Ceremonial Herbs Used by First Nations Peoples
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Annabelle Twilley Richardson
Posted on: March 10, 2008

The catalogue I requested came today, and I can’t keep from looking through it any chance I get. I have been "a friend" of Richters for years and years. My mulberry which I got from your nursery over ten years ago, is now quite large. Although it will insist on being a big "bush" instead of a tree... but I keep trying. Near the door I use most of the time, is a clump of what I purchased as "Eau de Cologne" mint, and keep thinking about it like that.... can’t really smell the "Orange" in the crushed leaves.

Mulberry may be at the edge of its hardiness range where you are in Perth, Ontario. Woody plants that are close to edge of their range often do not reach their full size because of winter damage to the tips of their branches. The annual die back of the growing tips has the same effect as pruning, causing your plant to grow more like a bush than a tree.

You are not alone in questioning the names of some of the mints. Some have scents are vaguely suggestive of the name. In the herb world at times enthusiastic gardeners get a little carried away when naming their new discoveries.

For years we resisted offering ‘Chocolate Mint’ scented geranium because, to my nose at least, there is no hint of chocolate, only the strong scent of peppermint. But the leaves have a brownish splotch in the middle, and with the mint scent, somehow the name "chocolate" stuck with the plant. We finally relented and decided to offer it after customers repeatedly asked for it.

My mother and I used to argue over three commonly sold citrus-scented cultivars of Mentha x piperita. She -- and some of our customers even -- used to insist that ‘Eau de Cologne’, orange mint and bergamot mint are different. But I could never tell the difference between them, and today we only sell orange mint. However, I don’t want to suggest that there isn’t actually a difference, only that I can’t tell them apart. The mints are infinitely capable of morphing into greater or lesser variations of themselves. It is entirely possible that what we had in our hands as ‘Eau de Cologne’ mint was different from a mint of the same name in the hands of another commercial grower.

I am interested in obtaining the herbs used in First Nations smudging ceremonies ( and see the smudging pot advertised). I have grown "Indian Tobacco", and have seeds from it from several years back. They may still be viable, and they could be the same as your "Wild Tobacco". I also have a clump of Sweet Grass, and think it grows wild around here, because some of the locals refer to it, and I have smelt it along a roadside after someone had mown it. And of course, white cedar is all around us here, where there are so many wet-land areas around which it grows so richly and thickly.

What I am looking for is the proper Sage. I am told by those who know, that it isn’t the same as what we grow in our gardens, and is more appropriately from the prairie areas. I saw some in the Edmonton Devonian Botanical Gardens. Snuck a piece or two home to try to root it, but was unsuccessful... they had had frost there. They sell seeds but their catalogue doesn’t include this sage. I have looked through your catalogue and the closest I have seen is perhaps silver sagebrush (S5192 seeds, page 47). Your catalogue doesn’t refer to the use in smudging, and suggests it as a hair tonic used by Indians in Montana. Your "Diviner’s Sage" comes from Mexico.

Do you have any information about sage used for smudging ceremonies? Or could you advise me as to where I can seek further?

The sage that is most often associated with smudging is white sage (Salvia apiana). But appears that a wild form of ‘Silver King’ wormwood (Artemisia ludoviciana) and silver sagebrush have also been used. White sage is from California and is not hardy in the northern plains, meanwhile both sagebrush and wormwood are, which suggests that these, and perhaps other, species were and are used for smudging and ceremonial use.

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