a very resilient plant.

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