by Susan Gibson, HFM volunteer
The holidays are past us now, and the familiar fragrant smell of Thanksgiving and Christmas are only memories of the celebration and feasting. For me, it is always the smell of sage that I so associate with the warmth of the kitchen during the holidays. Bread stuffing, Turkey, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, etc. This robust herb isn’t durable and doesn’t do well outside during the cold, dark winter months, but it is one to put on your list for the Spring. Then you will be ready to enjoy it for next year’s holiday cooking!
Salvia officinalis, also called Common Sage, has numerous common names. The name salvia means to heal or to save. Officinalis, refers to the plant’s medicinal use—the officina was the traditional storeroom of a monastery where herbs and medicines were stored.
Originating in the Mediterranean, sage (Salvia officinalis) has a long history of medicinal and culinary use. For instance, there are records indicating the Egyptians used sage for fertility. The Greeks and Romans first used sage as a meat preservative. They also believe it could enhance memory (Rogers, 2014). The Romans used sage for a number of ailments; in foods to help one better digest fatty foods, Roman ceremonies, as well as a decoction: wounds to stop bleeding, for ulcers, and tea for sore throats and hoarseness.
In Europe, sage has been cultivated for both culinary and medicinal purposes for many centuries. In France, sage was grown prolifically and used in tea. Emperor Charlemagne had sage planted in Germany in 812 AD for trading, likely for medicinal purposes (Petrovska, 2012). English herbalists believed that the state of sage in the garden determined how well a business would prosper. Less sage meant a failing business, while more sage meant prosperity (Rogers, 2014).
The Romans regarded sage quite highly and sacrifices and ceremonies were associated with its harvest. They also believed it stimulated the brain and memory and used it to clean their teeth.
From 742 AD to 814 AD, Charles the Great ran a reputable medical school in Salerno. In this school, sage was one of 100 plants grown on the property. It was said that he appreciated sage most of all and that even today, it is mandatory to be grown at all monasteries. It was known as the “Salvation Plant” originating from the world “salvarem,” which means “cure” or “save (Petrovska, 2012).”
Moving forward to the Middle Ages, The Chinese appreciated the medicinal qualities of sage and still use it for stomach, digestive and nervous system issues. It was considered useful for typhoid fever, liver, kidneys, colds, joint pain, and more (Ltd, R. M. 2016).
As with other herbs, sage was used in ceremonies and for medicinal purposes long before developing a culinary use. During the Middle Ages sage was one of 16 herbs monks used in the preparation of drugs and their therapies. Within the monastery sage was used in the following ways:
- Treat fevers, liver disease, and epilepsy
- Cure warts
- Strengthen the memory
- Mask the taste of rancid meat. Perhaps its antibacterial action also protected people from dying of rancid meat
Old English customs state that
- Eating sage every day in May will grant immortality.
- A woman who ate sage cooked in wine would never be able to conceive.
- Where sage grows well in the garden, the wife rules.
- Sage will flourish or not depending on the success of the business of the household.
In magickal practices, sage was used for
- Immortality, longevity, wisdom, protection
- Granting wishes. To make a wish, write your wish on a sage leaf and sleep with it under your pillow for three days and then bury it.
- Alleviating the sorrow of the death of a loved one. Burn sage at funerals and remembrance ceremonies to help relieve the grief of the mourners.
Many of the historical uses of sage, as with other traditional herbs, are still relevant today. In Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, first published in 1653, there is an entry about the uses of sage. It was a well-loved, well-used herb for many ailments before the dawn of “modern medicine”. The following is an excerpt from the publication.
“The juice of Sage drank with vinegar, hath been of good use in time of the plague at all times. Gargles likewise are made with Sage, rosemary, honey-suckles, and plantain, boiled in wine or water, with some honey or alum put thereto, to wash sore mouths and throats, cankers, or the secret parts of man or woman, as need requires. And with other hot and comfortable herbs. Sage is boiled to bathe the body and the legs in the Summertime, especially to warm cold joints, or sinews, troubled with the palsy and cramp, and to comfort and strengthen the parts. It is much commended against the stitch, or pains in the side coming of wind, if the place be fomented (place to bathe) warm with the decoction thereof in wine, and the herb also after boiling be laid warm thereunto (Culpeper, 1653).”
A strong infusion of sage tea is purported to have antiseptic qualities and can be used as a source of healing for a host of ailments such as:
- Loss of appetite.
- Gastrointestinal issues: Flatulence, stomach pain, diarrhea, bloating, and heartburn.
- Reducing overproduction of perspiration and saliva.
- Depression, memory loss, and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Women use sage for painful menstrual periods, to correct excessive milk flow during nursing, and to reduce hot flashes during menopause.
- Sage is applied directly to the skin for cold sores; gum disease; a sore throat or tongue; and swollen, painful nasal passages.
- Inhale sage for asthma.
Itching and swelling of insect bites
- May boost insulin for those with diabetes
- An antiperspirant
- Snake bites and warts
Lowering cholesterol, rebuilding vitality and strength that has been lost during an illness, and cleansing the liver- it’s no wonder that sage is considered a workhorse of herbs.
White sage is very popular and has been used throughout history for cleansing and purification purposes. Due to its pleasant scent, it can be used as a perfume or around the home to freshen the air. Smudge sticks are bundles of dried sage that are lit on fire, and the smoke is used to cleanse a room of negative energy. They were used traditionally by Native Americans as a spiritual cleansing tool. The antimicrobial properties of white sage are well-known, and smudge sticks are used today by herbalists, and in various spiritual settings.
- Sage makes a nice rinse for dark hair.
- Sage’s attractive leaves hold their shape and fragrance well when dried and are an attractive addition to dried arrangements and potpourri.
- In manufacturing, sage is used as a fragrance component in soaps and cosmetics.
Sage has so many cultivars, it is worth having a section on them, with focus on those commonly grown in the Willamette Valley. (Zone 6, 8b and 9a). Cultivars have variations in leaf size, plant habit, and leaf color. Salvia officinalis or garden sage ( common sage) varieties are the most commonly used culinary herbs.
The average zone in Portland is 6, while some areas are 8b down to 15-20 degrees F or 9a 20-25 degrees F Our Willamette Valley is on average a 6 climate zone, and the following cultivars of sage do well.
Garden sage is both a culinary and ornamental delight. Sharing its color for three to four weeks in early spring, it is one of the prettiest of all Salvias. It makes a great informal hedge or drift. Garden sage flowers can be used as a garnish or as an addition to fresh bouquets.
Common sage, golden sage, purple sage, and tricolor sage grow well. in addition, there are an additional 4 varieties that can be used for cooking: pineapple sage, Greek sage, Spanish sage, and grape sage.
The purple or golden varieties make delightful ornamental houseplants. They’re smaller plants than the green or gray varieties, but the flavor of the leaves is just as good.
The species can grow to 2½ feet tall, but many cultivars are much shorter. The opposite leaves vary in color from gray to gray-green, or maybe purple or golden. They are pebbly, slightly fuzzy, and up to 5″ long. The stems are green at first but become woody in the second year. It tends to be a short-lived perennial and is often best replaced every few years.
- Golden sage- Salvia officinalis – ‘Icterina’ – has golden variegated leaves and can be substituted in any recipe calling for sage. Fresh leaves make an attractive garnish for roast chicken or turkey. Like most of the garden sages, it is a short-lived perennial that should be replaced every second or third year. Golden sage produces a small shrub-like plant which may grow up to 2 feet tall and spread nearly twice as wide over time.
- Aurea’–has chartreuse-yellow leaves enhanced by dark green areas around the veins.
- Holt’s Mammot’ – is similar to the standard variety, but the leaves are larger.
- Purple garden sage (‘Purpurea’ or ‘Purpurascens’) – not as winter hardy as common sage, the purple leaves are strongly flavored. In the garden, it is an ornamental that compliments yellow blossoms in the garden.
- Tricolor sage ‘Tricolor’ – has green leaves edged in white and with rose streaks. It can be grown as a houseplant and is not as hardy as common sage.
- Pineapple sage (S. elegans) is an annual north of Zone 8 with pineapple-scented foliage and spikes of red flowers in late summer and fall. Its leaves can be used for teas and in fruit salads.
This tricolor sage is combined with fennel and purple basil in an herb container.
Now to the Kitchen!
Of all the varieties of sage, only Salvia officinalis is suitable for culinary use and is most often used as a culinary herb in savory dishes. How do mouth-watering dishes such as butternut squash ravioli with sage butter, or stuffed mushrooms with sausage and sage sound?
Until I had polenta ( a corn type of mush) covered with baked tomatoes and crispy butter fried sage on top, I only considered the dried herb for cooking. Oh my, the dried variety would never again be satisfactory. Crispy, with just a tinge of salt, sage prepared this way has become a favorite. I toast them in a thin layer of butter and a bit of Himalayan sea salt for a few minutes until they get crisp. Use on top of polenta, crush and sprinkle on top of a baked potato, try with scrambled eggs, and anything you can think of.
Because sage has been shown to be a good aide to the digestion of fatty foods, it is a welcome addition for seasoning meats, especially pork. It’s also famously useful for stuffing poultry and in various bean dishes, like split pea soup and vegetarian bean dishes. Sage blossoms are good in salads or floated on top of soups. And Pineapple sage is good in fruit drinks, salads and with ham.
Common sage blends well with the flavors of balsamic vinegar, basil, bay-laurel, black pepper, cream cheese, garlic, lavender, lemon, mushrooms, onions, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and red wine.
In the U.S. most people are familiar with sage in the stuffing for turkeys at Thanksgiving, but it shouldn’t be restricted to this use. In other countries, sage is used in a variety of sauces, especially with fatty meats. In Italy, the fresh leaves are lightly fried with liver and rolled up with ham and veal in saltimbocca. In Germany and Belgium, the leaves are added to eel and other oily fish dishes. And in Middle Eastern countries the leaves are used liberally in salads.
Try using fresh sage with cheese or chicken dishes, or use it as a dry rub on pork chops before grilling. Use the flowers in salads, or make sage vinegar and sage butter. Dip and fry whole leaves in batter or young leaves in cream, and eat with sugar and orange.
Shelley Ryan of the WI Gardener program on WI Public TV offers this recipe for fried sage leaves:
- ½ cup white flour
- ½ cup sparkling mineral water
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 egg white
- 15 large sage leaves
- oil for frying
Mix flour with a speck of salt. Add mineral water and oil; blend. Gently stir in one egg white that has been whipped until almost stiff. Dip sage leaves in mixture and fry in hot oil (about 350 degrees) until browned. Watch carefully, as the light batter browns quickly. Remove from the oil, drain on paper towels, and serve warm. This recipe can easily be doubled.
Roasted butternut squash and sage risotto with pine nuts A great one for this time of year.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Cooks and gardeners alike are indebted to this classic, evergreen perennial for the unique, pungent flavor and aroma that its gray-green leaves produce. The soft gray-green foliage is great in pots or the garden. It forms a 2.5-foot-tall by 3-foot-wide bush with woody stems that may be trimmed back to newly emerging growth or strong stems in spring.
If you live in zones 5 to 8, your sage will grow as a hardy perennial. Set out plants in spring or fall, planting seedlings 18 to 24 inches apart. Choose a sunny spot in well-drained soil with a pH between 6.5 and 7. If you have clay soil, add sand and organic matter to lighten up the soil and provide better drainage. Prune plants back in early spring every year, cutting out the oldest growth to promote new growth. You will begin to see little pink or lavender-purple flowers spikes in late spring. Even with pruning, plants can get woody and stop producing lots of branches after 3 to 5 years. At this point, you may want to dig up your original and plant a new one.
Sage grows best in a sunny location with well-drained soil. It will tolerate drought and poor soil fertility, but will produce better with consistent, but not over, watering. For maximin growth, the pH should be between 6.5 and 7. Prune the plant in the spring and a few times through the growing season to encourage young shoots with full flavor, and to prevent it from becoming leggy and twiggy (and going to flower which isn’t desired if using as a culinary herb). Space plants 18 to 24 inches apart and divide every couple of years to rejuvenate the plants.
Noteworthy – Butterflies love salvia.
Consider planting and growing sage in a container with rosemary, basil, and other Mediterranean herbs for a fragrant mix. While cooks appreciate the distinctive taste and scent, gardeners also enjoy its velvety, evergreen foliage, and delicate blooms.
Mildew is a problem for sage, so thin plants regularly to encourage air circulation. Watch carefully on the hottest, most humid summer days. You can also mulch with pebbles to help keep the area immediately around the leaves dry. The moisture from pebbles evaporates quickly compared to organic mulches.
Harvest and Storage
In the Northwest where sage is a perennial, harvest sage only lightly during the first year. In subsequent years, harvest sage as you need it, year-round. Cut an entire stem if desired, or just pinch a leaf at a time. To give new foliage time to fully mature, leave 2 months between your last big harvest and the first frost of the season. Dry harvested sage by hanging bunches of stems upside-down. Strip the dry leaves from the stem and store in an airtight container. Keep the flowers on the stems to cultivate pretty pods that work well in dried herb arrangements. Store dried sage in the same place as you store your potatoes to help them keep longer.
Sage is easy to start from seed (although most named varieties are not available as seed). It can also be reproduced by layering, by division, or from stem cuttings. To grow from seed, either plant directly in the ground on the average date of the last frost, or start indoors 6 to 8 weeks before then. Either way, the plant may not flower the first year. Layer established branches in the spring and fall, or divide large plants in the spring. Take softwood stem cuttings in summer and root in a sand-peat mixture.
Sage takes 75 days from planting to the first harvest. At least twice during the growing season, cut 6-8″ from the top of the plants. Pick the leaves as desired as long as you don’t cut back more than half the plant or it will stop producing. Harvest before the plant flowers.
Although fresh sage has a richer and more balanced flavor than dried, it’s usually not available during the winter. It is easy to preserve fresh sage; just chop the leaves, place in an ice cube tray with water, and freeze to use later. To dry sage, tie springs in loose bundles and air-dry in a cool place, or place branches on wire racks out of direct sunlight. When dry and brittle, remove the leaves from the stems and store in an airtight container. Hang bunches of sage in the kitchen for a nice herbal ambiance. You might even try using sage in an herbal wreath.
Sage has few pests when grown in well-drained soil. Good air circulation will reduce potential problems with foliar diseases.
Summary – Growing Sage
- Soil: Sage thrives in well-drained, sandy, loamy soil, and it prefers a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Resist the temptation to over-fertilize; the sage might grow a little faster, but its flavor will be less intense.
- Sun: Plant sage in medium to full sun. If you are growing sage indoors, place your pot near a sunny window.
- Water: Sage is a fairly drought-tolerant herb, and even when the leaves look wilted, a little water perks the entire plant right up. Wait until the soil is dry to give it a thorough watering.
- Spacing: Sage grows in a round, bush-like fashion, and individual plants should be spaced 24″ to 36″ apart.
- Companion planting: Plant sage near carrots, strawberries, tomatoes, and cabbage. I have a few planted within my perennial garden, as well as near my tomatoes. Because the beautiful blossoms attract pollinators, I let a couple of my sage plants go to flower.
- Pests and problems: Powdery mildew, rust, stem and root rot, fungal leaf spots, whiteflies, aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, slugs, spittlebugs, and wilt.
Thanks for catching up on Sage, January’s Herb of the Month. Next month find out more about Winter Savory.