Feb 022010

Botanical Name: Salvia subincisa Sawtooth Sage

Botanical Family: Lamiaceae

Common Name: Sawtooth Sage

Energetics: Cool, dry

Taste: bitter, aromatic (skunky)

Actions: Relaxant nervine, nervous system trophorestorative

Parts Used: Flowering tops

Come August and our annual summer rains, a lush abundance of flowering plant will grow in the cool shade of Alder trees. Among these will be a diminutive and graceful plant with tiny blue flowers and sharply toothed leaves. At first glance, it is barely noticeable among many larger and more brightly colored plants. Closer up, its classically Lamiaceae type blossoms draw the eye and rich green foliage invite touch. Rubbing a leaf between the fingers releases a savory and pleasant, yet somewhat skunky aroma. This lovely little herb, a native of the American Southwest, has been a longtime helper in my own healing, and has become an important ally in my practice as an herbalist.

While I have written about the genus Salvia previously at some length, I would like to bring special attention to this specific species. Salvia subincisa is endemic to New Mexico, Arizona and parts of Mexico (and perhaps parts of western Texas) and primarily grows in rocky or arroyo type areas that are usually dry but experience seasonal moisture. It is a monsoon dependent annual, delicate in stature and easily overlooked except when in flower. Its blooms are a vivid dark to indigo blue that, while small, are distinctive and beautiful. The whole aerial plant, when rubbed or crushed, has a moderately strong skunky smell. It has a slightly diffusive impression and bitter and aromatic taste on the tongue. As a note, I have never seen or heard reference to this plant being used medicinally, even among local indigenous people as of yet.

While this plant shares many medicinal characteristics with other members of its genus, it’s particularly strong affinity for the nervous system makes it of special note to herbalists. I consider most bitter and aromatic Salvias to be nervines and nerve tonics to some degree, and use many native and imported species in my practice. However, none quite compare to Salvia subincisa’s specific relevance in this area.

Sawtooth Sage is specifically indicated where there is nervous exhaustion and hypersensitivity, which causes generally innocuous things such as sunlight and whispers to seem similar to a good slap in the face. It is doubly indicated if there is muscular tension in the shoulders and neck, mild to moderate trembling or shaking (often most obvious in the hands), irregular heartbeat and a tendency to insomnia and intense anxiety with occasional panic attacks. Its indications have significant overlap with Scutellaria, and combines well with it in formula.

This herb does not have a strong general sedative effect, but rather a specific impact upon a particular type of person and set of symptoms. This makes its usage somewhat limited, but seems very important therapeutically in the reparation of worn out, over-stimulated nervous systems. It may be especially applicable for those who have a history of methamphetamine or other stimulant use and have reached the burnout stage. It is also helpful for those who have suffered from chronic malnutrition (usually due to a deficient diet, including some vegan and related dietary choices), with concurrent anxiety and nervous exhaustion. Salvia subincisa cannot, of course, correct the underlying deficiency, but may be of symptomatic help during a process of healing and nourishment.

It is safe and usually effective even for those individuals (usually with a vata dominant disposition) with such sensitive or frayed nervous systems as to cause most relaxant nervines to feel somewhat stimulating. These people usually have very active, wordy mental activity that is exacerbated by stress. Sawtooth Sage tends to quiet the mind and soothe general anxiety. It can be a useful daily calming agent, but is also of special service when a normally anxiety producing activity such as a dental appointment, work deadlines or traveling trigger acute stress or even panic. If it is found to be of some use in panic attacks but is not quite strong enough to stop a panic attack once triggered, it can be well combined with Anemone or Scutellaria, depending on the person. It also has a place in treating anxiety induced (rather than those of an organic origin) tremors, especially with Corydalis aurea. Over time, it has a tendency to reduce the frequency or eliminate the onset of panic attacks in many people. It will also lessen overall nervous system hypersensitivity and irritation, and I have certainly seen it prove restorative in the long term for many clients.

Salvia subincisa’s bitter and cooling nature also make it of use in the recovery from irritable bowel syndrome with accompanying symptoms anxiety, nervous irritation and general nervous system hypersensitivity. This is a fairly common pattern, especially in those healing from chronic food intolerances, leaky gut and long-term stress. It is best combined with gut healing herbs such as Oenothera, Epilobium, Matricaria, Pectis angustafolia etc., for optimal tissues healing and reduction of inflammation.

Harvesting: From July to September with adequate rainfall. Most frequently found in rocky areas with seasonal moisture, often growing beside it’s close relative, Salvia reflexa. The latter is a more weedy and widespread species of Southwestern acequias, arroyos and rivers. Salvia subincisa is less common and more diminutive in stature.

Preparations: A tea or tincture of the fresh plant (1:2, 95%) is my preferred preparation. Because the plant is only available for a short time, and not every year, I tend to prefer the tincture. The freshly dried leaf and flower can also be smoked to good effect.

Dosage: 2-5 drops.

Considerations and Contraindications: Large doses may cause feelings of giddiness, confusion and nervousness. Start small and work up slowly to an appropriate dosage.

Note: The photograph above is not the best, and the flowers are actually a darker shade of blue than shown, see this link for better pictures of this species.

  8 Responses to “Sawtooth Sage: A Soothing Southwestern Nerve Tonic”

  1. Another precious one to add to my list when I come out in September…so much to see and do and so little time. I know that weekend is going to just fly!
    I LOVE the way you write.

  2. Would this variety of sage also be contraindicated in breastfeeding women?

    • I don’t actually know, Sam. I’ve always not used it in breastfeeding women because of the normal Salvia cautions, but I’ve not seen any constituent lists nor do I have any direct experience that implies that it would (or would not) dry up breast milk.

  3. Do you know where it’s possible to get Sawtooth Sage, if you aren’t in the area where it grows? This actually sounds like it might be ideal for me, but seems relatively unknown.

    • Probably not, Ivy. As I said, I’ve never seen it referenced or talked about as a medicinal plant by anyone besides myself. And it is endemic to this area. You might try working with other Salvias local to your area though.

  4. Thanks for this very informative materia medica on Sawtooth Sage. I don’t think I’ve seen it before or may not have noticed it. I’ll be adding this to my list!
    I love your writing!

  5. Thank you for this wonderful information, Kiva!

    This makes me anticipate watching my babies “wake up” this Spring! 🙂

    Love to you,

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