How to Forage in San Diego: Native Sage Thanksgiving Recipe

how to forage san diego white sage

White sage plants, with flower stalks

Thanksgiving is a time for family, for putting aside differences and sharing food, stories, and love.  But let’s be honest: we all want to WOW our guests with the best thing they’ve ever had! If you want to blow your guests away this year, try something we all sometimes dream of doing but rarely know how: FORAGE.  What’s foraging?  It’s collecting your ingredients from nature. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s free, it’s GREAT to do with kids (teach them where food comes from!) and you’re GUARANTEED to be the only one this year with wild-growing ingredients incorporated into your Thanksgiving offering. Sage – popular especially at this time of year, but aromatic and savory all year round- is a San Diego native plant, and it grows wild just about anywhere you might go walking. There are TWO species of native San Diego sage that will incorporate beautifully into any recipe calling for European sage (what you buy in the store).


how to forage san diego sage

Black Sage Leaves

Black sage (Salvia mellifera) and white sage (Salvia apiana) are abundant in San Diego County, easy to find, and easy to recognize by sight, feel and smell. Both are edible and useable in cooking; and both, in fact, have a long history of use in medicine, cooking, and spiritual practices by Native Americans in Southern California.  Black sage is a 2-3 foot high bush with 1-3 inch long, blade-shaped, darkish green leaves (if you’re familiar with the look of European sage leaves, these are very similar, just a bit smaller and tougher).  You’ve definitely seen the flowers, the clusters look like little balls on stick!   Black sage is more abundant than white sage, but white can definitely be found (increasingly people are planting it as a decorative plant – there is some planted by the roadside on my way home, and I have definitely stopped to get some!).  White sage is a VERY distinctive plant: the leaves are grey-white, 3-5 inches long, sharply blade shaped, and thick and waxy to the touch.  The flower stalks are very tall (bear in mind, though, that neither of them is flowering right now, so you’ll only see the remnants of flower stalks, if anything).  Trust me: if you go for a walk anywhere with native vegetation – a

how to forage san diego sage white

White Sage Bush

park, a nature preserve, out your back door – you will find black sage.  If you’re not sure whether you’ve found it: pick a leaf, crush it between your fingers, and smell.  Does it smell like SUPER strongly, like the sage you’re used to but just a little bit different?  Then it’s sage.  Whichever you find, pick a few leaves (young leaves are best – near the end of the branch, usually brighter green, smaller, and thinner), and bring em’ home. Wash thoroughly, and go to town!


how to forage san diego sage flowers

Black sage flowers & bushes

Black sage is slightly acidic, and white sage is slightly bitter, so go easy on it until you become accustomed to the flavor. Use a little less sage than your recipe calls for. Use in soups, stews, stuffings, squash dishes (I made a great pumpkin white sage pasta recently), turkey baking, and more!  It dries well if you separate the leaves and leave them in a dry place for a few days.  The dried leaves are also great as potpourri, and some people bind them together (especially white sage leaves) and use as a pungent incense.  These plants are also available at your local native plant nursery, and make great yard plants: bees, butterflies and hummingbirds LOVE them.


Try the acorn squash recipe below to get the feel for it!  This recipe uses whole sage leaves on top of the baking squash, so if you accidentally use too much it’s okay: because the leaves aren’t incorporated into the final dish, it’s more forgiving.  Plus, this recipe is seasonal, uses local ingredients, and is PERFECT for Thanksgiving!




2 acorn squash, about 1 pound each

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup brown sugar

3 tablespoons amaretto (an almond liqueur. Use a teaspoon of almond extract if you don’t have this, or do away with it entirely if you prefer)

8 fresh sage leaves (if using black sage, possibly more)

1/2 pound crushed pignoli cookies, almond biscotti, or vanilla wafers




Preheat the oven to 350 F.


Split the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Set the squash halves, cut sides up, on a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. If squash are very large, cut lengthwise into quarters.


In a bowl, cream the butter with the sugar (and almond liqueur, if desired). With a brush or a spoon coat the cut sides of each squash half with the butter mixture and put 2 sage leaves on top of each (if you’re using black sage, which has smaller leaves, feel free to use up to 3 leaves per squash half). Sprinkle with the crushed cookies. Bake until tender, 30 to 35 minutes, basting every 15 minutes with any remaining butter.


Let sit until cool enough to handle. Remove sage or leave it on; remove rinds or leave them on.  Simple, delicious, and guaranteed to impress your friends and family!!

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