By Interdisciplinary Apprentice Wyler Svoboda
The black sage (Salvia mellifera) is a very common plant species at Cabrillo National Monument. The black sage is endemic to the south-western US and Baja California regions and it can be found along the Visitor Center walkways, along the Bayside Trail, and even down towards the tide pools. It can grow up to 3-6 feet and can take up as much as 10 feet of space. The plant has an abundance of dark green leaves about the size of your finger that grow along its long, skinny stems. The upper surface of the leaves are smooth contrasted to the hairy undersides which allow for excellent water retention in the dry seasons of San Diego County’s coastal desert climate. The cluster of small flower buds at the ends of its stems are a distinct feature of the black sage. The flowers’ give off a bitter aroma and thier colors vary from white to dark purple and black depending on the season and amount of precipitation.
A variety of endangered species rely on the black sage’s existence for survival. Its pungent odor invites native bees and humming birds to the sweet nectar found in its flowers. In fact, its Latin name, Salvia mellifera, literally translates to “honey producing sage.”The sage’s thick, bushy appearance provides suitable habitat for local birds and supplies an important food source with the seeds scattered along the ground.
Due to the black sage’s ability to grow in a multitude of soils, its presence is especially important to CNM’s fragile slopes. From a seedling, the sage grows its roots quickly and spreads them horizontally across its immediate environment as it ages. Because of this expansive root system, the black sage is able to hold together the delicate soils and sandstone of CNM’s bluffs and reduce erosion. Interestingly, many land management businesses plant black sage along road sides following construction to reduce the impacts of erosion that tend to follow. During this time of year, when we begin to experience rain again, be thankful that we have the black sage to hold together the muddy cliff sides.
The black sage has cultural importance as well as environmental importance. The word Salvia, or sage, can be translated to mean health. The black sage was used by many Indigenous people of southern California as a type of medicine. The leaves were grounded into spices or placed in hot water as a tea. The leaves of the black sage had anti-inflammatory effects when digested and native people would give these leaves to the sick to chew on. The Kumeyaay people, local to CNM, mixed black sage leaves with hot water baths to reduce swelling and pain for the ill. Additionally, the seeds of the black sage were a viable food source when grounded and blended with water.