“Sage properly prepared will retard that rapid progress of decay that treads upon our heels so fast in the later years of life … and makes the lamp of life, so long as nature lets it burn, burn brightly.” – The great herbalist Sir John Hill, during the reign of King George III (1760-1820)
Around 1,000 species of annuals, herbaceous perennials, and shrubs collectively known as the sages belong to the genus Salvia (Lamiaceae or mint family). The scientific term Salvia comes from Latin salvere (“health or heal”), which refers to its healing properties. The English word sage also comes from salvere.
Sage — A Wise Remedy
Regimen Sanitatis (Regimen of Health) is a famous medical manuscript from the School of Salerno, Europe’s first medical school. Written in Latin verse during the High Medieval Era, it associates sage with longevity and prescribes it for calming the nerves, taking away hand tremors, and curing fever. “We count it nature’s friend and worth the having,” a translation from the book reads. Sage was called Salvia salvatrix, or “savior” and “a conciliator of nature.”
Sage was primarily used as medicine until the 15th century. It was one of the herbs in Four Thieves Vinegar, a concoction mistakenly believed to ward off the plague. However, modern scientific research confirms sage’s antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. Flavonoids in sage (luteolin, diosmetin, and apigenin) exhibit powerful antioxidant action. Apigenin has been reported as an emerging anticancer agent.
In England, sage tea fell out of favor in the mid-17th century after tea (Camellia sinensis) was introduced from China. The sage herb tea was highly esteemed by the Chinese, who acquired it from Dutch traders. They believed the wise man, or sage, strengthened his memory and stamina by drinking the warm beverage. Its bold flavor may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but when the American Colonists rejected the tea of King George III, they turned to sage and other herbs to fill their teapots with Liberty Tea.
Garden sage (S. officinalis) is also called common sage and kitchen sage. Native to the Mediterranean and naturalized in North America, the herb has woody stems with woolly, pebbled, grayish-green leaves and purplish flowers. An important medical sage, its scientific name officinalis stems from Latin officinal, which refers to a monastic storeroom or pharmacy where medicinal herbs and supplies are kept.
Dalmatian sage is the name for S. officinalis grown along the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia. Pleasingly mellow, this superior variety is in demand by the U.S. spice market. Cultivars with similar characteristics include hardy S. officinalis ‘Berggarten’, a compact plant celebrated for its wide, oval-shaped leaves; and S. officinalis ‘Purpurascens’ with distinctive grey-purple leaves that make excellent tea. Another is Newe Ya’ar (S. officinalis x S. fruticosa) or silver leaf sage, an Israeli hybrid of garden sage and Greek sage.
Cooking with Sage
Turkey with sage-scented stuffing, or dressing on the side, has become one of the most emblematic dishes of the season. Sage has a warm, earthy aroma and bold taste with subtle notes of pine, eucalyptus, camphor, mild citrus — even rosemary. Sage and onion pair well in stuffing for goose and duck.
Garden sage complements rich foods that match its intensity. It aids in the digestion of fatty pork, beef, duck, lamb, rabbit, and oily fish. Sage is added to German sausage, venison sausage, and breakfast sausage. Try tucking the fresh leaves under the loosened skin of poultry before roasting, or rub the poultry skin with sage butter.
Sage complements winter squash, white beans, apples, and tomatoes. In Derbyshire, England, cheesemakers make Sage Derby, one of the U.K.’s oldest cheeses. Marbled with an infusion of garden sage, the colorful cheese was initially made during the holidays; sage was added because of its powerful therapeutic properties.
Sage leaves can be flash-fried into a crispy garnish or battered and deep-fried for sage fritters. Italian cooks make a stellar brown butter and sage sauce for ravioli, tortellini, and gnocchi. Frozen treats like white peach-sage gelato and raspberry-sage gelato are sold in Italy’s gelaterie.
Too much sage, however, overwhelms a dish. Fresh sage withstands long cooking; the strong notes mellow without losing their character. Dried sage can have a stronger flavor and is an essential ingredient in poultry seasoning. It’s available as crushed leaves, ground leaves as a powder, and rubbed sage, which is a fluffy, cotton-like product from minimal grinding and a coarse sieve. Discard expired sage; flavor loss leaves a musty taste.
Nectar on the Menu
In the South Carolina Upstate, sage grows as an annual, but in warmer areas closer to the coast in hardiness zones 8a through 9a, it is often a tender perennial. Sage blooms brilliantly for long periods, tolerates drought conditions, and attracts butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds — those iridescent, flying “jewels of the garden.”
More than half of the sage species originated in the tropical and subtropical Americas, where they’ve coevolved with hummingbirds for millennia. A unique characteristic of sage pollination is how a flower’s two stamen connect to form a lever. When a hummingbird probes the flower, the lever moves, allowing the stamens to deposit pollen on the pollinator. Hummingbirds are drawn to sage plants of certain colors; they hang around if they are rich in nectar. Several pollinator favorites are included below.
A Pollinator’s Garden
Scarlet is the color of fiery passion. Scarlet sage (S. splendens) is an elegant, tall-growing species that heats the garden when it takes root. The Brazilian native, a hummingbird favorite, has brilliant, scarlet flowers that grow easily from seeds.
Pineapple sage (S. elegans), a tender perennial, is a late summer bloomer with beautiful red flowers. The crushed leaves emit a fresh, pineapple scent; add to fruit salads, beverages, and desserts. ‘Raspberry Royale’ (S. greggii) is a wide, dense bush with raspberry-colored flowers and beautiful foliage. It is excellent for border edging and containers.
Mealycup sage (S. farinacea) is also called mealy blue sage or poor man’s bluebonnet in areas of poor rangeland. Mealycup refers to the powdery white hairs on a plant’s cup-shaped, flower calyx and upper stems. Flowers are purple or white. ‘Victoria’ is a cultivar with large, intense violet-blue flowers.
A cottage garden with rows of blooming anise-scented sage (S. coerulea ‘Black and Blue’; syn. guaranitica) provides a Kodak moment. Hummingbirds adore these striking flowers, which are cobalt blue with near-black calyxes. S. coerulea ‘Blue Enigma’ is a bit shorter in height with equally showy, dark blue flowers. It received an Award of Garden Merit from the British Royal Horticultural Society. Bees and butterflies are partial to this cultivar.
Cleveland sage or fragrant sage (S. clevelandii) has lavender to dark-purple blooms and may have the most intense, aromatic foliage of any sage — its perfumed scent continually permeates the air. It’s good for cooking and tea.
Red blooming S. coccinea is a reseeding annual that often overwinters. Bees love the species for its nectar, but mainly hummingbirds pollinate it. ‘Coral Nymph’ is a compact, upright perennial that adds subtle color to the garden with its orchid-like, bicolor coral and white flowers.
Russian sage (S. yangii; formerly Perovskia atriplicifolia) is an award-winning subshrub with eye-catching lavender-blue flowers. Research is focused on its possible use to counteract Alzheimer’s disease. The plant can be untidy; deadhead faded flowers.
Do you remember Chia Pets® from the ’80s — those clay figurines with curly hair or fur grown from sprouted chia seeds? The seeds are from the chia sage S. hispanica, an important food of indigenous Mexican peoples. Now a superfood of the 21st century, chia is high in the omega-3 fatty acid. Seeds soaked in water form a high-fiber gel that’s added to sport drinks, smoothies, and puddings. Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, was named after the ancient city Chiapan, likely derived from the Náhuatl words chia (“sage”) and apan (“in the river”).
In 2015, botanists confirmed through plant DNA that rosemary is actually from the genus Salvia with hundreds of new siblings. Rosemary was reclassified from Rosmarinus officinalis to Salvia Rosmarinus.
Sage Advice for Growing Salvias
Sage prefers full sun and grows best in average, well-drained soil; it hates wet feet. It blooms from early summer until first frost and will even thrive in dry gardens with minimal water. Bog sage (S. uliginosa) is less fussy and grows in soil that is persistently damp and muddy. Anise-scented sage also tolerates significant dampness. Pruning spent sage blossoms encourages branching and flowering.