One of the best things about the Southwest could arguably be the view. The vast landscape is endless and captivating, filled with rich earth-tone shapes and dotted with striking evergreen plants like yucca, cholla cactus, pinyon pine, and juniper. Take a journey into the desert or just a visit to a local garden and you will discover even more flourishing beauty. Being able to identify native plants is fun — but it can also be very helpful, particularly if you recently relocated to the area. Knowing the difference between toxic and nontoxic plants is very important. So is knowing the difference between ornamental herbs versus edible herbs if you like to forage. An excellent pair of guides for newcomers or anybody who wants to learnmore about ourwild plants are Medicinal Plants of the MountainWest andMedicinal Plants of theDesert and CanyonWest, both by MichaelMoore. Always remember when venturing off into new territories, it is vital to familiarize yourself with the environment. This is the wildWest, after all.
Big sagebrush or sagebrush, ( Artemesia tridentata) is one of those perennial plants that is good to familiarize yourself with. It appears virtually everywhere in gardens and the desert as it is wind-pollinated and spreads easily. It is an herb but is not the kind of herb you would eat. Frequently, it ismistaken for common or culinary sage. Despite the similar silvery, gray leaves and aromatic scent, these two plants are very different. Sagebrush is in the same family as ragweed and, while culinary sages (genus Salvia) are in the mint family.
The only edible part of this plant is the seeds; the rest you can leave for native wildlife such as deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope. Songbirds and sage grouse also feed on its leaves and flowers while using its branches for nesting. So, if you spot a sagebrush, do not pick the leaves thinking how good they will taste in your turkey stuffing. You can, however, pluck the stems and dry them to make a sage stick or smudge stick to cleanse your house of negative energy before your holiday guests arrive. Or you can just leave the plant alone to do what it does best: fill in the landscape while playing a vital role in our ecosystem.
If it’s edible sage you seek, the plant you want is Salvia officinalis, aka common sage, garden sage or culinary sage. All of its cultivars are edible and can be planted, but these sages do not hold upwell in the winter. Many gardeners prefer putting them in containers that can be brought inside during the cold months. Common sage plants are available at many local grocery stores. Both the flowers and leaves are edible, and withThanksgiving around the corner, these plants should be well stocked. If not, the cut leaves are sure to be found in the fresh herb section of produce aisles for the next few months.
Other native (ornamental) sages that are found abundantly in the Southwest include Salvia greggii (autumn sage), Salvia azurea (prairie sage) and Salvia apiana (white sage). These perennial, drought-resistant sages come in vibrant colors and each species has numerous named cultivars, many of which have been used medicinally by Native Americans and early settlers. In terms of edible vs. non-edible plants, that can vary from culture to culture, but traditionally in the U.S., we leave the Salvia officinalis to the cooking. While the leaves and blooms on the ornamentals are not poisonous, they emit oils that can be offensive to some and the leaves just don’t taste very good.
There are many other species of Salvia you can find in northern New Mexico gardens, but these are some of the most popular plants. So, if you love sage, always remember which varieties should stay put in the garden, which ones can be brought inside for cooking and which are not really true sages and should not be eaten. You can expect to see Salvia officinalis popping up a lot of this season. Acquainting yourself with this herb can make the difference between a delicious, savory meal versus a bitter disappointment.
Carole has been in the floriculture industry for over 23 years, from wholesale and retail sales to public outreach and events planning. She is a Master Gardener and is an advocate, lecturer and supporter of New Mexico’s sustainable, local flower farms. Her floral design studio, “A Garden of Earthly Delights,” is in Santa Fe and Baltimore. Contact her at 443.257.8833 and firstname.lastname@example.org, and see www. flowerspy.com.